In 2006, John Shuttleworth (alter ego of comedian Graham Fellows) went to Shetland to prove his theory that, the further north you go, the nicer people get. On a bleak day in February 2011, I found myself on Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland Isles enjoying a blissful solitude – nice or not, there aren’t many people to be found on the islands once you’ve left Lerwick. Grasmere began to assume the status of a bustling metropolis as I thought about it, staring out to the Muckle Flugga lighthouse.
Muckle Flugga is now an automatic lighthouse, but was manned until the 1970s. What a singularly lonely existence it must have been, surrounded by sea and seabirds, operating a single beacon in the darkness every night. No job for the superstitious. In fact, it would be surprising if tales of the supernatural didn’t abound on Shetland. The isles’ Viking history, combined with their isolation, make for thriving legends and I was interested to find out more about rumoured encounters with the UK’s most northerly spirits.
On our first day, en route from Lerwick to Unst, we stopped to visit Windhoose, reputed to be the most haunted house on Shetland. The wind tried to crumple us as we left the car and set off up a balding hill (there are few trees on Shetland – the weather scours them all off). Windhoose was roofless and bare. I’ve often heard derelict houses compared to toothless mouths, but Windhoose was more like a mouth curled into a snarl. Fenced off on all sides, it stood glowering over the road below. We clambered over the barbed wire. I once read somewhere that animals are particularly sensitive to spirits and was anxiously eyeing Bell the whippet as we crept towards the house. Bell sniffed the ground. We waited, hearts in our mouths. Then she crouched down and pissed all over the grass. A collective sigh of relief was breathed, except by Bell, who was scanning the field for rabbits and yowling about the cold.
I’d expected Windhoose to be empty, but the spaces inside it that had once been rooms were crossed with planks of rotting, green timber, a detritus of stones and smaller logs carpeting the floor. It was as if what had once been the house had caved in on itself. There was something strangely still about the interior, barely protected from the weather as it was. Above the ruined front door, a worn-down coat of arms. We ducked into the main chamber and flinched to see a sheep’s spine, attached to a length of twine and hanging from a stone lintel, turning in the wind. It should almost have been a comfort – the presence of evidence that connected to the human world – but something about the way it had been arranged and hung there made us flinch. It was enough to send us hastily back down the slope, Bell lagging behind, sticking her nose into the grass.
But by far the most supernatural experience I had on Unst was the result of an entirely natural phenomenon. True to form, I failed to appreciate the beauty of what I’d seen at the time. And, true to form, I went back to the cottage and wrote a poem about it:
How typical of us: thinking that pale green corridor
cutting across the blacked-out Baliasta road
must be a searchlight, hunting us.
We clutched each other as we never would again
then skittered towards home, imagining we were
extras in a B movie: the Shetland hills huge UFOs,
or the whole island a slumbering beast whose back
we clung to, this the beam of his mate’s eye.
We looked down from that slender radiance
to watch our steps along the track,
and missed the sky’s brief fire, the North
lighting its own touchpaper and standing back.
(Helen Mort, February 2011)
I’d like to dedicate that poem to Gordon, Penny, Hunter, Wilma, Edna and all the other remarkable people who were so kind to us during our visit to Unst. The sage John Shuttleworth was right – it really is nice up north.