January 2, 2006 (From 2002; Updated Oct 2007)
The Haunting of Windhouse on Yell
I've just hit an article in the BBC News about the sale of the most haunted house in Britain, Windhouse on Yell in Shetland. I visited Shetland myself in 2002; while I was there, I became fascinated by the ruin seen
According to the Shetland guidebooks, people only go to Yell to get to Unst, famous for its bird preserve, but people from Yell are nevertheless "passionate" about the place, said the local history archivist who dug up some of the ghost stories for me. Yell folk are also storytellers, which might be why the house is still famous there.
The Trow's Tale and Folklore Collection
One of the best-known of all Shetland folktales is "The Trow of Windhouse" or "Trow of Yell." Trows are the local fairy folk, but the trow in the tale is nothing like the normal ones. Unlike the little people or slim types capable of passing for human, this one was a huge mountain of gelatinous blubber.
[Linguistic note: "ow" is usually pronounced "oo" in Shetland. Cows are "coos" and Windhouse is "Windhoose." The archive guy said "trow" not "troo." No idea what the actual rule for the sound, I gave up linguistics years ago!]
This one goes back to the mid-1800's at latest. The versions all agree on this part: Christmas Eve a shipwrecked sailor makes his way to Windhouse, and finds the family packing up to spend the night elsewhere. Every Christmas Eve, horrible things happen and someone ends up dead (very much like my own family holidays). So they invite him to go away with them, but he stays in the house alone instead, not being scared (and maybe interested in the silver they left behind).
The archivist found me transcriptions of Edinburgh folklorist interviews with one of the storytellers. The interviews read like this:
This man cam te Windhouse, te de Spences, an dey wir at tea, is I referred. An dey asked him if he wid pertake, an he said he wis hungry fer dey wirna tasted food -- ot wos all been watter logged for so many hours. An he took dis tea, and dey teld him dis story aboot de eruptions it wis ite da house, an de house bein haunted, an dey wir goin te dir cousins in Mid-Yell, an dey waanted him te come with dem. An he said he wisna fightened for no trows, ir nothin like it an as well, he didna believe in it.
This particular interview transcript is an entertaining read for a former academic. After the blob is dead, the interviewer says in a spectacularly lame, leading-the-informant manner: "I see. It's interesting that sometimes in these stories that the use of cold iron could drive away the supernatural."
Our innocent storyteller starts to say, "Very much so, bit dey wir..."
The interviewer ploughs on in his undergraduate, man-on-a-mission collection method: "Have you heard any other stories like that --[ Storyteller says, "No" over him] where cold iron like an [Storyteller: "No."] axe or knife could drive away the--"
(I remember giggling into my wine in a Shetland bar as I read the document copy.) Here the poor storyteller finally gets in a complete statement: "Steel. Dey mightla been steel ina yon."
The crushed interviewer, knowing this is being recorded and will be transcribed or he won't finish his degree: "Yes."
The storyteller then really pounds it home, with a long paragraph about how much more useful steel is, get off your lame old-fashioned "cold iron" academic folklore kick and let me tell you what we think up here about modern weaponry.
There are a bunch of other, less well-documented ghost stories, ones I was actually more interested in but didn't have much access to. There's one about a "lady in silk" believed to be a housekeeper or mistress who fell down the stairs and broke her neck. There's an unsubstantiated rumor of a woman's skeleton found under floorboards at the foot of the stair.
There's another one about a tall man's ghost in a long black coat, possibly connected to the actual substantiated body on site. I found it in microfilm from 1887:
Human Remains Found.-- While some workmen, who are engaged repairing the manor house of Windhouse, were removing some debris from the back of the house, they came upon the skeleton of a human being. It had apparently been that of a man of large stature, as the bones measured fully six feet long. It was lying in the position it had been put down, the arms folded over the breast. It was only a small distance under the ground and there was no evidence of their ever being a coffin, which gave rise to an opinion that it had been a murder; but if it has it is not in the memory of any of the inhabitants nor does any remember any person ever being missed.
One of the archive transcripts says it was thought to be someone who disappeared at a workmen's party. There's another report of a baby's skeleton found in a kitchen wall, but I couldn't find a date with which to verify that story in the papers.
The house had a pretty strange history even without the bodies. There was an earlier house higher up on on the hill in the 1600s, owned by a series of pretty nasty men (lying, cheating, beatings, hangings). The current house ruin represents a reconstruction of the old one in 1700-something, done by moving the stones down the hillside. Supposedly the foundations of the original are still visible, but I didn't go up to see, being a coward. The gatehouse by the road is now a camping lodge where you can stay for 5 pounds per night, but you couldn't pay me to do it. The farmhouse on the land opposite across the road was occupied by one of the amateur Yell historians who wrote an 8-part history of the 1600s house and house owners in a local magazine 2 decades ago. (It's a nice article, the source of many of these leads I followed.)
