Spooky Tales from Shetland

by Elizabeth Atia -

It wouldn't seem right, letting today go by without sharing some spooky Shetland Halloween stories with you.

When I first moved to Shetland fifteen years ago one of the first books I bought was County Folklore Vol III Orkney & Shetland Islands by G.F. Black, edited by Northcote W. Thomas (1994) (A facsimile reprint of the 1903 edition).

This book is filled with fascinating stories of trows and witches, spells, superstitions, magic and divination including real life accounts of witchcraft accusations, trials and the subsequent gruesome, fatal punishments here in these islands. You can find a digital version online here. I urge you to read it if just for the witch trial accounts alone - this is superb Halloween reading!

The photograph pictured above was taken with my iPhone (and all its fancy filters) as I was rushing through the island of Yell to catch the Unst ferry on my foodie tour of Shetland recently. I've never had the courage to actually go any closer than the road to Windhouse, being somewhat of a coward myself!

Windhouse, pronounced 'windhoose', is reportedly the most haunted house in Shetland if not the entire country. It is said that the ruins we can see on the hillside in Mid Yell now were originally built in 1707 right on top of an ancient burial ground.

Abandoned since the 1920's the inhabitants now include the Lady in silk, a man in a top hat, the spectre of a dog and the ghost of a servant girl.

The Lady in Silk is alleged to have been a mistress or housekeeper of the house who met an untimely end by falling down the stairs and breaking her neck. It is said that she can be seen walking three times round in a circle at the top of the stairs before sighing and disappearing. She is named the Lady in silk because of the audible rustling sound of her dress and petticoats. In 1880, a woman's skeleton was discovered under the floorboards of the main stairs during renovations. The skeleton is believed to belong to the Lady in Silk.

A tall man wearing a top hat and long black coat has been seen wandering around the house. An account found on microfilm from 1887 reads:

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.

A fascinating recording recounts the story of a scribe who counted twenty builders arriving to rebuild the house in 1801. He noticed that only nineteen men left and when he mentioned this, he was dismissed as talking rubbish.

The story goes that the night the men finished up, they got drunk. "One was killed in a fight and the others removed a door, lifted the door stone, dug a hole and packed the man into it. In Mr Gordon's time, men repairing the door dug down and removed the skeleton of a large man, who was supposed to have been haunting the house." Some say that the man stopped haunting Windhouse after his bones were removed.

The ghost of a servant girl has been seen climbing an invisible set of steps on the property, while the spectre of a collie dog has also been observed.

In the early 1900's two men who repaired a window in the house took off a nailed-up shutter and a bundle fell on the floor. It was a child's skeleton wrapped in a sheepskin.

There is a fairly comprehensive article on Windhouse researched and written by Lynn Cherny on Ghostweather.com from where much of the information and photographs for this piece came from. There's also a video on YouTube a visitor took of the house several years ago, if you want a closer look inside.

The gatehouse to this haunted ruin is now a camping bod where the bravest of you can sleep for the night, should you wish! Have you ever had the courage to visit Windhouse yourself? Do you have any ghost stories to share?

Some other Halloween customs on Shetland:

Kale Casting - Groups of youths would go out at night on Halloween and cast [throw] kale through the doorways of houses and then run away. People usually notice a few kale stalks gone from their yards the next morning.

Neepy Lanterns: Pumpkins are not traditionally carved into lanterns here, turnips are. Neepy lanterns are made with a candle inside a hollowed-out neep with a carved face.

Fortune Telling: In Mid Yell, the oldest member of the WRI [Women's Rural Institute] would tell fortunes at the annual Halloween party by slowly breaking an egg into a glass of water. The white of the egg would form all sorts of figures in the water, which could be read. (source)

Divining: At Halloween money would be put in a sieve and sifted. When a man approached the door, the money was cast away and if he found it, he would marry the lass who'd scattered the money. (Source)

Skekling: Guizers used to dress up in straw and ribbons would visit houses in small groups and dance or perform fiddle music in return for food and drink. This tradition died out in Shetland long ago. (Source)

Although the following recipe is not a traditional Shetland Halloween dish, it's by far one of the spookiest recipes I've found on Shetland so far. I felt I should include it in this post, just in case you happen to have a sheep's head lying around and you were wondering what to do with it.

Cookery for Northern Wives by Margaret B. Stout, the source for this recipe, can be purchased from the Shetland Museum & Archives gift shop.

Sheep's Head Broth

Course: Main

Cook Time: 1.5 hours

  • Sheep's head - 1
  • Water - 4 quarts
  • Turnip - 1
  • Carrot - 1
  • Potatoes - 2
  • Onion - 1 small
  • Parsley - 2 sprigs
  • Barley - 1 full teacup
  • Salt and pepper -
  1. Rub head with salt and soak over night in plenty of cold water to get rid of the blood.
  2. Put the sheep's head into a saucepan with the water, bring to the boil and skim carefully.
  3. Cut the vegetables into small dice and add to the pot.
  4. Simmer for 1.5 hours.
  5. Serve the heat on a hot dish and the soup in a tureen.
  6. White sauce with chopped parsley added might be served with the head.
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