Viking Isles: Tales from an Island of Legend

Papa Stour. Sea erosion has created stacks, geodes, and caves around its coast. pp. 86–7 Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photos
Papa Stour. Sea erosion has created stacks, geodes, and caves around its coast. pp. 86–7 Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photos

Living on, and then Leaving Papa Stour, Shetland Islands

Paul Murton has long had a love of the Viking north – the island groups of Orkney and Shetland and the old counties of Caithness and Sutherland – which, for centuries, were part of the Nordic world as depicted in the great classic the Orkneyinga Saga. Today this fascinating Scandinavian legacy can be found everywhere – in physical remains, place-names, local traditions and folklore, and much else besides.

This is a personal account of Paul’s travels in the Viking north. Full of observation, history, anecdote and encounters with those who live there, it also serves as a practical guide to the many places of interest.

From a sing-along with the Shanty Yell Boys to fishing off Muckle Flugga, from sword dancing with the men of Papa Stour to a Norwegian pub crawl in Lerwick, Paul paints a vivid picture of these lands and their people and explores their extraordinary rich heritage.

Excerpt from Chapter 3: Island Outliers of Viking Isles by Paul Murton

Papa Stour is a small island with an unbroken history of habitation going back at least 3,000 years. It lies less than a nautical

mile from the coast of Mainland Shetland but the strong currents and dangerous waters that surround Papa Stour make it feel more remote and inaccessible than it really is.

Jane Puckley, who has been crofting on Papa Stour for over 20 years. p. 92 Paul Murton photo.
Jane Puckley, who has been crofting on Papa Stour for over 20 years. p. 92 Paul Murton photo.

Cliff-girt Island

Although it’s a cliff-girt island, Papa Stour is fairly low lying, rising to Virda Field at 87 meters in the north-west.

The rocks here are composed of ancient volcanic material from the Devonian geological period about 360 million years ago when ash and lava were deposited over the sands of a vast desert.

Being soft, the rocks that were laid down at this time are easily eroded by the sea, which over the millennia has carved stacks, and geos – and created marvelous caves and tunnels through the cliffs.

The headland at Virda Field is cut through by a 360-meter-long passage called the Hole of Bordie – the fourth-largest sea cave in the world.

Other features of the west coast include passages through Fogla Skerry and Lyra Skerry. At Kirstan Hol, there is a deep cleft (or geo) in the cliffs, with sea tunnels leading to a massive collapsed cavern.

The coast of Papa Stour is a paradise for kayakers and a wonderfully exciting destination for seaborne exploration, which was first written about by early visitors like Edward Charlton.

He sailed over from Foula with his friends in 1832 and was taken on a sightseeing trip by their host Mr. Henderson of The Haa. Entering one of the sea caves in a boat, Charlton wrote:

Burrafirth – ‘the big islands of the priests’. p. 88 Paul Murton photo.
Burrafirth – ‘the big islands of the priests’. p. 88 Paul Murton photo.

For a few minutes, we were enveloped in darkness, and then all of a sudden a bright luminous ray broke upon us from a perforation in the rock and revealed a variegated coralline and tangled seaweed which clothed the rocky bottom a fathom or two beneath our boat.

To the right and left branched off various helyers – or caves – some totally dark, others partially illuminated at some distances from above but too narrow for our boat to enter. No wonder that the Papa men are considered to be the most superstitious of all the Shetlanders, for who could traverse these marine abodes without a hope of coming at every turn upon some merman old and grey?

Legends abound on Papa Stour – it’s a place where once the inhabitants believed in giants and trolls or trows. When I caught the ferry from West Burrafirth on a cold day in early May, I thought about the meaning of the island’s name. It comes from the Old Norse papar for ‘priests’ or ‘monks’ and stor meaning ‘big’.

Papa Stour therefore means ‘the big island of the priests’. There is actually a Papa Little just to the east of Papa Stour, which suggests that there must have been quite a lot of churchmen about in the past. They would have been monks and anchorites of the old Celtic churchmen

The eighth-century Monks’ Stone, found on West Burra in 1943. p. 89
The eighth-century Monks’ Stone, found on West Burra in 1943. p. 89

who sought out lonely places to pray or to base themselves for missionary work among the pagan Pictish people of Shetland.