In the 1930s, the last owner sold it and it is now on land owned by the RSPB (the royal bird society). There are supposed to be otters living nearby, which is why I was
there at all. It's now a ruin that kids dare each other to spend the night in and adults told me they get an uncomfortable feeling there. I certainly did, too. I considered going back after my first view of it from the road, to actually look closer at the ruin, maybe walk around and look for the old house, but I talked myself out of it. Long drive, anyway.
The house was put up for sale and according to the most recent newspaper blurb (July 02), "It is the reputed haunt of many ghosts and skeletons have been found in the walls and beneath the floors of the imposing old ruin." There were interested parties inquiring from all over the world, and the new buyer is from England. I called the paper to see if they knew anything more, but they didn't and weren’t terribly interested in talking to a wannabe freelancer calling from a payphone.
And that's all she wrote, folks! (I did not in fact spot any otters my entire time in Shetland, although other tourists did.) If you have any more stories about Yell or Windhouse, drop me a note!
Postscript in Jan 2007: A Reader's Story
I am an American in Denver, Colorado, who once lived in Scotland and took a trip up to Shetland for a short period of time.
In that summer of 1985, I visited Shetland in general, and Yell in particular, for some five to six weeks. I came up as a Church of Scotland summer “intern” to work with a local pastor in Yell, whom I believe is retired now and living in the south of Shetland. I spent a number of weeks in the area, staying with the pastor’s family. Anyway, one of the most interesting curiosities at the time I was there was this same Windhouse at the top of the hill. I stopped my car once on the road beneath it after a round of visitations on the island. I stepped over the marginally preventative barbed wire fence (at the time) and began walking up to it to take a closer look. It just looked like a place that had a story behind it, especially with its crest (something Americans get curious about). It was private property. Soon I saw one or two people starring at me with a determined look from a distance, so I turned back so as not to be charged with trespassing.
I decided to talk more about the ruin to the pastor, again as I was staying at their home further in town (across the field from the crab factory in operation at the time nearer to the harbor). The next day, or perhaps the day after, we went for a walk in the hilly fields some distance behind the Windhouse, but I did not realize that at the time. We walked and walked and walked, four of us, the pastor and his wife, along with me and my wife, who stayed only part of the time before heading back to Aberdeen to begin to teach at the American school in Cults. However, on this walk we soon came upon the back section of the Windhouse itself. As we approached it, a strange sight came into view in a cleared area directly behind it. There were a number of dead sheep, four of five approximately (though not exactly sure). There was something they all had in common. They all had significant wounds right in the chest area. Their coats were still red from the gash, though it must have been days old. That much was very evident and never forgotten. It was if something
had cut into them originally and then later was exploited by the birds. I starred at them, and felt I was in the presence of the remains of what had been some ritual. It unnerved me to say the least. I then walked into the back part of the house wary of lose materials only to see the broken down staircase and then the crest and front portions of the house glimpsed from the road. After a brief review of the place, the pastor hastened us on and we returned as we came. At the time I felt that he did not want us to hang around it, though I heard later that he had gained permission to walk in the area from the owner of the property. When I asked further about what this could be, I did not get a response that encouraged further discussion. I was hoping to go back before I left for good, but that opportunity never arose. But perhaps there is more than meets the eye to the reputation of a haunting at Windhouse? Maybe something worse?
Anyway, for what it’s worth, I thought I would convey this bit of past personal experience, for it remains one of the vivid memories of my stay in Yell. This is no hoax or “urban legend” as they say here. ... I later graduated from Aberdeen University and became an assistant pastor at [a church in Aberdeen] for a year before returning to the States.
Post Postscript: Shetland Forum
After posting the above comment, I searched again on Windhouse and realized I'd been referenced off a Shetlander foum discussion of ghost stories. Several mentions of Windhouse stories surfaced in the thread:
Would the wind house every one is alluding to be the house in Mid yell. I have alwas know it as the hoose 'o' windows, me granfaither , used tae tell wis stories ( he wis frae Mid yell) 'n he telt wis dat sumaen wis kilt and burried under da flag stanes at da back 'o da hoose. dat da dead eens haunted da hoose ower newrdy. stories in da late fifties early sixty's.
I remember some of the North Isles boys at the AHS back in the day telling some wild stories about that place, not so much about ghosts, but about the supposed happenings in the past. Everything from the old woman who was the last resident, who lived as a hermit in the upstairs rooms while the rest of the house was over-run by feral cats, until.... (there was more to it, but I'm applying self-censorship here), to some tax collector who "disappeared" after going to the house. Something about someone being murdered in the house and buried outside one of the front windows as well, I don't remember now whether that was the tax collector or someone else. There was probably some small grain of truth in some of it somewhere, but as stories are wont to be, embellished with each retelling for the sake of a good yarn so as to be virtually unrecognisable as the original.
I think much of Windhouse's notoriety is down to it's appearance and positioning though, it has a commanding position, alone and higher up a slope than most else around it making it immediately feel imposing, add to that it's design gives it an a certain humanesque appearance, the two large blank front windows resemble the empty eye sockets of a skull, and the castilled top wings either side give the skull sticking out ears with raggety tops. Especially in certain lights and in certain positions it can feel very much like the house is "watching" you, like some giant "head" rising out of the hillside.
