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Papa Westray, St Boniface's Church

Burial Ground (12th Century), Church (12th Century), Cross Incised Stone (Medieval)(Possible), Hogback Stone (Norse)

Site Name Papa Westray, St Boniface's Church

Classification Burial Ground (12th Century), Church (12th Century), Cross Incised Stone (Medieval)(Possible), Hogback Stone (Norse)

Alternative Name(s) Papay, Old Parish Church

Canmore ID 2856

Site Number HY45SE 17

NGR HY 48813 52705

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2023.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish Papa Westray
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney


Field Visit (June 1982)

St Boniface's Church, Binnas Kirk and Munkerhoose HY 488 526 HY45SE 17, 26

The old parish church of Papay stands above a rocky shore in the now sparsely inhabited NW corner of the island. It is associated with extensive settlement-remains of the Iron Age and Pictish period, with two discoveries of Early Christian cross-slabs, and a Norse hogbacked monument; added to the place-name evidence, they indicate that the whole complex was an important early ecclesiastical centre.

The church, still in use in 1920 but abandoned by 1930, is essentially a twelfth-century church, which was extended westwards in 1700. The site of its chancel is occupied by a family burial-place. The building is still entire, but there are holes in the slab-covered roof, and the internal furnishings and some of the structural timbers are succumbing to decay.

The hogbacked gravestone lies immediately E of the family tomb, but only its top now protrudes from the grass. In 1920, when for the first time burials were made on the N side of the church, a slab was found at a depth of about 1m; a portion was left in the

ground, but the part now in NMAS (IB 200) has an encircled cross pattee with a small incised cross, of unusual design, above it. In 1966 a second slab, now in Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall, was found during grave-digging near the NE corner of the

church. This is a water-worn beach-slab, standing 790mm high above the display-stand in which its base is set; it is elliptical, its maximum width, near the top, of 320mm narrowing to 175mm at the base, and 64mm to 69mm thick. The obverse has a weakly executed encircled cross pattee with a boldly-cut square-armed cross above it; to the lower left of the upper cross is a running human figure, very faintly incised, and another, unidentifiable design seems to lie to the upper left of the cross. On the reverse is a rectilinear pattern apparently representing a standing robed human figure. The incised designs, executed by pecking, have an unfinished appearance.

RCAHMS 1983, visited June 1982.

(Name Book, Orkney No. 26, p. 11; Dietrichson 1906, 124 (Norwegian text); Kirkness 1921; Scott 1922; Marwick 1925, 33-4, 40; 'Taylor 1938, 386, 388; RCAHMS 1946, ii, pp. 179-80, Nos. 518-20, p. 184, No. 526; Gudmundsson, Orkneyinga Saga, footnote, p. 163; Lang 1974, 230; CJ Arnold, Report on four composite bone comb fragments found in the erosion-section 1975, in Tankerness House Museum files, ref 731; Arnold 1975; OR 847).

Publication Account (1996)

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).

Field Visit (1998)

HY 4881 5269 - The old parish church of Papa Westray (HS Index 1484) constructed in the 12th C, was extended in the 18th C and remained in use until the 1920's. Following a period of disuse, during which the building began to fall into decay, it was renovated and re-opened in 1993 as a place of worship. Two Pictish cross slabs and a fragment of a reliquary shrine have been recovered from the graveyard and a Norse hog-backed tomb stone (HS Index 1478) remains in situ. The graveyard has been extended in recent times. The church has been built over extensive remains of earlier settlement, some of which has been revealed in the nearby coastal section (see HY45SE 26).

Moore and Wilson, 1998

Coastal Zone Assessment Survey

Orkney Smr Note

In its discussion, RCAMS associates the monks of the place-

name with an event supposed to have taken place in Westray in

1137, when according to ch lxxii of Orkneyinga Saga, Tognvald

attending Mass at the church in the porp or village (i.e.

Pierowall) encountered a band of 16 strangers, who were tonsured

and unarmed. This incident however comes very abruptly in this

chapter, and may have been misplaced from ch lxxvii where it would

have been associated with the arrival of Bishop John at Knarston.

[R1], [R3], [R7], [R12], RCAMS loc cit

NOMENCLATURE - St Boniface is the dedication of the church.

Local opinion is not consistent as to the application of the names

'Munkerhoose' and 'Binnas mKirk'.

The 1879 Name-Book entry for 'Munger House' reads- '...

applies to what has evidently been an underground Picts House

situated close to and west of the Established Church. It has only

partly been excavated but one passage underground has been laid

open and altho not explored it seems to penetrate for some

distance in direction of the Church.' - This application of

'Munkerhoose' specifically to the stone structures W of the

church, is consistent with the usage by RCAMS in 1928, and with

the most prevalent modern local usage. By general consent it

applies to the structures known to be buried under the churchyard

as well as those in the cliff-section W of it. Marwick also

applies 'Munkerhoose' to the farm mound, and this usage also is

found today. RCAMS also gives the impression that 'Binnas Kirk'

was wholly interchangeable mis-appreciation of Marwick's

subsequent statements. [R2], [R6], [R11], RCAMS loc cit

This is a complex and rich site covering an area of

approximately one hectare, partly occupied by the old parish

church and its burial ground, which is in use. The complex

comprises late Iron Age or Pictish settlement, possibly continuing

into Early Norse times and having a monastic element; a farm-

mound; and the derelict church, the fabric of which is mediaeval

and in association with which are a hog-backed gravestone and two

separate discoveries of incised cross-slabs.

