Ancient Monuments

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Papil, church and burial ground 130m north west of

A Scheduled Monument in Shetland Central, Shetland Islands

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Latitude: 60.0665 / 60°3'59"N

Longitude: -1.3395 / 1°20'22"W

OS Eastings: 436868

OS Northings: 1131493

OS Grid: HU368314

Mapcode National: GBR R214.2YC

Mapcode Global: XHD3P.Y7TQ

Entry Name: Papil, church and burial ground 130m NW of

Scheduled Date: 9 August 1968

Last Amended: 17 August 2012

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM2672

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Ecclesiastical: church

Location: Lerwick

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: Shetland Central

Traditional County: Shetland


The monument comprises the remains of St Laurence's church, a medieval chapel and associated buildings, burials and earlier remains, all set within an enclosure. It survives as buried deposits, low earthworks and partially visible grave markers, representing various periods of occupation, but thought to have originated in the 8th century AD. The remains survive below and alongside a 19th-century ruined church and a burial ground, still in use. Early cross-slabs and a fragment of a shrine post were found at the site, but removed to a secure environment. The church and its graveyard are located on West Burra on land overlooking South and West Voe at approximately 10m above sea level.

The precise form of St Laurence's church has yet to be established, but researchers believe it stood on the low mound slightly to the north and west of the later ruined church, possibly with a round tower attached, and that there was an associated building (possibly another chapel) located north of the current ruined church. Some foundations recorded below the current ruin may indicate part of the extent of the early church. The graveyard has yielded some highly significant finds during grave-digging operations. An 8th-century cross-slab known as the Papil stone, which bears finely-carved Celtic artwork depicting a procession of monks or priests, was found in this area in 1943. Another cross-slab also bears clear early Christian iconography, and several further carved stones, including two ornate shrine-panels (now also removed from the site), have also been unearthed at Papil. A variety of platforms and buried features have been recorded previously. All of them appear to be contained by a wider enclosure, the approximate position of which can be partly traced in the line of the current graveyard wall (at the south and east sides of the scheduling). The monument was first scheduled in 1968, but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan, to include the remains described above and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduled area measures 65m NW to SE by 71m NE to SW (maximum extent). The scheduling specifically excludes all burial lairs still in use and the above-ground remains of the standing, ruined church, as well as the current boundary walls at the southern and eastern sides of the scheduling, to allow for their maintenance.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

There are several indications of a major, early Christian religious site here, which include the buried remains of a church, its associated burials and an enclosure.

The carved stones recovered from the graveyard confirm that this was an important religious site; some researchers think it was a monastic site. An 8th-century cross-slab known as the Papil stone, which bears finely-carved Celtic artwork depicting a procession of travelling clergymen and a religious figurehead on horseback, was found here in 1943. Another highly accomplished cross-slab also bears clear early Christian iconography, and several further carved stones, including two, ornate shrine-panels (now also removed from the site), have also been unearthed.

The remains at Papil can help us understand the origins, construction and form of the early church or chapel, its dating, function and development sequence, and its chronological relationship with the adjacent burials. Where early burials survive in situ, these can help us to understand more about the health, diet, illness, causes of death, and perhaps the types of activities people undertook during their lives. It is also quite possible that further decorated grave markers may survive on the site. These would not only be of intrinsic importance, but could also help further the study of the fine tooling and craftsmanship, design influences and artistic significance of early Christian stone carving.

Contextual characteristics

Small churches of proven early historic date are rare in Scotland and few examples have been excavated to modern standards. Studies of other monastic sites elsewhere in Scotland (such as Portmahomack, Whithorn and Iona) can, however, help us understand the wider context of the situation at Papil. Locally, there are comparisons to be made with the early churches at Tingwall and St Ninian's Isle. Taken together, these sites add to our understanding of the origins and early development of Christian communities in Shetland and Scotland. The site at Papil can help us to understand more about the connections between ecclesiastical sites in the British Isles and the ways that Christian culture was dispersed.

Associative characteristics

The significance of this site is also revealed in its place name. The very name, 'Papil', which may be translated as 'the settlement of the priests', refers to the likely significant religious origin of the immediate area. The word is associated with the 'papar', referred to in Old Norse sources from the 12th century, meaning early Christian (Celtic) monks, priests or eremitical groups. There are other Papil names in Yell, Unst, Burra and Fetlar, all close to church ruins or sites; the name also occurs in Orkney and the Western Isles. Some scholars believe that the original 'papar' included Irish as well as Pictish anchorites.

The Papil stone, now on display in the National Museum, has become a famous icon of the early Christian period in northern Scotland.

The present church dates from around 1815 and has been abandoned since 1920, but the graveyard continues in use and has important local associations.

National Importance

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of the past, in particular of early Christian sites in the British Isles. There is potential for the survival of well-preserved archaeology that can make a significant contribution to our knowledge of early Christian and medieval church architecture, burials, the spread of Christianity in the Northern Isles, and possibly the nature of early monastic sites. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand early churches and the role they played in the development and organisation of Christianity.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland




Angus-Butterworth, L. M., 1971. 'Norse sculptured stones from Papil, West Burra Isle, Shetland'. Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society 18, 37-47.

Cant, R. G., 1976. The Medieval Churches and Chapels of Shetland. Lerwick: Shetland Archaeological and Historical Society.

Fisher, I., 2002. 'Crosses in the Ocean: some papar sites and their sculpture', in B. E. Crawford, ed., The Papar in the North Atlantic: Environment and History, St. Andrews, 52-54.

Goudie, G., 1881. 'Notice of a sculptured slab from the island of Burra, Shetland'. PSAS XV, 199-209.

Lamb, R. G., 1995. 'Papil, Picts and Papar'. in B. E. Crawford, ed. Northern Isles Connections. Essays from Orkney and Shetland presented to Per Sveaas Andersen. Kirkwall: The Orkney Press Ltd, 9-27.

Moar, P., and Stewart, J., 1944. 'Newly discovered sculptured stones from Papil, Shetland'. PSAS LXXVIII (1943-4), 91-9.

Owen, O., and Lowe, C., 1999. Kebister: the four-thousand-year-old story of one Shetland township, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland monograph series No 14, Edinburgh, 10.

RCAHMS, 1946. Twelfth Report with An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Orkney and Shetland. Vol. III. Shetland. Edinburgh: HMSO.

Turner, V., 1998. Ancient Shetland. Edinburgh: B. T. Batsford Ltd./Historic Scotland. The Papar Project

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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