Skip to main content

Cats, Kippers, and TT Races: Tourism and Culture in the Isle of Man

Cats, kippers, and TT Races! That's all this island is known for!" My elderly informant spat these words at the coal fire. Mr. Cregeen (not his real name) was, I knew, referring to the tailless Manx cats, the special local smoked herrings, and the internationally famous Tourist Trophy Motorcycle Races held every year in the Isle of Man. (The Isle of Man is legally and politically separate from the United Kingdom. Hence the expression "in the island" or "in the Isle of Man" is more preferable to the Manx that "on the island.") The vehemence with which he slung these words, however, caught me off guard. First, his comments had nothing to do with our interview - we had been talking about agriculture in the island. Second, this was the first I had heard of anyone complaining about the TT Races: it was April and the TT Races were still more than a month away. Third, Manxmen engage in various tourist activities within their own island. Why, then, should others seeking out Manx sights and pleasures upset a native? How can Manx tourism at home be understood as an attempt to preserve local culture from the impacts of mass tourism?

Anthropologists have largely been concerned with the ecological, social, and economic problems tourism has created for Third World and tribal peoples. But the adverse effects of tourism are not confined to the Third World (see Smith 1989). Peoples in peripheral regions and internal colonies of highly industrialized nations experience tourism through increased proletarianization, widening class divisions, alienation from resource bases, and other problems. The Manx, a Celtic people living on the fringe of the British Isles, experience and respond to the downside of tourism, as do other indigenous peoples of Europe and North America.

The Tourist Trophy Races

The "TT Races," more formally known as the Tourist Trophy Motorcycle Races, are a long-standing institution in the Isle of Man, the first being held in 1907. Back then, British motorcyclists had been soundly defeated in races on the Continent, motivating English enthusiasts to establish a home racecourse to improve their performance. They chose the Isle of Man (located in the Irish Sea) as a race site because the English speed limit of 20 mph did not apply in the island, and in England, roads could not be closed for racing. Because the island is legally and politically separate from the United Kingdom, Manx government easily amended traffic laws to allow motorcycle racing on public ways (Arnold 1967:9-11; Davison 1950:7-8).

The early TT Races were, for the racers and spectators, a rough sort of "bio-tourism." Men and machines were pitted against a capricious Mother Nature who manifested herself in unpaved roads, gullies, steep grades, and stormy weather. The racers come to the Isle of Man not so much to experience the elements as to conquer them. For British motorcycle manufacturers, the TT Races were a test course to try out innovations and to catch up on the Continental rivals' superior technology. For the local Manx entrepreneurs and authorities, the races provided an additional attraction for the summer holiday season.

Every year since 1907 (the war years excluded) the TT Races have grown more popular. As machines improved and riders grew more experienced, the race circuit was made more rigorous. The racing time was increased from a few days to two weeks in May and June. Today the TT Races are an important global motorcycle competition attended by motorcycle enthusiasts, members of the media, and representatives from motorcycle manufacturers, oil and fuel companies, tire manufacturers, and related industries. Altogether, as many as 50,000 visitors arrive annually to participate or to watch.

The racers travel a grueling course around the island on roads ordinarily used for regular traffic, a contrast with races held in many other places, where the contestants use specially designed, buffered, and graded courses. A motorcyclist in the TT Races has to attain speeds in excess of 180 mph on winding, uneven roads pitted with traffic ruts and frost heaves and made even more hazardous by occasional debris or stray animals. More often than not, stone walls line either side of the road along with bus stops, telephone poles, and phone booths. The race circuit itself takes the riders through city streets and village centers, over a mountain, and through a series of hairpin turns and other dangerous curves.

The rigors of the TT Races, characterized as the only remaining true test of rider and machine in the racing world, distinguish the races as hard-core bio-tourism: experiencing and dominating nature (see Graburn 1977:30). The fastest and most powerful machine can be a liability on parts of the course. Many of the best machines break down. Some of the riders abandon the course in mid-race. The winners are the few who can match their personal talents with the capabilities of their machines and apply the combination to the demands of the course.

Many who attempt the TT Races fail, and failure in this race can mean a spill. Crashes are very common, often leading to severe injuries and even fatalities. Since the races' inception, more than 146 professional riders have been killed either in the races or in practice. No reliable fatality records exist for the tens of thousands of visitors who attempt the circuit during off-race times, but one estimate puts the death rate as high as three to one: three amateur deaths for every professional death (Scott 1988). This ratio would put visitor death tally in excess of 438 fatalities.

Tourism, Violence, and the Manx

Mr. Cregeen's complaint was the first indication that not everyone in the Isle of Man looked forward to the TT Races - or the summer tourist season, for that matter. Since my arrival in the island three months previously, almost every native or visitor I had met had told me with sometimes breathless excitement about the TT Races. Their descriptions included rhapsodies of the speed and power of the machines, the liveliness of the night life, the throngs of motorcycling visitors, and the spectacle of the races. Their stories were also laced with morbid descriptions of the crashes, the injuries, and the deaths.

One story tells of a rider who was thrown from his motorcycle, hit a telephone pole, and left an impression of his face in the wood. I heard of the dangers of Ballaugh Bridge, where three motorcyclists collided and smashed into a stone wall. There was the story of a sidecar rider who was pulverized, and of the leisurely pace of the ambulance sent to the scene; because every spectator could see that he was dead, there was no need to rush. I was told where to stand to view the most subtly dangerous bumps and turns, where I would be assured of seeing at least one fatality. (No fatalities occurred the year I was in the island, so thankfully I was spared this experience.)