At the Shetland Museum in Lerwick, there is a fascinating stone relief known as the Monks’ Stone. Found to the south-east of Papa Stour at Papil on the island of West Burra in 1943, it is thought to be part of an 8th-century box shrine. It depicts five hooded figures, one behind the other, on top of stylized waves.

The first three are on foot and carrying crosiers. They are followed by one on horseback and bringing up the rear is another walking figure who, as well as carrying a crosier, has a bag or satchel with him.

The five men are clearly Christian clergy making their way over the waves towards a cross–a scene which is thought to represent the arrival of Christianity on Shetland.

By the time the pagan Vikings arrived in Shetland around AD 800, Christianity on the islands had been established for two centuries but the Vikings had no need for priests. They had their own religion and a fierce reputation for murdering churchmen and plundering their monasteries so the monks either fled or were killed.

For the next two centuries, Shetland reverted to paganism, in thrall to the Norse gods of Asgard, where Odin held sway, until the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, converted to Christianity in 994. He insisted that Sigurd, Jarl of Orkney, whose rule extended to Shetland, follow his example. And so Shetland returned to the Christian fold.

The Vikings made a big impression on Papa Stour. Nearly all the place names have a Norse origin and many features of the dramatic coastline are woven into the Viking folklore of the island. Frau Stack or Maiden Stack is one such example.

Local Legend

As the ferry entered Housa Voe and headed towards the pier, it passed a high pillar of rock standing close to the island’s red cliffs. According to local legend, the Maiden Stack got its name because of the actions of a real historical character – the Viking Thorvald. Worried that his daughter might run away with a lowly fisherman she’d fallen in love with, he imprisoned her on the sea stack.

He built a stone cottage on its summit and, as we sailed by, I could just make out the ruins of a small building still perched on top of the rock tower. But, despite all of Thorvald’s efforts to protect his daughter’s valuable virginity, his plan came to nothing. Under cover of darkness, the young man scaled the sea stack and rescued the girl. It’s said they lived happily ever after.

King Hakon IV

During the reign of the Vikings, the little island of Papa Stour became an important outpost for a man who would one day become Norway’s King Håkon IV. To discover more about this royal connection, I walked the island’s only tarmacked road, a single-track right of way that stretches inland for just one and a half kilometers from the ferry pier.

Halfway along, I stopped at a place signposted as ‘The Stofa’. This is a partial reconstruction of an important building from the days when Papa Stour was at the heart of Shetland’s Viking world. In medieval times, most Norse farming settlements had a public gathering place – a great hall – where the affairs of the estate were discussed and issues resolved.

The stofa vividly demonstrates the importance of Papa Stour to the Vikings but, after Norse rule ended in the 15th century, the islanders continued to work the land and harvest the seas as they had always done. The fertility of the rich basalt soils made the land more productive than most and, when commercial fishing began, the potential rewards were considerable.

Herring Boom

Crofter George Patterson
Crofter George Patterson

At the height of the herring boom in the 19th century, thousands of fishermen, fish curers and fishwives crowded the island during the summer months.

This hive of industry created an unprecedented demand for fuel and the land was scraped clean in the desperate search for peat to burn.

When Edward Charlton arrived in 1832, he described the housing on Papa Stour as ‘wretched hovels, worse here than in any other part of Shetland’.

By the turn of the 20th century, the fortunes of the whole island began to decline.

George Peterson was brought up on Papa Stour. His grandson Danny gave me a lift in his pick-up and drove me the last kilometer to the family croft – a smartly painted single-story building overlooking bright green fields with views across the sound to the Mainland.

A collie dog was barking as Danny’s grandfather came out to greet us. George was in his early eighties and was a retired schoolteacher. Although lambing kept him busy, he no longer lives on the island. This is a common story. Despite the number of houses dotting the landscape, Papa Stour had a population of just a handful of permanent residents at the time of my last visit in 2016.

‘A lot of the properties have become holiday homes these days or are for occasional use by people who still have crofting rights. Like me, they come over when there’s work to do,’ George explained.

We leaned on a drystone dike and watched the newborn lambs playing in the sunshine.

