I woke on the night and heard footsteps – it was her – I nudged my husband and said, “ssshhh, can you hear her?”
I was on high alert, we were staying in the West Wing of Busta House Hotel, and I knew that this was part of the building she haunted.
Busta sits, tucked away on the shores of Busta Voe, just a few miles from the village of Brae. Today it’s a three-star hotel placed in an idyllic rural location in one of Shetland’s most beautiful historic houses, but it also has its own unique ghostly tale to tell.
The earliest part of the house was built in 1588 by the Gifford family, a local landowning family who, in the 18th-century, was one of Shetland’s most influential families. Over the years, and as the families wealth grew, new wings were added to the building, which, today, has all the appeal of any other great house in Scotland.
A wealthy merchant to trade, Thomas Gifford appeared to have it all – a loving wife and 14 children, including four sons, assuring security to Thomas that an heir to the vast estate was waiting in the wings.
But, what was to happen in 1748 would shake the family to the very core and change the course of history forever. On May 14th 1748, John, his three brothers, their tutor and a boatman set off across the voe to visit relatives at Wethersta, just a short hop across the sheltered waters of Busta Voe.
It was a fine, calm evening, and this was a journey that the boys had made frequently. The following day they had still not returned, and as search parties were deployed to seek the boys and bring them home, anxieties rose.
Eventually, the boat was found upright, with John’s hat and stick still in it. There was no trace of the six men – including the four heirs to the Busta estate. At last, the bodies of John Gifford, the eldest son, and the tutor were dredged up, though none of the others were ever discovered.
This was a complete tragedy for the Gifford family. All the male heirs to the estate were lost in one fell swoop; John (31), Robert (22), William (19) and Hay (14). The family were no strangers to heartbreak and loss, having lost another four children eight years prior in 1740; James (20), Elizabeth (19), Francis (12) and Thomas (5). Elizabeth and Francis are cited as dying from Smallpox, and we can only assume that this fate befell the others.
The loss of young Ann in 1725, and later, Barbara and another Thomas, meant that, of the 14 Gifford children, only three – Margaret, Christian and Anderina – survived into adulthood.
Despite these losses, more heartache was to come, leading the family into an almost 100-year wrangle in the courts and a rift that would irreparably divide the family, leaving it close to bankruptcy.
This is where we meet Barbara Pitcairn, an orphaned cousin who stayed in the house as a companion to Lady Gifford. Following the tragic boating accident, she confessed that she and John had been secretly married some months ago and that she was expecting his child. Lady Gifford opposed this union and had previously told a friend that she would rather see John dead at her feet than married to ‘Babbie Pitcairn.’
The Gifford family refused to acknowledge the marriage, although when the child – a boy – was born, both grandparents took to him at once and decided to bring him up as the estate’s heir. The baby was christened Gideon, and his mother, Barbara, was expelled from the house.
Gideon stayed at Busta House and was raised a gentleman. Barbara would only see her son one more time when he was seven years old. Barbara sadly died in Lerwick, aged about 40, in 1766.
The supposed illegitimacy of Gideon later caused a bitter lawsuit from an envious cousin, which took 93 years to resolve and brought the estates of Busta House to ruin.
Back to things that go bump in the night … It’s said that the ghost of Barbara Pitcairn can still be felt around Busta as she searches for her lost son and lover. Staff and guests report paranormal activities in certain hotel rooms, and pots and pans can be heard clattering from the empty kitchen at night …
My husband assured me that the footsteps I heard in the night were just from another guest going to the toilet next door.
Ghost stories aside, we had a wonderful meal at Busta – enjoying a full three courses prepared with local produce – followed by drinks, good company, and a roaring open fire in the impressive Long Room.
The following morning, with dull heads in need of fresh air after one too many whiskies from the impressive Busta drinks cabinet, we resolved to put on our boots, turn up our collars against the chill north wind, and hike out to the Muckle Roe lighthouse before the rain came.
Muckle Roe is an island a few miles from Busta, connected to Mainland Shetland by a road bridge. Norse settlers named the island, and it translates to the ‘big red’ island. Characterised by its impressive red granite coastline, carved out by the force of the North Atlantic, Muckle Roe is a popular place for walkers.
Walk to Muckle Roe Lighthouse & Hams o’ Roe
Park in the designated car parking area on the island’s south side at the Little Ayre before heading down to the Muckle Ayre – a beautiful red sand beach. Follow the signs towards Lighthouse and Hams of Roe. The lighthouse is 2km and, if you choose to continue along the coast, the Hams are a 4km walk (from the Hams, you can join a farm track overland for the return, making a circular walk).
For more details about the circular walk, visit here.
As the day was short and we had children to pick up from a tired granny, we walked as far as the lighthouse and came back the same way – a total of 4km (3.5 miles).
The path is rough but well-worn and easy to find and follow. There are stiles to cross between areas of farmland and a helpful handrail in places. It’s important to note that this is an area of working farmland, and an area with a population of ground-nesting birds, so dogs should be kept on a close lead at all times.
The walk towards the lighthouse is beautiful, with sheer cliffs and sea stacks punctuating the coastline and views across Swarbacks Minn to the islands of Vementry and Papa Stour as well as Shetland’s vast West Mainland.
The lighthouse protects the entrance to Swarback’s Minn, an area that served as an important naval base in the First World War for the 10th and 2nd Cruiser Squadrons. From here, the First World War guns on Vementry are visible, guarding the channel.
The lighthouse that stands guard today was erected in 2001 and rises to seven metres tall. It’s a small light, with no access inside the tower. The original Muckle Roe light, established in 1897, can be seen in the car park at Sumburgh Head. This light, not much bigger at eight metres, looks much more like a traditional ‘story book’ lighthouse and is the smallest Stevenson built lighthouse in Shetland.
I wrote a history of the Stevenson Lighthouses in Shetland for Shetland Wool Adventures Journal, which you can buy here.
All in all, we had a wonderful 24-hour getaway to Busta and Muckle Roe, and if you’re in Shetland, I would highly recommend a visit to both.
Until next time,
Hello from Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for - whether you're planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some 'home' inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.