Friday, December 17, 2004

The Most Haunted House in Scotland (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 the site myself in 2002 whilst staying in Shetland for a week; I took enough notes and did enough research to write a mag article. Here's what I wrote up at the time, right after my visit:

... Despite the island's general lack of press -- people only go to Yell to get to Unst, famous for a bird preserve -- people from Yell are "passionate about Yell," according to the guy at the archives who gave me some of the ghost stories. Some of them are also storytellers, which might be why the house is still famous.

There's one story about the house that's one of the best-known of all Shetland folktales, "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 is 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 is, I gave up linguistics years ago.]

This one goes back to the mid-1800's at latest. The versions all agree on this: 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. [That's MY family holidays, hey!] They invite him to go with them, but he stays in the house without them, not being scared (and maybe interested in the silver, just my theory). A giant monstrous creature attacks the house in the night, and he grabs his faithful axe (with him since the shipwreck? isn't it heavy?) and gives chase outside. He buries his axe in the giant and kills it. He finds on the ground a shapeless mass. The family is happy to see him alive Christmas Day, and he points out where he killed it. The heather there turned bright green and the spot is still known to the locals (in one version, there's an actual fence around it).

The archivist found me transcriptions of Edinburgh folklorist interviews with one of the storytellers. They 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.

After the blob is dead, the interviewer says in spectacularly lame academic style: "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 with 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--"

Here in the transcript [I am giggling into my wine in the bar that night as I read it, btw] the poor storyteller finally gets in a complete line: "Steel. Dey mightla been steel ina yon."

The crushed interviewer, knowing this is being transcribed: "Yes."

And the storyteller 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.

Ahem. 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 ghost in a long black coat, possibly connected to the actual substantiated body story. 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 to verify that story in the paper.

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 was the reconstruction of the old one in 1700-something, done by moving the stones down. Supposedly the foundations of the original are still visible, but I didn't go up to see. The gatehouse by the road is now a camping lodge where you can stay for 5 pounds. 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 its owners in a local magazine 2 decades ago.

In the 1930s, the last owner sold it and it is now on land owned by the RSPB (bird society). There are supposed to be otters 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 foundations, but I talked myself out of it.

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. I never reached the local RSPB in Shetland, although I had a contact number and name. (Eventually I decided I had bothered people enough for details that I probably couldn't use in any ordinary travel article.)

....And I never wrote it up for any article, beyond the text you see here.

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