CHURCH - Nave of C12th church is the core of the present

fabric; the Traill burial-ground immediately E occupies site of

chancel. The nave was extended W by 8ft in 1700; present overall

dimensions 37ft 11in x 21ft 6in. Kirkness in 1921 wrote

as if the church were still in use in 1920, but by 1930 according

to RCAMS it was disused and in need of repair. It is now in a

very sorry state; many holes in the slab-covered roof, the

structural timbers decaying, the gallery and furnishings in a

state of collapse, the whole very damp. RGL Jun 82.

HOG-BACK & CROSS-SLABS - Immediately outside the Traill

burial-place is a hog-backed grave-monument or red sandstone,

lying E-W, 5ft 1in long x 12in wide at E end, 16.5in at W end, 8in

and 10in high at these ends; three rows of shingle representation

on the sloping top. It is now difficult to confirm the RCAMS

measurements, as only the top of the stone is visible, the level

of the regularly-mown grass having risen around it. The ornament

on the stone was already much worn from the weathering and the

stone is now at some risk from the lawnmower. In 1920, when for

the first time burials were made on the N side of the church, a

cross-slab was found at a depth of some 3ft; it was broken on

removal and a portion left in the ground. The major portion now

in the National Museum is 23in x 12.5in, unshaped, incised on one

side with an encircled cross patee above which is a small equal-

armed cross, each arm of which terminates in a crescent. In 1966,

a second cross-slab was found in grave-digging near the NE corner

of the church. In Tankerness House Museum, it is a water-worn

beach-slab, roughly elliptical in shape, standing 790mm high (but

with an unknown additional length buried in the display stand),

320mm wide at max. near top, 175mm wide at base, 64mm to 69mm

thick; the sandy flagstone has been broken into three pieces and

repaired with cement. The obverse has a weakly-executed encircled

cross pate with a more badly-incised square-armed cross above it.

On the reverse is a curious rectilinear figure apparently intended

to represent a standing, robed human figure. The carving has been

executed by pecking, and the lines thus formed have a somewhat

unfinished appearance.

MUNKERHOOSE - It is locally believed that ancient structures

underlie the ground to the S of the original churchyard-extension,

as well as underlying the original churchyard and filling the

space between it and the shore, where copious structures are

exposed in the erosion-section. In 1928 the site was described as

a group of huts with connecting passages, and in the section there

opened a flag-covered passage 3ft 5in high and 2ft 7in wide, some

15ft S of which could be seen a stretch of curved wall. At the S

end was an extensive kitchen-midden deposit containing shells and

pottery. The open passage can no longer be seen, but erosion is

active; the effect of the broken rocks offshore is to channel the

force of the sea to a few limited places, where deep geos are

being cut into the deposits. Very heavy stonework is exposed in

numerous places, the deposits being just short of 3m in thickness;

on the grass surface of the upper slope of the banks, there are

projecting edge-slabs further indicating buildings. The whole

suggests an Iron Age and Pictish settlement, very likely

originally centred on a broch, and certainly continuing in

occupation well into the early mediaeval period.

RGL Jun 82.

In the section, at HY 4877 5274, four fragments of composite

cone comb were found by C J Arnold, Dept of Archaeology,

Southampton University, and donated to Tankerness House Museum,


FARM MOUND - In an area of rough grass immediately N of the

churchyard - thus bounded by the churchyard to the S and by the

sea to the W - is an extensive, rounded mound some 1m high above

the general ground level although with deposits which, in the

cliff-section and in rabbit-scrapes on the sides of the mound

itself, the exposures reveal a composition of dark loamy earth

with some shell material, i.e. characteristic 'farm mound'

material - a deposit very different from the tumbled confusion of

stone structures in the area W of the churchyard.

RGL Jun 82.

On his next page Marwick states, 'Binnas Kirk is another old

name for this same church site ... According to one old Papey man,

Binnas Kirk was supposed to be a separate structure from the

present church of St Boniface, and was situated on the mound

outside the churchyard wall. An old tradition, he informed me,

had it that the people in St Boniface one day heard the folks

singing in Binnas Kirk a short distance away. An another fragment

told how a woman lived there who was so irreverent as to bake

bread on Sundys. These facts I record as bits of genuine

tradition, but I confess myself utterly unable to offer any

probable explanation of their origin.' In his name-gazetteer,

Marwick inconsistently applies 'Munkerhoose' to the old parish

church, but Binnas Kirk he gives as 'an almost obsolete name for

the old parish church, or mound adjacent.'

Today, 'Munkerhoose' is still applied to the stone structures

and is understood by some to cover the farm-mound also. 'Binnas

Kirk' is understood by some to be the same as Munkerhoose, by

others to be simply a name for the parish church. (It seems

however, that this may have arisen from a popular-etymology

confusion between the names Binnas and Boniface, which

philologically are unconnected). According to W Irvine however,

Binnas Kirk is specifically the mound N of the churchyard - the

farm-mound - which seems to perpetuate the strand of tradition

recorded by Marwick. It appears likely therefore that 'Binnas

Kirk' is a recollection of a church other than the parish church,

and that this church was specifically associated with the farm-

mound. Irvine Links

Information from Orkney SMR [n.d.]


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