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Papa Westray, St Boniface's Church

Composite Slab Shrine (Early Medieval), Cross Slab(S) (Early Medieval), Hogback Stone (Early Medieval)

Site Name Papa Westray, St Boniface's Church

Classification Composite Slab Shrine (Early Medieval), Cross Slab(S) (Early Medieval), Hogback Stone (Early Medieval)

Canmore ID 2857

Site Number HY45SE 17.01

NGR HY 4882 5270

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Digital Images

Administrative Areas

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


St Boniface Church 1, Papa Westray, Orkney, cross-slab fragment

Measurements: H 0.57m+, W 0.32m, D 0.04m

Stone type: sandstone

Place of discovery: HY c 4881 5271

Present location: National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh (X.IB.200).

Evidence for discovery: found at a depth of almost a metre during grave-digging in the graveyard north of St Boniface Church in 1920 (part of it was left in the ground) and retrieved by William Kirkness who sent it to the museum in Edinburgh.

Present condition: the left-hand edge is damaged and the top right-hand corner is missing, as is the base, and small areas of carving have been lost.


One broad face of this slab is incised, towards the top of the slab, with a compass-drawn cross-of-arcs surmounted by a linear cross with crescent terminals and a rectangular base. The terminal of the upper arm is missing, along with two short sections of the circle enclosing the cross-of-arcs.

Date: seventh or eighth century.

References: Kirkness 1921, 134; Fisher 2002, 49; Scott & Ritchie 2014, no 22.

Compiled by A Ritchie 2017


St Boniface Church 2, Papa Westray, Orkney, cross-slab

Measurements: H 0.79m +, W 0.32m tapering to 0.17m, D 0.07m

Stone type: sandstone

Place of discovery: HY c 4881 5271

Present location: in the Orkney Museum, Kirkwall (OM 1997.3).

Evidence for discovery: found in the graveyard in 1966 or 1967, about 0.3m down in the soil close to the north-east corner of the nave and close to where no 1 had been found.

Present condition: worn, especially the face with the double cross.


An undressed and tapering boulder, this bears carving on both broad faces. Face A is incised with two crosses, one above the other: at the top a heavily pecked outline cross with small sunken armpits, with a finely incised inner outline. Above the left-hand arm a triquetra knot has been roughly incised, and below the same arm can be made out a robed figure in profile facing the shaft. The base of the outline cross almost touches a cross-of-arcs within a circle, carved in false relief. It appears that two attempts were made to carve the circle, the final version smaller than the first. The cross is relatively elaborate, with arms terminating in ovals and similar ovals in the spaces between the arms.

Face C has suffered more wear than face A, but there appears to be an incised double linear cross, echoing that on face A in its small sunken armpits.

Date: eighth or ninth century.

References: Lowe 1998, 6-7; Scott & Ritchie 2014, no 21.

Compiled by A Ritchie 2017


St Boniface Church 3, Papa Westray, possible cross-slab fragment

Measurements: H 94mm, W 136mm

Stone type: sandstone

Place of discovery: HY c 4875 5271

Present location: The Orkney Museum, Kirkwall (OM 1993.48).

Evidence for discovery: found on the shore near St Boniface Church in 1992.

Present condition: very worn but retains a short length of intact edge.


This fragment has a roll moulding along its intact edge, and a double incised line which may be part of the side-arm of a cross. Above the double line (as drawn) is a small incised rectangle symbol, with a double median line and a central circle, from which two lines radiate at an angle. This fragment may be part of a symbol-bearing cross-slab.

Date: eighth or ninth century.

References: Lowe 1998, 6-7; Scott & Ritchie 2014, no 14 (where the given scale should read 1:5).

Compiled by A Ritchie 2017


St Boniface Church 4, Papa Westray, tegulated coped gravestone

Measurements: L 1.55m, W 0.41m tapering to 0.22m, H 0.22m

Stone type: sandstone

Place of discovery: HY 4882 5270

Present location: in re-use as a gravestone in the kirkyard at the north end of the church beside the Traill family burial enclosure.

Evidence for discovery: recognised as a coped monument in around 1920.

Present condition: very worn.


This recumbent monument has a flat ridge with a deep groove running along it and on either side there are three rows of rectangular tegulae with their corners trimmed.

Date: twelfth century.

References: Kirkness 1921, 132-3; Lang 1974, 218, 230.

Compiled by A Ritchie 2017

Archaeology Notes

HY45SE 1701 4882 5270

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 the Royal Museum of Scotland (RMS, 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.

W Kirkness 1921; A B Scott 1922; RCAHMS 1946; J T Lang 1974; RCAHMS 1983, visited June 1982.


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).


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