Papa Stour, Shetland

Papa Stour – 22 miles of indented coastline, rich in history, geology, archaeology and wildlife – is designated a Special Area of Conservation. Lying west of mainland Shetland and exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean, the west coast has been carved into an unrivalled spectacle of cliff scenery that overlooks a tremendously rich marine environment.

Photo: Connor Henry Zoom Photo: Connor Henry The subterranean caves and passages are some of the best examples in the UK; the 360-metre long Hole of Bordie is the fourth longest sea cave in the world.

The island, a kayaker’s heaven, is home to grey and common seals and otters, while harbour porpoise and killer whale sightings are fairly common in summer. Eighteen species of sea bird breed here, spring and autumn migrants pass through, and a wide variety of wildflowers and lichens make for a colourful landscape.

Papa Stour derives its name from (ON) Papey Stóra – big island of the priests. Missionary Celtic priests are thought to have settled here as early as the 6th century, although the island (made mainly from volcanic rocks) was first populated around 3000BC. In the 19th century around 360 folk stayed on Papa Stour, but today only a handful of people live here full time.

Shetland’s oldest surviving document, dated 1299, pertains to Papa Stour and mentioned a stofa – a Norse wooden house. Between 1977 and 1982 excavations at Da Biggins (ON bygð – a hamlet/village) revealed the remains of a wooden floor, believed to be that of the stofa, and this has been partially reconstructed. Interpretive panels explain the historical background and the process of reconstruction.

Norway ruled until the 17th century. A ring of 46 stones, said to be the Norse Law Ting, can still be seen at Housa Voe.

Photo: Peter Parker Zoom Photo: Peter Parker Neolithic archaeological sites were exposed when soil was scalped from the west of the island and carried to the east to improve the agricultural land. The remains of a ‘leper’ colony are on the Hill o’ Felie. Folk were banished here suffering not from leprosy but disease caused by malnutrition and vitamin deficiency. The last ‘leper’ died in the late 18th century.

The Papa Stour Sword Dance, depicting the seven saints of Christendom, culminates in a shield of interlocking swords. Sir Walter Scott describes the dance in his novel The Pirate, which resulted from his visit to Shetland in 1814.

The stained glass window at the kirk was designed by Victor Noble Rainbird in 1921 and is the only surviving example of the artist’s work. Behind the kirk is a small interpretive centre run by the Papa Stour History Group. Islanders are currently raising funds to renovate the kirk buildings for use as a history and community centre. 

In 1930, the Ben Doran was impaled on the Ve Skerries. Rescue attempts were unsuccessful and resulted in a lifeboat being stationed at Aith from 1933. The Elinor Viking hit the Ve Skerries in 1977. The crew was winched to safety and, as a consequence of the accident, the Northern Lighthouse Board provided a lighthouse on these treacherous rocks in 1979.

Coastal sights on this interesting and very peaceful island include Kirstan Hol and Maiden Stack, but the ‘Horn of Papa’, the famous stack mentioned in the well-known song Rowin Foula Doon, was swept away in a storm in 1953.

Photo: Austin Taylor Zoom Photo: Austin Taylor There’s a small camp space at the pier and the ferry waiting room has tea/coffee facilities and public toilets. There’s no shop so enough supplies for your stay should be brought with you.

The inter-island ferry sails from West Burrafirth. Advance booking is essential on 01595 745804; ferry information 01595 743977;

Inter-island flights leave from Tingwall Airport. Book with Airtask Group on 01595 840246;

Check with Visit Scotland for accommodation information.


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