Tomorrow is hallowe’en, that time of the year when bairns go guising (trick or treating) brandishing neepy lanterns – not pumpkins, although we do carve these too. Anyone who has tried to carve out a neep (turnip) will know how much of a labour of love this is!
Hallowe’en is held on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, a Christian celebration dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows). The celebrations are punctuated with spooky tales and stories of ghosts, ghouls and paranormal activity.
Shetland is no stranger to ghostly tales; in fact, I spoke a lot about this on this week’s podcast with Alexa Fitzgibbon.
This week, I thought I would share a few ghost stories with you; so draw up a chair, dim the lights and pull a blanket around your shoulders because things might get a little spooky …
Windhouse, Yell; Shetland’s most haunted house
Not only is Windhouse Shetland’s most haunted house, but it has also been suggested that this is the most haunted house in the UK.
Windhouse is in the island of Yell, Shetland’s largest trio of North Isles, and just a short ferry ride from the Mainland. The ruined house sits on the crest of the hill on the approach into Mid Yell. Its foreboding silhouette, dominating the skyline.
Windhouse, commanding views in all directions, is the site of an ancient settlement. The house itself has its foundations in an Iron Age broch, and recent excavations have revealed a burial site within the gardens of the house. Steeped in mystery and legend, Windhouse attracts both historian and ghost-hunter, keen to unpick the magic of this iconic house.
The list of ghosts alone is impressive – if not a little spine-tinglingly scary. In no particular order, there is the: Lady in Silk – thought to be the skeleton of a woman with a broken neck discovered under the floorboards at the foot of the staircase. A tall, cloaked man who passes through the wall in the kitchen. A child – a baby’s skeleton was found in the walls during alterations at one stage. A black dog who prowls the bedrooms – although the first floor and roof have now fallen in, so there is no telling where the dog may now roam. There’s the taxman – obviously – and finally, a pedlar who was found under flagstones at the door. I’m sure this list is not exhaustive, but it does make for bone-chilling reading.
Another famous story, which will make the blood run cold says that nobody can survive a night in Windhouse on 24th December. It continues that, on one 24th December, a shipwrecked mariner turned up at Windhouse, and upon arrival found the inhabitants leaving. They explained that nobody could survive this night, “no mortal was ever found alive who attempted to sleep in it on this particular night but was slain by some unknown being.” The mariner decided to stay, and in the night came to blows with a “thing” from the sea that he plunged an axe into, killing. He buried it in an enclosure nearby, and it is believed to be there still…
Whatever the truth, this once-majestic building with the armorial crest of the Neven family above the door, was once a grand home – and whatever the truth, it’s an eerie and thought-provoking place to pass.
The Herra, Yell
Sticking to Yell, and just a stone’s throw from Windhouse, the Herra is another place with many ghostly tales. The Herra can feel other-worldly, set apart from the rest of Yell, off the fast main artery that passes between Ulsta and Gutcher, it sits nestled in the confines of Whalefirth; remote and breathtakingly beautiful.
We stayed in the Herra last year (I wrote about our accommodation and stay here) and it was here that I felt my ghost …
On one of our days staying here, we decided to pack a picnic and walk out to explore the old houses of Grommond and Graveland; a quiet and reflective spot, skirting the coast of Whalefirth. Once a populous place, this area is now characterised by the ruins of those who once made the unforgiving slopes their home. The derelict houses, reminders of the lives once lived here, and evidence of spade and plough can still be seen as scars on the land that you can read like a palm.
Laurence Williamson, a storyteller from Mid Yell, wrote that “district after district – Graveland, Lumbaster, Volaster, Windhouse, Setter and Halsigarth – have been laid waste and turned into sheep farms. All these things have left their deep impression on the people. Like a man who loses arm, foot and eye, the whole body is crippled, pines and thrives badly”. (I wrote about the Clearances, and of turning land over to sheep farms here).
The sense of this loss of home and land is something I felt acutely as we walked past ruin after ruin towards the last house of Graveland. Lives turned upside down as people and possessions were thrown out of their ancestral homes to make way for sheep.
When we reached the final house, where we planned to picnic, I was overcome with a strong sense that we shouldn’t be there, it felt as if a dark cloud had bedded over us and I couldn’t bring myself to step over the threshold into the now ruined house. As I drew the bairns in close, we turned around and left.
I was keen to find out more about the stories surrounding this peaceful corner of Yell. As it transpired, local folklore has much to tell us of this area. One story goes that, there was a local woman, Martha Mann, believed to be a healer who dabbled in witchcraft, who had taken a shine to a young man who worked in the local shop. He sometimes stood in for crew on local sixerns (a type of open fishing boat used in the 18th & 19th centuries). The man did not reciprocate her feelings, and with vengeance brewing inside her at his dismissal of her feelings, she placed a curse on the boy, Andrew, who she was in love with.
Her first attempt to take him while at sea was unsuccessful, the old skipper was an experienced man and, recognising the three monstrous waves approaching them as an act of the devil or some other ill-will, was able to stave them off and, when confronting the beast that emerged from the sea, and struck at it with the boat’s hook. Later, when they arrived back safely, Martha was found to be laid-up with a broken leg, and the skipper advised Andrew never to go to sea again.
Andrew ignored this advice from the wise skipper and went to sea on another boat. This time he wasn’t so lucky, and the young skipper had no idea who to sate the beast. It is said that the boat was entirely engulfed by a monstrous wave or sea monster which came from nowhere and the crew of six were all lost to the sea.
Following the loss, the men were unable to pass over to the other world and were reported to hang around in a group at the house here at Graveland, shadowed by a black dog-like beast. They were reported to have been last seen hanging morosely around a haystack and, it’s said, their spirits, and that of the dog-like creature, still roam the area.
Illustration by Alexa Fitzgibbon, from the book Shetland Folk Tales.
And guess what? A look through the family history records of the area and the names from the folk tale shows that the last time the men and black dog were confronted was at this house that I couldn’t bring myself to picnic at. I had never heard this story until I did some research after our walk.
I can’t say what it was that I felt, but I had a strong sense that we were indeed not alone in this peaceful and remote part of Yell. You can read a full account of this tale in Lawrence Tulloch’s excellent book, Shetland Folk Tales.
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Until next time, happy hallowe'en!
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.