Papa Stour History & Community Group

The Medieval Church In Shetland

Ladykirk, Weisdale

In 1469 Shetland was pledged to Scotland as part of a marriage treaty between the royal houses of Denmark and Scotland.

King Christian I was 10,000 florins short of the money due to the King of Scotland as a dowry and Orkney and Shetland were used to plug the deficit. Although the Norwegians tried repeatedly to redeem the Northern Isles, Shetland was henceforth treated as part of the Kingdom of Scotland and in 1472 the administration of the Catholic Church in Shetland shifted from Nidaros (Trondheim) to the new archdiocese of St Andrews. 

Today the Shetland Islands form a single parish but in the Middle Ages there were about thirty major churches and another ninety or so chapels (not all necessarily functioning at the same time) divided into some fifteen priest's districts.

Only one medieval church remains in use,

Lunna Kirk in the north mainland, near the ferry port for Whalsay. This had survived as the burial chapel of the Hunter lairds and was made into a Presbyterian kirk in 1753. It is a simple rectangular church, probably constructed in the late middle ages and originally dedicated to St Margaret.

Shetland was never the seat of a bishop but the senior clergyman was the Archdeacon of Shetland who originally resided at St Magnus' Church, Tingwall.

Nothing survives now of the medieval church there but in 1985-87, during the excavation of a tithe barn at Kebister, an armorial stone bearing the arms of Henry Phankouth, Archdeacon of Shetland (1502-1529) was discovered and can now be seen in the Lerwick museum. 

Shetland reached its greatest population when the 1861 census showed a resident population of 31,579, nearly fifty percent more than at the present day. Prosperity had come with the fishing business, and with prosperity a cosmopolitan mix of nations and Christian denominations.  

Research by Shetland's archivist, Brian Smith,

has revealed something of the background of this stone – and with it a slightly unflattering picture of the late medieval church. Henry Phankouth was the illegitimate son of Andrew Pictoris, a German academic who in 1477, when Henry was seven years old, became Bishop of Orkney. The young Henry Phankouth was sent to study at Cologne University before he was legitimated by his father and ordained to the priesthood. He was only 32 years of age when appointed to this second most senior post in the diocese and remained resident in Orkney throughout the 27 years of his tenure. It was at least a sign of Shetland’s continuing ties with continental Europe. The Cistercian monk Robert Reid, who was one of the last Catholic bishops of Orkney (1541-1558), was a Renaissance patron of the arts and while Abbot of Kinloss Abbey in Moray had invited the Italian scholar Giovanni Ferreri to Scotland. Bishop Robert Reid extensively remodelled the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall, but it is impossible now to say what influence he had on the Catholic church in Shetland, the northern half of his diocese.

The early Vikings were pagan and most of the early Celtic sites were probably destroyed. It is likely that there had been many small monasteries of Irish or Celtic monks using Shetland as a staging point on missions even further north to the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

Archaeological research in the 1960s

identified likely sites for Celtic hermitages at Blue Mull, Unst on the Burrier of West Sandwick, Yell, and on the Kame of Isbister in Northmavine. The many place names including ‘Papa’ or ‘Papil’ also comemmorate Christian sites which pre-date the Scandinavian settlement. 

At Cullingsburgh you can still see the ruins of the medieval church of St Mary.

The graveyard runs over an earlier prehistoric broch which rises up on the east side. The Bressay stone was found near here. The medieval church may well sit on the earlier Celtic site. Was it a monastery? Who knows, the Bressay stone is carved from schist which is found on Burra Isle but not here. Whoever carved it probably had the Papil stone available before him as a model for the figures of the monks. 

It is certainly in a beautiful location beside the sea and is well worth the walk up from the Bressay Ferry.

A copy of the Bressay Stone can be seen in the Lerwick Museum. 

At this date Shetland was part of the Pictish kingdoms which covered large parts of North East Scotland. Much new information on the ‘Papa’ sites can now be found on the “Papar Project” website.