This preoccupation with spectacular death was unusual in light of the near absence of violent death in the island at any other time of the year. The only modern-day documented murder occurred nearly 10 years before my field work, and everyone in the village knew the murderer, the victim, and the motive. The only other violent death I heard of occurred during my field work: a suicide in the north. Beyond these two incidents, the island is a remarkably peaceful place. The two-week TT Races mark the only time when violent death is likely. Further, it is not only likely; it is sanctioned.

The Manx were able to separate the two-week TT Races from what went on in the island during the rest of the year. At first I thought that this compart-mentalization was a mental skill to prevent tourism - in this case violent tourism - from having a profound influence on their lives and resources. But, as Mr.Cregeen's comments revealed, the partition the Manx build between themselves and the TT Races is not entirely successful.

As the time for the races approached, more Manx started complaining about the upcoming event and many started making plans to visit relatives in England or elsewhere. Some buried themselves in work to avoid the races. Some arranged to hike the trails and coasts in those parts of the island least affected by the races. Those living in isolated villages remained, making only cursory excursions to the race circuit. When the races began, I knew only a few Manx actively interested in their progress. No attempts were made to advertise distinctive Manx culture in the face of so many tourists.

Even if the TT Races are ignored or avoided by villagers, the races do mark the start of the summer tourist season and set the pace and tone by which the Manx are judged and perceived by visitors. This perception is neither benign nor complimentary, and reflects the antithesis of ethnic tourism, exerting hege-mony over the native inhabitants.

The TT tourist thinks of the Manx as backwater rustics still struggling to step out of the nineteenth century. Tourists transform the Manx Celtic heritage into images of the Manxman as a leprechaun. They see Manx life as being slow to the point of slothfulness; tourists often think that the extra police hired for the races are there to coach Manx in the faster pace of life that will descend on the island for the next two weeks. Some express the opinion that the Manx mistakenly think of themselves as hard working whereas in fact they only work for half a year, servicing tourists. Many tourists openly remark that the island would be nothing without the tourists, especially the followers of the TT Races. In these ways, tourists ascribe to themselves the role of Prometheus, bringing to a benighted island everything of distinction and value.

That this perception is promoted by the island's own tourism entrepreneurs is no secret. Almost any tourist shop hawks beach blankets depicting Manx fairies saying "Traa dy liooar" (a Manx idiom the means "time enough" - ascribing to the Manx a lackadaisical attitude toward life). Postcards show a cat getting its tail run over by a motorcyclist, thus offering a Lamarkian explanation of how the Manx cat became tailless. Such items proliferate throughout the tourist season.

But if tourists disparage Manx culture, they do not spare themselves from similar criticism. English tourists regard Irish and Scottish tourists as trouble-makers; Japanese motorcycle crew members as in-scrutable "Wogs" (a Wog is a "Western oriental gentleman," a derogatory British expression for a foreigner, especially from India or the Far East); and young Englishwomen as "large peroxide blond, plump pouter pigeons, licking ice cream cones or eating fish and chips" (Mutch 1975:25-26).

Mr. Cregeen revealed that, for many Manx, especially among the working class, the tourist is an obnoxious interloper to be tolerated for a limited time. The typical tourist displays to them a cultivated ignorance of the island and its people, as if the local inhabitants are not worth knowing. More to the point, since the TT tourist is concerned with dominating nature and, by extension, the Manx, the TT tourist participates in a form of ethnocide, a killing of culture. To preserve their self-image and to minimize tourism's negative effects, the Manx have attempted to erect a barrier between tourist society and island society. Hence, if racers are killed, they are English, Italian, or Japanese deaths, not Manx.

By contrast to the attitude of the TT tourist, the Manx themselves display a remarkable curiosity about and pride in their own surroundings and people. Individually or organized into groups, Manx explore the Isle of Man in efforts to understand and discover nature in archeological remains, flora and fauna, and the landscape and to study their own ethnic heritage. Theirs is an "alternative" tourism, a backyard tourism yielding a rich and varied experience of themselves for themselves.

During the tourist season, however, the Manx must interact with a tourist crowd largely uninterested in discovering anything beyond the next pub, party, or motorcycle race. There is insufficient data to conclude that the summer tourist season has led the Manx to study themselves, but touring one's own home effectively reaffirms the value and distinction of the Manx in the face of a dominant and dominating culture. Each excursion in the backyard reveals more of the island than just cats, kippers, and TT Races.

The TT Races are unlikely to cease. The circuit is still an important testing ground for modern motorcycle manufacturers, and the races are as popular as ever. The island's businesses make a lot of money from the event, and the rest of the tourist season is generally successful. The Manx endure the TT Races and then continue with their lives, until the next season, when the competition, and the deaths, return.


Arnold, P., ed.

1967 TT Race: Diamond Jubilee, 1907-1967. London: Shell-Mex and B.P. Ltd.

Davison, G.S.

1950 Motorcycle Road Racing: The Story of the TT. Los Angeles: Floyd Clymer.

Graburn, N.H.H.

1977 Tourism: The Sacred Journey. In V.L. Smith, ed. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. pp. 17-31. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mutch, R.

1975 The Last of the Great Road Races: The Isle of Man TT. London: Transport Bookman.

Scott, M.

1988 Speed Is Now the Fatal Drug. The Times of London 8 June. p. 48h.

Smith, V.l., ed.

1989 Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. 2d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.