Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Story of Busta House - Marsali Taylor

Busta house is apparently the oldest continually inhabited house in Shetland the original bits date from 1588 (but it has been much added to - a good portion of what you can see in the photograph is an extension from the 1980's after it became a hotel in the late 1970's) and in that time it's gathered a few peculiar stories (and some bomb damaged gargoyles from the house of commons).

The most peculiar story is the history of the Giffords of Busta, I've heard a few versions of the tale and even a suggestion that the Gifford case was a model for Jarndyce v Jarndyce. I was curious enough about a possible Dickens connection to follow that up but I think it's probably fantasy, though as the law suits dragged on through the courts for almost a century and ruined the estate it has a very Jarndycen feel to it, and even if Dickens didn't use the story Eric Linklater does in 'The Dark Of Summer'.

The rough bones of the tale are this... In the 1730's Busta belonged to Thomas and Eizabeth Gifford, Elizabeth was by all accounts a proud hard woman, and Thomas a ruthless man in business, he had the mortgage of a neighboring estate and seems to have blackmailed it's owner into handing over the property after he'd been heard expressing Jacobite sympathies. The dispossessed man took to visiting Busta at night to shout curses at Gifford, until he was found dead some miles away after one of these nocturnal visits in 1744. Thomas and Elizabeth had 14 children so the future of the family line looked secure but in 1740 the family was struck by smallpox and (if I count correctly) 5 of their children died. this still left 4 sons though and everything should have been fine but then one calm May evening in 1748 all 4 headed out in a boat with the younger boys tutor the Reverend John Fiskin, and a servant to visit family on the other side of the voe. They never returned. Next day a search party was sent out, the boat was found and eventually the body of John the eldest son dredged from the water and was taken back to Busta.

The Giffords had a house guest - Barbara Pitcairn, who had been living with them for over a year and at this point she announced that she was John's wife and pregnant. John Fiskin had performed the ceremony and 2 of the other brothers had been witnesses. In short there was nobody to back up Barbara's story - or deny it, and legend has it that Lady Busta nabbed the wedding lines and hid them, determined not to acknowledge Barbara as a daughter in law. Regardless of this Barbara's son Gideon Gifford was recognized by Thomas and Elizabeth as their heir and bought up by them - Barbara was sent packing and only saw her son once more in her lifetime. 

Gideon inherited the estate with the general consent of the family and everything seems to have gone well with the Giffords for some years, in the 1790's there were stories that the original marriage certificate had been found, but if it was, it was speedily lost again, and then possibly found and used to try and blackmail Gideon into giving up some property to his cousin. Nothing much came of it until the 1830's however when the next generation came to blows over who the estate should rightfully belong to - on and off the case lasted until 1925.
It's a great story, and though I must admit I like the more fanciful versions which come with various supernatural elements woven in (selkies, ghosts, and premonitions abound, as well as the curses showered on the house) the much more scholarly and factual 'The Story of Busta House' is a welcome addition to the mix. There are plenty of people with ghost stories about Busta, the assumption being that it's Barbara Pitcairn who haunts the place, but as most the odd occurrences seem to take place in the part of the house built in the 1980's I find it easy to be rational about them. Of the two women central to the story I don't know whether to pity Barbara, who may have lost her husband and who gave up her son, or Elizabeth who outlived 13 of her 14 children more. What I can say for sure is that Busta house hotel does a great fish and chips at lunch time and has a fabulous whisky list.   


  1. I MUST get to the Shetlands. I've been knitting with their incomparable yarn for decades. This house is another reason to bring the islands up a slot on my To Be Visited List. (But first Vienna.)

    I've been reading your blog for a month or so now and I'm enjoying it very much.

  2. Hi Mary, thank you for your lovely comment. Obviously I'm a big fan of Shetland and think everybody should visit, but Vienna sounds good too (and is high on my wish list). Hope you make it to Shetland one day and get to meet the sheep that grow the wool, I find it a really inspiring place for anything creative.