Busta House, Shetland


..and ootside the windae wis a lady in red.
” It’s cauld oot here, let me in, ” she said. 
” Dae ye no recognize me? Babie Pitcairn?
 Back fir ae sicht o ma bonny wee bairn…….”

 In 1748, Thomas Gifford, a wealthy landowner and merchant, married to an ambitious wife and with 14 children, including 4 sons, must have felt his patrimony to be secure. His eldest son, John, aged 30, should by now have been married with heirs of his own, unfortunately he had eyes only for his orphaned cousin, who lived in the house as a companion to Lady Gifford. Her name was Barbara Pitcairn. The Giffords were resolutely against so unsuitable a match for their heir, Lady Gifford going so far as to tell a friend she would rather see John dead at her feet than married to ‘Babbie Pitcairn.’
Alas…On May 14th 1748, John, his 3 brothers, their tutor and a boatman, set off across the voe to visit relatives at Wethersta on the other side, it was a fine, calm evening. The next day when they had not returned, frantic search parties were sent out, and eventually the boat was found, upright, with John’s hat and stick still in it. Of the 6 men there was no trace. At last the bodies of John Gifford and the tutor were dredged up, though none of the others were ever discovered. And so John came to be laid, dead, at his mother’s feet.
Barbara Pitcairn then went to the Giffords and told them that she and John had been secretly married some months ago, and that she was expecting his child. If she hoped that this news would alleviate the loss of all their sons she was disappointed. They refused to acknowledge that a marriage had taken place, although when the child, a boy, was born both grandparents took to him at once and decided to bring him up as their heir. He was christened Gideon.
But they never forgave Barbara, and as she was a spirited young lady it was not long before she and Lady Gifford had their final quarrel and Barbara was sent packing to live in Lerwick – in those days a 14 hour boat journey away. Gideon was kept at Busta House to be brought up as a gentleman, and his mother only saw him once more, when he was 7 years old. She died aged only 35, and there can be no doubt that she died grieving, she had been cruelly treated. Perhaps that is why her ghost returns as she could not to look for her son or even for her lover.
The house was eventually bought in the 1950’s by Sir Basil Neven Spence, another Shetland landowner. He was Lord Lieutenant of Shetland and a Member of Parliament, as a result of which occupation he was able to rescue and bring to Shetland some gargoyles from the House of Commons in London, which, damaged by wartime bombing were being discarded during renovation work . These gargoyles are still in the gardens of Busta House, staring blankly out over the sea, where the four sons of Thomas and Elizabeth met their deaths on a calm May evening. As for Barbara, she still haunts the old house searching for her son Gideon and is frequently seen by guests.

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