‘This is what we call da vaar,’ said George. ‘I think it’s a Scandinavian word – the old Viking word for “the spring”.’

George told me that his mother came from Papa Stour. She loved it so much that she persuaded her husband to move back to the island from Lerwick when George was a baby. The community was still vibrant then. George remembers a population of over 90 – nearly all crofter-fishermen and their families. There was a church, a post office, and a school.

It was an idyllic island to be brought up on. But the community suffered a terrible blow after the school was closed in the 1960s and children were forced to move to the mainland of Shetland for their education. ‘It broke the back of the community,’ says George.  There are just eight – maybe ten people living here now. No shop or pub. No hotel or post office. And no children. Not any more.’

George puts the decline down to economics. ‘The income from a traditional croft is never likely to be enough to satisfy the expectations of a modern lifestyle.’ But there was a time in the 1970s when it looked as if this decline were going to be reversed.

An advertisement appeared in Exchange and Mart offering free houses on Papa Stour, each with a piece of land and sheep to go with it. There was a sudden influx of New Age couples, many with children, who brought a new way of life to the old.

Papa Stour became a hippy island and, for a few years, life improved for everyone. But, gradually, people moved away again, perhaps having had enough of ‘the good life’ or once the reality of living on a remote island began to sink in.

On the other side of Housa Voe, I shared lunch with Andy and Sabrina, who had been living on Papa Stour since 1973. They had originally met at a Christian community on the shores of Loch Ness but, as Andy explained, ‘We were thrown out because we became an item.’

Hearing about the opportunities on Papa Stour they set up home and lived for a while in a shed that they built in the middle of a roofless croft house. ‘We had no money and were reduced to eating daffodils and wild cabbage,’ said Sabrina. By a ‘miracle’, they were now living in a large house and croft, which they had previously run as a drug rehabilitation center until the local authority funding they depended on ran out.

Outside in the sunshine, I was feeling a little dispirited by the unhappy recent history of Papa Stour. Then I met Jane Puckey, originally from Gloucester. She had been crofting on the island for the last 23 years but, like George, she was no longer a permanent resident although she still regarded herself as an islander.The Viking Isles by Paul Murton

She seemed practical and unsentimental in her approach to life. ‘I never thought that when I was living in England that I’d end up, in my sixties, lambing on Papa!’ She was busy in the old byre of a croft overlooking the sea.

I watched as she delivered twins from a panting Shetland ewe – a breed which, she explained, had originally been brought to the islands by the Vikings.

‘Spring is a wonderful time of year for me,’ she said. ‘I never tire of it – bringing new life into the world. It’s renewal going on all over the island – all over the country.’

Later, I stood on the cliffs not far from the croft. Overhead, the sound of a distant helicopter competed with the shrill cry of gulls. A few miles offshore, an enormous oil-production platform was slowly being pulled by tugs to new oilfields west of Shetland. Between the rig and the cliffs was the Maiden Stack.

Closer still was Brei Holm, a tiny island that was apparently once used as a leper colony. According to tradition, the disease died out in 1742, when a day of thanksgiving was held. I thought about the fate of Papa Stour which has been inhabited for at least three millennia. ‘What,’ I wondered, ‘would secure the future of the island into the 21st century?’

Paul Murton is well known as a documentary filmmaker whose work includes Grand Tours of Scotland and Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands (4 series). He grew up in rural Argyll and has been an inveterate traveler since his teenage years. In addition to his extensive coverage of Scotland, Murton has also written Hebrides (2017).

Paul Murton has long had a love of the Viking north – the island groups of Orkney and Shetland and the old counties of Caithness and Sutherland – which, for centuries, were part of the Nordic world as depicted in the great classic the Orkneyinga Saga. Today this fascinating Scandinavian legacy can be found everywhere – in physical remains, place-names, local traditions and folklore, and much else besides.

This is a personal account of Paul’s travels in the Viking north. Full of observation, history, anecdote and encounters with those who live there, it also serves as a practical guide to the many places of interest. From a sing-along with the Shanty Yell Boys to fishing off Muckle Flugga, from sword dancing with the men of Papa Stour to a Norwegian pub crawl in Lerwick, Paul paints a vivid picture of these lands and their people and explores their extraordinary rich heritage.