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Proud to be Manx

Gil Costain-Salway, the woman behind the Dubai Manx Society, talks about her life as an unofficial ambassadress for her island homeland
Gil Costain-Salway stands beside the Isle of Man flag at her residence in Dubai. The former airline worker runs quizzes every month for the Dubai Manx Society.
Gil Costain-Salway stands beside the Isle of Man flag at her residence in Dubai. The former airline worker runs quizzes every month for the Dubai Manx Society.

About once every month, the Dubai Manx Society holds a quiz night. The questions, invariably, concern trivia related to the Isle of Man - a theme which, for many people, would start and end with a single question: where's that? Dubai Manx Society quiz nights, though, can be protracted and competitive affairs, requiring extensive knowledge of things such as the historical origins of the island's annual Tynwald Day celebrations.

For those who fall into the "where's that" category: the Isle of Man is a territory (or "crown possession") of Britain, located about 50 kilometres off the north-west coast of England. It covers 572 square kilometres and is home to a little fewer than 80,000 people. The Dubai Manx Society, founded 10 years ago by Gil Costain-Salway, serves as a kind of cultural touchstone for Manxmen who find themselves in the distant and unfamiliar terrain of the UAE. In short, it's a social club for the handful of people here who know that Cronk-y-Berry is a place rather than a fruit juice, and who can demonstrate this understanding under the pressure-cooker conditions of a quiz night.

One person you'd most certainly want on your team at these events is Costain-Salway. As well as being the founder and leader of the society, she claims a Manx bloodline that dates back even further than the island's major public holiday (Tynwald Day, first observed in 1417 - chalk one up to Team Google). Indeed, Costain-Salway is the kind of person who could not only tell you who Olaf Godredson was (King of Man, 12th century), but what side of the bed he slept on. "My family can be traced to the ninth century," she said recently, speaking from her home in Dubai. "So I'm pretty much ensconced in history."

While the scion of the ancient Costain clan is happy to provide details of her genealogy, she's less forthcoming about her age. "I'm not telling you," she said when asked. "This is a cruel thing people do to women - they see you're past 55 and think you've had it. I won't tell you and you won't be able to guess." Costain-Salway first arrived in the Gulf in 1975, to work as cabin crew for British Airways. She lived for 14 years in Bahrain, moving to Abu Dhabi in 1989 and to Dubai in 1994. Today she is semi-retired ("If an airline is short of people, they call me to help fill a gap").

Not that she has a lot of spare time on her hands. In addition to running the Dubai Manx Society, Costain-Salway also leads a number of Boy Scout troops in the emirate, which involves a good deal of camping, sailing, knot-tying and bivouac-building. "I love it," she said. "I think it appeals to the Viking in me." She went on to explain that the cultural and ethnic make-up of Manx people today dates back to the Norse invasions of the eighth century. "Heritage," she said finally, "is what you are."

In terms of membership, the Dubai Manx Society isn't exactly bursting at the seams, which is understandable. Still, Costain-Salway said, the hundred or so people currently on her books represents a pretty good showing, all things considered. "It always amazes me, what with the island being so small, how Manx people seem to be all over the place," she said. "You wouldn't think there would be that many Manxmen, would you? But we can breed with the best of them."

Even so, being an expatriate from the Isle of Man is not like being an expatriate from, say, India or the UK - where you can hardly turn around without bumping into a fellow countryman. Manx people are relatively thin on the ground here, so they need someone like Costain-Salway to orchestrate their encounters. "We meet for treasure hunts, dances, barbecues, activities where people get together to exchange stories and news," she said. "There's a sort of bond when you come from the same place. Even if you've just met, it can be like you've known each other all your lives, which is rather nice."

But Costain-Salway's work doesn't end with helping the expats to mingle. She feels duty bound to foster a broader understanding of Manx culture and history, though she also understands that this will never be easy. "I used to put 'Manx' on customs forms when I travelled," she said. "But I'd only end up having to draw a map showing where the Isle of Man is." Now, she added, "I just put 'British'." She will, though, happily draw you a map if you ask her to - or, better yet, direct you to the Dubai Manx Society website, which contains as much information about the island as you are ever likely to need.

Costain-Salway is a tireless promoter of her homeland. At times, she said, she serves as the head of a kind of unofficial diplomatic outpost here - "we provide a link with the Manx government" - using her local knowledge and contacts to oil wheels and knock on doors. And she has a finely tuned Manx radar - she can spot a compatriot at 50 paces, and recruit him into her society in less time than it takes to say "Vel Gaelg ayd?" ("Do you speak Manx?").

The Manx language is another of Costain-Salway's preoccupations. She is part of a small but determined group of people currently trying to bring Manx back from the brink of extinction. Her father spoke it fluently, she said, but her own vocabulary is a bit patchy. It's easy to make fun of the Isle of Man. The English in particular tend to view the island as being insular and backward. As with all ethnic humour, jokes made at the Isle of Man's expense are born of ignorance.

When asked what Manxmen are really like, as a people, Costain-Salway said they are honest, reliable and friendly. We want peace and harmony." But there is also an edge to the islanders, she added, a tendency to hold grudges. "We have this saying: 'You are my friend until you prove me wrong.' The minute you step out of line, Manx people never go back." She recalled a family of outsiders who moved into a farmhouse on the island, not far from where she once lived, and put up a "No Trespassing" sign. "They didn't last long," she said. "We have ways of dealing with that kind of attitude."

The Isle of Man is not a rich country and it is not a large country and as a result, Manxmen tend to cling to their cultural identity more fiercely than most, which, more often than not, means clinging to the past. "People say that the Isle of Man is 20 years behind the times, and I think that's great," Costain-Salway said at one point in our conversation. "We need to get back to our old traditions. People today are forever striving to be something else. We need to be who we are."

Published: May 16, 2010 04:00 AM

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