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St. Olaf's Church, church, enclosure and tombstones, 500m north of Wick

A Scheduled Monument in North Isles, Shetland Islands

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Coordinates

Latitude: 60.716 / 60°42'57"N

Longitude: -0.9629 / 0°57'46"W

OS Eastings: 456693

OS Northings: 1204097

OS Grid: HP566040

Mapcode National: GBR R0ZF.1DB

Mapcode Global: XHF79.WXMB

Entry Name: St. Olaf's Church, church, enclosure and tombstones, 500m N of Wick

Scheduled Date: 10 April 1957

Last Amended: 20 December 2012

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM2097

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Crosses and carved stones: cross (free-standing); Ecclesiastical: burial ground, cemetery, graveyard

Location: Unst

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: North Isles

Traditional County: Shetland

Description

The monument comprises the remains of a small stone church dedicated to St Olaf, which sits within a rectilinear enclosure containing the remains of six upright cross-shaped stones and two 16th-century gravestones. The church dates probably from the 12th century and was abandoned by 1785. The site stands about 15m above sea level, 8m inland from the W side of Lunda Wick. The monument was first scheduled in 1957, but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.

The church is rectangular and measures 14.5m E-W by 6.75m. Its walls are 1.1m-1.4m thick and stand mostly to wallhead height. The W gable stands to its original height and is of 12th-century date, with a simple Romanesque doorway and a round-headed attic window over. Much of the E end of the church has been rebuilt and the walls now stand about 2m high, with a single window and a blocked doorway on the S wall. The S window lintel has an incised serpent motif on the soffit. The church sits within a rectilinear enclosure measuring 36m N-S by 34m E-W. This is cut into the slope on the W and is delineated by a low earthen bank on the S standing up to 1m high and 5m across. This burial enclosure is undated, but is probably later than the church as it is on a slightly different alignment. It was later extended to form a larger graveyard and its N and E sides coincide with the modern stone dyke that encloses the later cemetery. Five simple cross-shaped stones of medieval date lie immediately adjacent to the S wall of the church, and another lies just outwith the S boundary of the enclosure. A burial aisle for the Mowats of Garth lies at the E end of the church. One late 16th-century graveslab for a Bremen merchant survives within the church and another lies immediately outside the E wall of the church.

The area to be scheduled is sub-rectangular 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 scheduling excludes all active burial lairs and all memorial stones erected after 1850, as well as the above-ground elements of all modern fences and stone dykes to allow for their maintenance.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Intrinsic characteristics

The upstanding remains of this unicameral church are in reasonable condition but require consolidation. The remains of the chapel preserve features that can inform our understanding of early church architecture. The features of the W gable can be seen as part of a wider Norse ecclesiastical tradition, but the inclined jambs of the doorway are more typically encountered in Irish churches of earlier date. The round-headed window in this gable is unusual in that it has a square lintelled rear arch. The serpent carved into the lintel of the S window may be a Pictish carving and is partly obscured by the masonry of the E jamb, indicating that it has been reused in this position. This suggests that the 12th-century church and burial ground may represent Norse reuse of an early Christian site.

There is high potential for the survival of important buried archaeology. The church may conceal earlier remains, including possibly an earlier chapel. The simple cross-shaped stones may date to the pre-Norse or Norse periods. It is probable that a number of Norse burials remain in situ in the church and graveyard, with the potential to enhance our knowledge of status and burial practice, and to reveal evidence for health, diet, illness, cause of death, and perhaps family relationships and the types of activities people undertook during life. The church, graveyard and related archaeological deposits offer high potential to study the changes in belief and culture at this time, as the Norse abandoned their pagan religion and adopted Christianity. The lack of later gravestones in the vicinity of the church may indicate that the early medieval site is relatively undisturbed.

The two 16th-century grave slabs are a significant indicator of the importance of Hanseatic traders to Shetland and the Scottish economy in the later medieval period, as well as demonstrating the degree of regard in which these traders were held in Shetland society.

Contextual characteristics

Some small chapels in Shetland date back to the early historic period, as is possible in this case, and there is potential to compare the buried remains here with the known early historic chapels at St Ninian's Isle and at Nesti Voe, Noss. St Olaf's Church may also be compared with a number of other early medieval chapel sites in Yell and Unst, including the 12th-century chapel on Uyea Island, and elsewhere in Shetland. Architectural and archaeological comparisons can also be drawn with a number of contemporary Norse sites in Orkney, for example, St Mary's on Wyre, and further afield in other areas colonised by Norse settlers, such as St Mary's at Crosskirk, in Caithness. Early ecclesiastical sites such as this are important to our understanding of how Christianity was adopted by the Norse in Shetland, and add to our understanding of its organisation and spread across the Northern Isles and northern Scotland.

There is also high potential to examine the church in the context of Norse settlement in the vicinity. This includes a substantial Norse settlement at Lund, only 450m to the SE, and a further two Norse longhouses and a field system at Underhoull, some 700m to the WNW on the E side of Lunda Wick.

Associative characteristics

The site is marked on the Ordnance Survey 1st edition map and is labelled 'Church (In Ruins)'. The rectilinear enclosure around the church is marked on this map as the boundary of the burial ground.

Cultural Significance

The church's dedication to St Olaf, a Norwegian saint, clearly signifies its Norse origins.

The Hanseatic grave slab within the church is that of Segebad Detkin, merchant and burgher of Bremen, and dates to 1573. The other (outside the church) is to Henrik Segeleken The Elder, who died in 1585.

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 ecclesiastical sites in Shetland and further afield. There is high potential for well-preserved archaeology that can make a significant contribution to our knowledge of early medieval church architecture and burial. Its significance is enhanced by the presence of the enclosure containing cross-shaped stones, and by its location in a landscape rich in remains of the Norse period. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand early church sites, the role they played in the adoption and spread of Christianity in the Norse period, and the relationship between Norse settlements and ecclesiastical sites.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Sources

Bibliography

RCAHMS records the site as HP50SE 6. The Shetland Amenity Trust SMR reference is MSN127 (PrefRef 127).

References

Brady, K, Johnson, P G (Ed. Morris, C D) 1999, Unst Chapel Survey 1998, GUARD 515.3

Brady, K J & Johnson, P G 2000, Unst Chapel-Sites Survey 1999, Phase 1: Report 2, Volume 1: Analysis, GUARD 515.4.

Macdonald, G 1935 'More Shetland tombstones', Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 69, 27-48.

Morris, C & Brady, K 1998, Unst Chapel Survey 1997, GUARD 515.

Morris, C D & Brady, K J 1999, 'The Shetland Chapel-Sites Project 1997-98', Church Archaeology 3, 27 & 30.

RCAHMS 1946 Twelfth Report with an Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Orkney and Shetland, 3v, Edinburgh, 127-8.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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