I went past it a while back and it had crows circling above it. It was one of those 'wish I had my camera' moments.
I have seen the 'tax collector' fellow at da Windhoose. We were parked at da road haein a sandwich and a tall man walked across the front o da hoose and in through a wall. He was very tall, wearing a top hat, and had a long coat on. 3 others in da car saw it. It was only when I returned home and read a bit aboot da hoose that what I saw was accurately described in the book. It was not a living person.
A Postcard Postscript (February 2007)
Since posting the new content above, reader Justine Bainbridge in Stirling Scotland contacted me with a reference to the ghost. Her great-grandmother lived in Windhouse in the early 1900's, and she has old photographs of the era.
Katie Sutherland was the sister of Alice Georgina Sutherland, Justine's great-grandmother. She received this postcard referring to the ghost.
|Postcard recipient Katie Sutherland|
|Windhouse Grounds, a resident.|
Justine's Sutherland relations (including Katie) are all listed on this Shetland geneology site with address as Windhouse, Mid Yell. The ramparts of the still-built Windhouse are visible in this photo of a fellow with a dog, which Justine also passed on to me. It's exciting to see some real people who were associated with the house and knew one of the ghosts personally.
More Stories from the Bainbridges (October 2007)
Justine's aunt Kate contacted me and sent me some stories too.
As told to me by my father, Edward Hendersen Bainbridge:
Windhouse has many stories of haunting. Built, I have been told, on an old Celtic burial ground this is not an ideal site for a happy home!
From Phil Mortimer
Over the years my father told me many tales of his experiences there as a child, the weird noises, people appearing and disappearing, seemingly just walking through walls. I remember well when my uncle and my father would get together and talk of the old house and what a strange place it was. One experience they both remembered was of a ghostly dog. My father watched his brother put out his hand to stroke the strange dog and it disappeared immediately he touched it, right before their eyes!
Many a tale was told to me of the guests that came to stay and would not stay the night, packing their belongings and leaving, whatever the time or the weather conditions. The whole house was apparently subject to haunting and although the winds out in these remote parts were severe and chilling there was no explanation for the cold spots that my family would encounter. In places where there was no usual draughts the air could turn to ice. Laughter and disembodied voices of people could be heard in empty rooms, especially the bedrooms. There was one bedroom in particular that people refused to go into. According to my father, there was an incident where the maid tried to make the bed and ran out of the room because every time she tried to make it someone started laughing.
From Phil Mortimer
The legend of the body under the stairs is correct. My family had workmen in to do some job or another that involved lifting the floor boards. It was then that the skeleton was found, apparently with its skull broken, possibly by a blow to the head my father said.
Objects that hold spirits are a fascination of mine and I remember one tale of my fatherís that include such a thing, an old sea chest. The old sea chest used to stand in the hall and one day my father tried to get into it to have a look what was inside but it was locked. As he examined the chest, looking for a way to open it, a strange mist appeared at one of its corners and proceeded to rise above the chest. The mist then formed a cloud, and from the cloud grew the apparition of a man. Seconds after the formation took place it disappeared back into the chest where it came from.
From Phil Mortimer
The types of haunting were so varied and so many as to suggest that the house itself was like a crossover point between this world and that of spirit. It is my understanding that it takes a considerable amount of energy for an apparition to occur and my next account certainly describes a considerable amount of energy increase and decrease.
One evening the family had gone out for a walk and by the time they returned it was dark. My father recalls the whole family standing there on the road up to the house in disbelief as one by one, each window of the house became a bright blaze of light. In only a few seconds the entire house was lit up like a beacon. Just as mysteriously as it had happened, the lights started to go out one by one until the house was again in darkness.
Windhouse had no electricity, either by mains or generator.
From Phil Mortimer
There are other tales I recall from my father about the house and its strange history. According to him my family would trade with the Russian ships that came in to dock on the island. He had many accounts of the weird and wonderful things they used to trade but sadly I have forgotten exactly what they were apart from unusual foods and clothing. One thing that never left my mind was the fact that Wind House basically had an arsenal of weapons! I donít mean just shotguns for going out shooting game either; I mean high powered rifles, boxes of shells and dynamite! The mind boggles. My father used to recall how irresponsible his mother must have been as she would cheerfully give him a handful of shells, a rifle and tell him to go down to the beach and shoot things to keep him amused and out of her way.
Oh, one more ghost story! A couple of my family came to visit at Wind House and tried to stay the night. When tired and wanting to go to bed they could not or would not go up the stairs because of the darkness. This was no ordinary darkness, when a paraffin lamp was shoved into the darkness the lamp and the light from it disappeared. Guess what, they didnít stay the night either!
It is a strange place with a strange history. I hope the new owners treat it with respect and that they and the old tenants get along OK.