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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016321

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


There is a long history of activity on this site from iron-age times onwards into the 20th century. Initially there was a domestic settlement established around the 6th century BC and including a massive roundhouse, and this settlement appears to have continued through the first thousand years AD. Excavation in 1990 caught the last vestiges of the roundhouse before coastal erosion claimed it, but the site had been known, and indeed visible in the cliff-section, for more than a century. The settlement was clearly of some importance, probably the major farm in the island in its time, and it was the obvious place to choose when a Christian monastery was established in the 8th century. Folk memory of this monastic site lingers on in the name Munkerhoose, monks' house.

Nothing structural has been found of this early monastery, but the presence of two cross-slabs and part of a stone-built shrine datable to the 8th century are tangible evidence of its existence. There is also documentary and place-name evidence, especially the name coined for the island by the incoming Vikings, for papae was their term for priests and monks.

The early church appears to have continued in use throughout Norse times. In the 12th century, the island was part of a large estate based on North Ronaldsay, and a new church was built, which was dedicated to St Boniface and is the core of the church that survives today. It consisted of a small nave and chancel, but the former was extended westwards in 1700 to accommodate an internal gallery served by an external stair, and the chancel was demolished at some unknown date. Its position was used for the burial enclosure of the Traill family, who lived at Holland.

The importance of the church here in Norse times is reflected by the fact recorded in Orkneyinga Saga that an earl was buried in Papa Westray in the mid 11th century (chap.30). A tombstone of Norse type is still to be seen in the churchyard, but its style dates it to the following century. This is a late vers ion of the hogback, and it lies in an east-west direction, accompanied by a small upright headstone. It is carved from a block of red sandstone, 1.55m long, with a deep groove running along its flat ridge and three rows of tegulae (rooftiles) carved along each side. It is one of the few examples in Scotland of a hogback which appears still to be in its original position.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

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