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  • Archaeology Shetland

In Depth - The Papar Origin

Shetland has nine principal locations derived from Papa or Papar, a root pertaining to monks or priests of Celtic origin; think Papa Stour, the big island of the priests, or Papil in Burra. Over the last fifteen years much more time has been devoted to studying the origin of the word as its use extends to Orkney, the Western Isles and as far as Iceland. Concerning ourselves simply with Shetland, we'd like to explore some of this work not just for etymology's sake but for the wider implications contained in the place names.

The linguistic origin of the term and its variations has been an important aspect of this for quite some time with an Old Norse, Old Irish/Gaelic and Teutonic root continually debated though an original Latin source of pāpa, meaning Pope, being widely accepted. The first of these, the Old Norse, has traditionally been viewed as the best starting point on the surface as it relates directly to Old Norse or Norn place names as found on the landscape itself and comes from the Old Norse Papi referring to an Irish Christian priest. Yet as Gammeltoft points out, this term appears to source as a borrowed word in Old Norse with likely roots in the Viking Age which, as a consequence, also rules out a Teutonic origin because the root, the terms pabes or pape, do not come into use until much later and perhaps no earlier than the 12th century. This leaves us with an Old Irish/Gaelic origin where the root becomes an informal term over time, papa referring directly to people involved in monastic activities in the Scottish Isles rather than to the Pope. Thus it is directly related to the North Atlantic zone and is, most importantly, a term found in written form in the early 9th century at least concurrent with Viking raids but before the Viking invasions (Gammeltoft 2004, 39-41).

This root origin is an essential point because it may go a long way in explaining the level of interaction beforehand or during the Viking invasions. At one end are those such as MacDonald who question whether these terms were in use at the time of the invasions and therefore whether there was anyone there to meet the invaders (i.e. temporary abandonment of sites during raids) or if they were applied later through 12th century chronicles (Gammeltoft 2004, 39, MacDonald 1977, 30). On the other is Gammeltoft himself who uses the origin and the lack of surviving place names with a root of Pett or Pettar, Old Norse for Picts, as a starting point to posit the original invaders may have had a level of tolerance for the monks more so than secular members of Pict society found on Shetland. In Gammeltoft's former case the tolerance and interaction was at least long enough for the Papa and Papil references to take hold (2004, 44). However, in the latter case, that a lack of Pettar place names (of which he counts five in Shetland) is an indication of less tolerance may be problematic not because the archaeological evidence doesn't support such an idea but because place names change and many local place names are unknown outside of their locality.

We see this in Jakobsen (1897, 65-71) where he traces several place names that derive from the Pett root and many of these are intertwined with dark legends such as trolls and mask a fear the original inhabitants have either not left entirely or will return. As a cautionary note it is very difficult at this stage to know whether or not all or even any of these place names are contemporary with the Papa names or were themselves applied subsequently especially during the more settled Norse period or later where perhaps an insecurity on the land was a little more pervasive. This is also picked up by Gammeltoft, yet the case may not be adequately made that the lack of Pett-based names and the abundance of Papa-based names is necessarily an indication of tolerance as he puts forth by (Gammeltoft 2004, 43-45). It could as easily flow logically that the Papa place names stuck and/or the term borrowed into Old Norse because they were identified as poorly defended yet rich sources for real and potential raids. It could be a term specifically applied during the period of Viking raids prior to the Viking invasions. For that matter, the extended Scandinavian trade network prior to the large scale Viking invasions may have had an element of early espionage, intentional or not, where Papil and Papa names identified the most vulnerable targets with the greatest gain for least effort.

As to the Papa/Papar names there are further and meaningful distinctions. Generally speaking, Papa, a linguistic corruption of Papey, refers to an island such as we see with Papa Stour or Papa Isle near Scalloway. Papil, from the term Papbýli, is found in reference to a settlement. Perhaps the simplest way to explain would be that Papa is broadly used as land ownership where Papil is the settlement itself. For example, Papa Isle was likely used for grazing as this was the best use of the land and was a part of the parish administered in a formal or informal way from Papil Burra where the main ecclesiastical settlement could be found. Some might note that in Norn -býli refers to animals in an agricultural setting such as a sheep-fold or enclosure but if the argument holds – that the word origin derives from the Old Irish/Gaelic during the Viking Age – then it pre-dates the use of the term in Norn.

On the archaeology of the various sites we have much evidence supporting the veracity of the distinctions themselves. Essential to this, and looking back at Papil Burra, we have the Papil Stone found in 1887 by Gilbert Goudie on the grounds of St Laurence's Church. This iconographic Pictish cross-slab along with many other finds have shown the site was in occupation prior to, during and long after the Viking Age. Circumstantial evidence is also available for Papil Geo on the Isle of Noss, not terribly far from where the Bressay Stone was recovered which has recently shown to be of Pictish origin rather than straddling some odd Pictish/Viking Age period as observed earlier due to an erroneous translation, but models suggest any chapel associated with the site have since been lost to coastal erosion. By contrast, within the same parish as Papil Burra we have Papa Isle where no evidence of permanent ecclesiastical dwellings from this time period have been found which furthers the notion it was likely used by the settlement for little more than grazing during this period. The same is true of Papa Stour where nothing of a compelling nature has been unearthed to indicate with any certainty that a pre-Viking Age ecclesiastical community was ever in residence.

Recently Simpson, Crawford and Ballin-Smith from The Papar Project have set out to determine the quality of the land associated with Papar place names as it was previously noted many of these sites were of high quality agricultural land and it may be the case an early evangelical body of missionaries sought to live and work alongside the local community conceivably introducing new and better agricultural techniques as well. Although still at its inception the results of this desk-based survey have thus far indicated that in many locales the Vikings would have happened upon two distinct, though not necessarily isolated, types of monastic or ecclesiastical communities – a more agriculturally intensive group on higher quality land and a more reclusive group occupying detached locations and poorer land such as stacks. For Shetland the results have been slightly different where the landscape was more densely populated and communities more settled whilst other lands were given over to livestock activity; the Papil/Papa distinction (Simpson 2014, 1-13).

The term Papar has shown strong indications it is of Old Irish/Gaelic origin and was adopted into Old Norse based on what the invaders found of a local population during the Viking Age rather than a retrospectively applied moniker. Although circumstantially we can perhaps conclude they were more tolerant of a monastic community as opposed to a secular there still isn't enough evidence here to say for sure and a competing idea, a sort of targeting term, may also be a valid conclusion. Though we do have a continuity of ecclesiastical activity as evidenced by Papil Burra and the fact the Papar made enough impression to have the names stick a lack of place names with a Pett- base surviving into the modern period may simply be an absence of proof rather than proof of absence. Either way, a Viking arrival in Shetland would have found well-established and populated ecclesiastical communities with advanced agricultural practises and modest land holdings which in itself is compelling enough reason for the Papar terms to last into the modern period.


Gammeltoft, P (2004). "Among Dímons and Papaaeys: What kind of contact do the names really point to?" in Northern Studies 38, 31-50.

Jakobsen, J (1897). "The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland: Two Popular Lectures". Lerwick: T & J Manson.

MacDonald, A (1977). "On Papar Names in N. and W. Scotland" in Northern Studies 9, 25-30

Simpson, I, Crawford, B and Ballin-Smith, B (2014). "Papar place-names in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland: a preliminary assessment of their association with agricultural land potential". Available online.

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