The Cauld Lad of Hylton

The Cauld Lad of Hylton

The North Hylton area of Sunderland boasts the city’s only castle; the aptly named Hylton Castle, now in ruins. A castle has stood on this spot since 1066, when the Hilton family were awarded land in the area following the Norman Conquest. Rebuilt in stone during the 14th-15th centuries, all that remains today are the magnificent gate house and nearby chapel which was dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria in 1157.

Hylton Castle is also home to one of the north-east’s most enduring folk stories, which is well known to school children of the city and beyond. It concerns the life and death of a certain stablehand named Roger Skelton, who is thought to have served the Hylton family in the early 17th century.

It is a strange tale, and a dark one. Though the castle of the Hyltons still stands, no one alive today rightly remembers the true story of the young lad who was murdered there. The reason, for one, is unclear; some say that he dared to court the baron’s daughter, others that he overslept, or shoed the baron’s horse badly. But all the accounts agree on the culprit: the baron himself, Robert Hylton. Depending upon the teller, the vengeful baron chopped the boy’s head off, struck him with his riding crop in the same spot as an old injury or stabbed him with a pitchfork close to hand.

Baron Hylton got away with it, of course. When they found Skelton’s body in the pond the baron had an alibi; an old farmhand who swore under oath that the lad had slipped and fallen while fetching a tool from a high shelf on the baron’s behest. The baron himself had tended to the boy’s wounds but to no avail, for Skelton died soon after.

It was 1609 when the baron was tried and pardoned of the murder of Roger Skelton. But neither did he get away with the murder, for following his pardon the castle began to suffer from the nightly visits of a particularly vindictive spirit. Should the maids leave the kitchen neat and tidy before going to bed at night, the next morning they would find the place in total disarray; the pans in a great pile on the floor, the firewood soaked, the milk spilled all over the floor and food strewn across the tables. They would discover sides of bacon in the boot cupboard, and all the shoes hanging from the bacon hooks!

Yet should they leave the castle untidy, the spirit would change his mind. The flummoxed servants would rise to find dishes washed, cutlery cleaned and the silver polished. But for every good turn the spirit did he undid it too. Every night those who dared to stay awake and listen heard noises from the kitchen and the empty rooms as the spirit went about his nightly mischief. If they did, they would no doubt hear his song too, which went like this:

“Wae’s me! Wae’s me!
The acorn’s not yet fallen from the tree
that’s to grow the wood,
that’s to make the cradle,
that’s to rock the bairn,
that’s to grow a man,
that’s to lay me!”

There were no maids who would stay for long in the employment of the castle, even long after the murderous old baron died. There were even rumours from the riverside of a mysterious ferryman who took passengers out into the middle of the river then disappeared, leaving them stranded. Long after Hylton was in the ground and his son became the new baron, the spirit could be heard singing his ghastly song and whimpering, “Cauld! I’m so cauld!” by which the servants and local people began to call him the Cauld (cold) Lad.

Braver residents of the castle sometimes caught glimpses of the spirit, and those who had known of Roger Skelton swore the ghost resembled the young stablehand who had died many years before. Many exorcisms were performed on the castle but none served to banish the spirit who was pitied and feared in equal measure. Still every night came the mournful cry which mocked the efforts of those called to rid the castle of the Cauld Lad.

However, after some years had passed there came to the castle a maid who was braver than most. Staying up at night she saw for herself the Cauld Lad. But to her great surprise and pity she saw he was naked, and shivered dreadfully with the cold. The next day she began making a warm cloak for the ghost, and when it was finished she laid it in a place where she knew the spirit would find it. Hiding herself nearby in a cupboard as night fell, it was not long before she heard the havoc wreaked by the ghost and his familiar wailing song;

“Wae’s me! Wae’s me!
The acorn’s not yet fallen from the tree
that’s to grow the wood,
that’s to make the cradle,
that’s to rock the bairn,
that’s to grow a man,
that’s to lay me!”

However as the ghost found the cloak she had made for him, she heard new words in his song;

“Here’s a cap and here’s a hood!
The Cauld Lad of Hylton will do no more good!”

It seemed to her as if the ghost’s joyful song grew quieter, as if fading away across the hills. Thus the ghost’s prophecy had been fulfilled; for it was no man who laid him to rest. Only a woman could have seen his distress and righted the wrong which had been done all those years ago.



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