Ancient Monuments

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Kirkaby, chapel and enclosure, Westing, Unst

A Scheduled Monument in North Isles, Shetland Islands

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Latitude: 60.7367 / 60°44'12"N

Longitude: -0.9629 / 0°57'46"W

OS Eastings: 456656

OS Northings: 1206407

OS Grid: HP566064

Mapcode National: GBR R0ZC.7DY

Mapcode Global: XHF79.WDMD

Entry Name: Kirkaby, chapel and enclosure, Westing, Unst

Scheduled Date: 22 July 1998

Last Amended: 31 October 2012

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM2673

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Ecclesiastical: church; Prehistoric domestic and defensive: settlement; Prehistoric ritual and funer

Location: Unst

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: North Isles

Traditional County: Shetland


The monument comprises the remains of a chapel of possible 12th-century date and surrounding enclosure, overlying earlier prehistoric remains including a circular structure and a possible heel-shaped cairn. The site lies in pasture on a knoll on a small promontory at 10m above sea level. The monument was scheduled in 1968 and 1998, but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.

The chapel survives as turf-covered wall footings on the summit of a low sub-circular knoll. Internally, the church measures about 5m by 4m, but the E end has been obscured and no visible traces survive of a chancel evident in the 19th century. The chapel is enclosed by a low sub-circular earthwork, possibly representing a graveyard measuring about 35m by 30m. Immediately northeast of the chapel lie the footings of a circular stone-built structure about 4.5m across, which underlies the outer face of the enclosure and appears to pre-date the chapel. On the northern edge of the knoll, a possible heel-shaped cairn with a well-defined kerb has been integrated into the enclosure, although the cairn material is absent. Northwest of this feature is an area containing a number of small orthostats, possibly indicating an extension to the graveyard. A stone field wall encloses the southern part of the knoll, and a post-medieval stone sheepfold is located northwest of the chapel.

The area to be scheduled is irregular in shape, measuring 48m by 34m, to include the remains described above and an area around them in which evidence relating to the monument's construction and use may survive, as marked in red on the accompanying map.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

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

Intrinsic characteristics

The monument survives in reasonably good condition. This appears to be a multi-period site with the remains of a possible 12th-century chapel and enclosure overlying earlier prehistoric remains. It is likely that the knoll is at least partly the product of several millennia of human occupation and activity. As well as the upstanding remains of the chapel and enclosure, further prehistoric and early medieval archaeological structures and remains are likely to survive below ground.

The chapel and enclosure were surveyed by J. T. Irvine in 1863, who recorded a nave of about 4m by 3.6m, with a chancel of about 3m by 2m, and a north wall surviving to a height of 0.6m. The chancel is not visible on the ground today, but there is archaeological potential to examine the construction and form of the chapel, its development sequence and its chronological relationship with the enclosure. It is likely that early burials survive in and around the church, with the potential to enhance our understanding of burial practice and the status of this ecclesiastical site, while any skeletal remains could reveal evidence for health, diet, illness, cause of death and possibly occupational activities.

The possible heel-shaped cairn is of interest because of its relatively small size, unusual form and potentially good level of preservation. Part of the well-built fa├žade is visible, but has been integrated into the later ecclesiastical enclosure. Excavation elsewhere suggests that similar cairns were used to house human remains from multiple individuals and are Neolithic in origin, dating most commonly from the third and fourth millennia BC. Despite the removal of stone from this cairn, significant archaeological information is likely to survive beneath its surface.

The circular structure northeast of the chapel is too small to be a broch, but probably represents part of the remains of a prehistoric settlement of unknown date and character. Other prehistoric buried structures and deposits are likely to be contained within the mound, but the nature of earlier occupation of the site has been obscured by its later ecclesiastical use. However, the likely presence of remains from different periods adds to the importance of the site.

Contextual characteristics

Some small chapels in Shetland date back to the early historic period, as at St Ninian's Isle and Nesti Voe on the Isle of Noss, and it is possible that this chapel also has earlier antecedents. The place name, Kirkaby, implies that there may have been a Christian presence here when the Norse settlers named the site. There is potential to compare the buried remains of this chapel with those of other early historic and medieval chapels in the Northern Isles. The remains of this chapel and enclosure could enhance our understanding of the organisation and spread of Christianity in Shetland and northern Britain. Early Christian sites in the Northern Isles are often sited on and reuse earlier settlement mounds, as may be the case here.

Associative characteristics

The site is depicted on the 2nd edition of the OS map, which shows the modern stone enclosure and other early modern structures: the sheepfold, and a lambing shed that lies immediately west of (outside) the scheduled area.

The chapel was surveyed and drawn as early as 1863 by J. T. Irvine. His plan was reproduced in David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross's seminal work on The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, which was published in 1896.

The monument is of national importance as the remains of a small medieval chapel and associated enclosure which retains the potential to provide important information about medieval ecclesiastical architecture and parochial organisation at around the time that the parish system was becoming established in the Northern Isles. Its significance is enhanced by its capacity to be compared with other early church sites in the Northern Isles. The chapel and graveyard are likely also to conceal evidence for prehistoric and early Christian occupation and activities, which adds to the site's importance. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand medieval chapels, the part they played in the spread and organisation of Christianity in the Northern Isles, and their relationship to earlier sites.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland




MacGibbon, D and Ross, T 1896, The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland from the earliest Christian times to the seventeenth century, Vol. 1, 147. Edinburgh.

Mackie, E W 2002, The roundhouses, brochs and wheelhouses of Atlantic Scotland c. 700 BC ' AD 500: architecture and material culture, Part 1: The Orkney and Shetland Isles, 57. BAR British Series 342: Oxford.

See also unpublished GUARD Reports on the Unst Chapel Survey 1997, 1998 and 2000 (GUARD Project 515).

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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