As with seemingly every castle in the British Isles (and no doubt further afield), Hylton Castle on the outskirts of Sunderland has a well-established ghost story. With tales regarding the haunting and its origins dating back well over 300 years, most identify the entity as a former stable boy named Robert Skelton. In the afterlife, the purported ghost has become better known as the ‘Cauld Lad of Hylton’ (taken from the local ‘Mackem’ dialect, meaning ‘cold lad’).
A castle has stood on the site as the home of the Hylton family since shortly after the Norman Conquest. The family themselves can trace their ancestry back to the reign of King Athelstan of England, over 100 years before the Battle of Hastings. After Sir John Hylton died without an heir in 1746 the castle passed to his nephew, who promptly sold it off. Since then, it has changed hands a number of times, now residing in the care of English Heritage.
As with the word-of-mouth nature of many ghost stories, the details of the death of Robert Skelton have become blurred over the many years since, if indeed he existed at all. The majority lay the blame for his death at the feet of Baron Hylton, although quite which of the 13 men to hold the title before it fell into abeyance in 1746 is unclear. Given that the stories appear to date back to the late 16th or early 17th century, the majority attribute Skelton’s death to Robert Hylton. Later the 13th Baron Hylton, at the time of the incident he was more likely the heir to his elder brother Henry.
The most common version of the tale is that Robert Hylton had ordered his horse prepared for a long and important journey early the following morning, before retiring to bed. On awaking, he found his horse still in its stable and the stable lad still asleep. He is then said to have killed the young man on the spot, variously described as decapitating him with his sword, running him through with a pitchfork or battering him around the head with a riding crop. A variant of the tale is that Skelton had been secretly seeing the Baron’s daughter, and on discovery the baron had the boy killed.
In both versions, after his death the body is disposed of down a disused well. When the body was later recovered the Baron was put on trial for murder, but was acquitted after providing an alibi. The Encyclopedia of Fairies in Folklore and Mythology shows that it was a matter of historical record that Robert Hylton was indeed pardoned in 1609.
Shortly after, strange disruption began around the castle, particularly in the kitchens. Having carefully cleaned and tidied the night before, cooks would find the kitchen in disarray the following morning. Conversely, if left in disorder the kitchen would be pristine the next day. Several staff witnessed an unseen entity scoop hot coals from fireplaces and lay in them, leaving the imprint of a body.
After one cook stayed overnight in the kitchens to find the cause of the strange occurrences, he witnessed the naked, shivering ghost of a young man, lamenting “I’m cauld”. After leaving a warm cloak in the kitchen the following night, the paranormal activity is said to have quickly stopped. However, staff and guests in the years since have occasionally reported hearing the young man’s cries.
An alternative version is that the disruption was caused by a household spirit such as a brownie or barghest trapped in the castle under a spell that would only be broken if it was presented with a gift.