A Shetland Ghost Story

According to an old diary, Tomas O´Tarson* was disliked since birth. His parents abandoned him as a child and, reluctantly, the parish had to take responsibility for the lad. To pay for his upkeep, Tomas was forced to work as an apprentice grave digger at the old Kirk of Quendale in the southern part of Shetland.

The boy worked feverishly hard and developed a physical strength never before seen by Shetlanders. According to the quill-penned lines, O´Tarson became a scraggly old cuss. He was squint-eyed in as much as his cracked and salted face was drawn and pinched together even in the calmest of weather. He developed long, sinewy and jagged fingers on thick, almost deformed, veined hands from grave digging and which local residents spoke of and feared. One such testimony described an incident where Tomas was said to have grabbed a crazed runaway ram by the horns and dragged the beast down to the ground, breaking its neck. Simultaneously, witnesses could hear O´Tarson laugh in a cackling high-pitched squeal.

It seems as if Tomas O´Tarson became bitter and revengeful. He developed an uncommon passion for death and digging new graves..

As is, even Tomas O´Tarson passed away from this life. To the relief of everyone in the parish. Somehow, life became easier in the Quendale area. O´Tarson was buried in the Old Kirk’s cemetery and his remains were secured under a heavy, unmarked, stone grave cover.

Historically, the old Quendale cemetery was close to the sea. Shetland winds whipped the beachhead and, storm after storm, sand was blown farther and farther inland creating a desert of sand dunes. The cemetery itself was eaten and worn away and coffins lay open and exposed. So exposed that some cadavers were bleached by the sun and wind.

It’s said that the lairds of the time were worried and concerned with this expanse of sand as it was destroying good pasture for sheep. Crofters were made to plant grass on the sand and this successfully grew; thick and high and hiding any hint of sand. The grass grew so well and so high that no one was sure where they could walk without stumbling nor putting a foot into a rabbit hole.

Photo: With knee-high grass, it can be difficult to see where to walk at Quendale Bay

One dark, windy and rainy October evening, the Minister of Quendale Parish, who had his manse nearby the old Kirk and its cemetery, wrote of surviving a horrid incident. That night, he was on his pony riding eastwards across the grasses of Quendale bay when his pony fell from under him and he tumbled into the grass and sand.

As he tried to raise himself, he saw a skeleton hand with jagged fingers reach out from the sands and grab the back leg of his pony, breaking it with a snap. As the pony lay on the grass in pain, the skeleton hand moved slowly in the sand towards the lower leg of the pastor, grabbing it and pulling the reverend down, downwards into the sand.

The pastor tried as best he could to resist. He saw his ankle and then his lower leg disappear into the underworld of the sand. He screamed. He shouted and clawed at the grass and sand so as not to be dragged by the hand. In desperation, he reached for the cross that he carried around his neck. At that single moment, the skeleton hand with its jagged fingers let go of the leg and disappeared sinking into the sand, giving a shrill cackling high-pitched squeal of laughter that could be faintly heard in the wind.

The pastor raised himself, pulling his lower leg out of the sand and painfully made his way back to the manse.

It was said that this good pastor came back to his manse white with fear. His servants believed it was because of his accident with falling. The pony was found and put down. For several weeks, the minister had a sore leg “from the fall” and that “it all was the act of the devil”! But, the last line in the diary questioned if not the ghost of the old grave digger of Old Quendale Kirk was somewhere out in the grass and sand and was waiting to pull a new soul down into the sand and the unknown?

Photo: An old unmarked gravestone can still be found at Quendale, Shetland

This story could be true or not, but there is still one gravestone to be found on the old cemetery hill. No one knows who is buried here, but one can be tempted to think of the old grave digger and the hand of Tomas O´Tarson somewhere in the grasses of Quendale?

* The last name is an old Viking name originating from a 7th century Viking king known as “Ottar”

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