Monday, 29 July 2013

Island 204 - Papa Stour, Shetland

Papa Stour is Shetland's best kept secret.  I asked lots of people I met on Shetland, both visitors and locals, but none of them had been to Papa Stour, even though it is served by a vehicle ferry 5 days a week.  Even one of the crewmen on the ferry said he had never walked round the island.  They have all missed a treat, especially lovers of coastal geomorphology.  I thought my geography textbook diagrams had come to life.  It has so many stacks, arches, blowholes, skerries, sea caves, geos and stumps in such close proximity.  The day I visited was relatively still and very sunny, which enhanced my enjoyment.

Papa Stour is currently experiencing a population crisis, as it now only has 8 permanent residents.  It did have c20 until some of them fell out over a dead dog and moved off the island in 2005.  This means that the ferry service must be hugely subsidised.  In the 19th century the population was 360.

The ferry departs from West Burrafirth on the west coast of Mainland and the journey time is 40 minutes.  The first round trip of the day is scheduled but the second is only available on request.  I had booked it in advance but became a bit paranoid about being left on a small island with only 8 residents for 2 days, as there wasn't a sailing the following day.  I checked with several members of the crew that they were doing a double run and there were a couple of other passengers anyway - 2 council workmen in a van and a man who was on a fishing trip.

There is no shop or pub on the island and although there used to be a hostel you could stay in, I think that has closed too, as the sign for it was laying on the ground.  However there is a lovely waiting room in sight of where the ferry docks, with chairs, tea and coffee making facilities and information about the island, which is more than there is on Out Skerries.  It is hard to see how the island could make money from tourism without a shop/café/hostel etc, as there is nothing to spend any money on apart from buying a postcard in the church or putting tea/coffee money in the honesty box in the waiting room.

The name Papa Stour means 'big island of priests' in Old Norse.  It was probably called that because of Celtic missionaries who lived on the island in the 6th or 7th centuries.  However the island has been settled since at least the Neolithic period.  The Vikings used the island as a base and safe haven.  By the 13th century it had become a Norwegian royal farm belonging to King Hakon.  The rest of Shetland was given to Scotland by the Norwegians in 1469 but they kept their estates on Papa Stour until the 16th century.   At Housa Voe there is a ring of 46 stones, which are thought to be the site of a Norse law Ting.

In the past 'lepers' were banished to the Hill O Fiellie/Felie in the south of the island to live in simple huts in isolation.  They relied on the islanders to bring them food.  However it is more likely that they were suffering from the effects of malnutrition or elephantiasis than leprosy.

Geologically most of Papa Stour is composed of pink rhyolite - a Devonian period volcanic rock.  This has been eroded by the sea to form the island of today.  All the indentations in the coastline mean that the island has 22 miles of coastline.  There are also ridges of glacial moraines running across the island.   It is not a particularly hilly island.  Virdi/Virda Field is the highest point at 87 metres.  The coast and sea around Papa Stour is a Marine Special Area of Conservation because of its rocky reefs and sea caves. 

A wall called the Hill Dyke separates fertile in-by land in the east of the island from the scalped or scattald health land to the north and west.  Over previous centuries turf and peat were removed from the north and west and either burnt or placed on the eastern side to improve the soil.  Today short vegetation grows on gravelly sub-soil.  This makes for very easy walking terrain.  The island is grazed by sheep.  In fact the sheep must outnumber the people by at least 20 to 1.

There have been many shipwrecks off Papa Stour and Ve Skerries out to the west.  The most recent ship to be wrecked on Ve Skerries was the Elinor Viking in 1977.  As a result of this shipwreck a lighthouse was built on them in 1979.  The island is popular with divers who come to investigate the shipwrecks and to look at the abundant marine life in the very clear waters.

The Hole of Bordie in the north west of the island is a 360 metre long sea cave, which is the fourth longest in the world.  The coastline is under constant attack from the sea.  An impressive sea stack called the Horn of Papa was swept away in a storm in 1953.

Lyra Skerry with Fogla Skerry behind, North West coast of Papa Stour.
The stack is apparently called Da Fit.

Snolda/Snalda Stack, NW coast of Papa Stour
The name means 'pinnacle' in Old Norse
Lyra Skerry off the NW coast of Papa Stour

Snolda Stack

Kirstan's/Christie's Hole -
an unusual double blowhole

 Kirstan's/Christie's Hole
Remains of watermills at Dutch Loch
These horizontal mills once had turf roofs.

Ruined farm, Hamna Voe

Planticrubs, centre of Papa Stour
Pier, Housa Voe

Maiden and other stacks, Housa Voe

Aesha Stack with a natural arch incorporated into it

Aesha Head, Fogla and Lyra Skerries from Papa Stour - NW coast
Papa Stour Airfield

Stained glass window in the Kirk
This was designed by Victor Noble Rainbird.  He was a painter and illustrator from Tyneside  and this is the only surviving stained glass window that he designed.

Brei Holm, east coast of Papa Stour
This island has a natural tunnel running right through it.

Maiden and other stacks, east coast
Muckle Fru or the Maiden Stack is supposedly the location where the only daughter of a Norwegian lord was imprisoned by her father because she refused to agree to an arranged marriage.  She had fallen in love with a fisherman and he rescued her with the help of this friends and they fled from the area.

Akers Geo

Looking towards Culla Voe
West Voe and Culla Voe in the east of the island provided sheltered locations for 19th century herring stations.
Natural Arch at Aesha/Aisha Head 

 Kirk -
A quiet place to rest and think 

 Partially reconstructed Stofa at Da Biggins
A stofa is a medieval Norse house.  Excavations at Da Biggins from 1977-82 revealed the site of one and in 2008 a stofa was partially reconstructed adjacent to the site by the Papa Stour History Group and the Norwegian Craft Academy using logs from Norway.

 Standing Stones
I'm not sure if these are ancient or modern.  They aren't marked on the OS map.

Ferry Waiting Room
 Snolda/Snalda Stack

Looking north towards Lyra Skerry with Flogla Skerry: on the west coast 


  1. Stacks of stacks! Very interesting. Must try and visit when I return to Shetland one day.

  2. That was very interesting indeed. I didn't even know what a blow hole was until I read your blog. You might like these islands We will get round to touring Shetland one day. Regards, Mark.