Papa, the Island of the Priest

When I was very young, and before the bridge to my home island of Burra was built, we would travel close by Papa in order to get to the village of Scalloway and the bus on to the town of Lerwick. A day out with our family in the summer months, in the absence of cars, was usually a trip to the smaller isles in my grandfather’s boat the Betsie. Occasionally, we would observe people gathering sheep on Papa; usually in the summer months, Grandad would say that’s ”Sheepie” from Berry Farm. Strange to think that in the future I would be chasing around the isle after those wild sheep!

Papa Sheep Pens with the Mainland in the Background

Papa is a small island of 148 acres situated in a group of Islands of the west coast of Shetland approximately a mile from Scalloway, the ancient capital of Shetland. Papa is typical of the smaller islands which total around one hundred and help make up the Shetland Islands. The name Papa means “island of the priest” and could have been name after an Irish priest resident on the island centuries ago.

Papa is now uninhabited, although it is recorded that in 1891 the population was 23 and the last residents left before 1931. In the 1800s to early 1900s crofters and fishermen stayed in the islands and in the fishing season extra men would stay over going to the fishing with the isles men and helping dry the fish on the beaches.

Papa Croft House Ruins
Slater Plaque in Memory of Past Family residents

On the west coast of Papa is a small inlet called Tangy Voe, situated on its shore is a ruined church called the “peerie kirk” (small church). It was here that people came by boat from the neighbouring islands of Hildasay, Oxna, Havra, Linga and Langa to join the Sunday worship. An elderly neighbour of ours  told me he rowed from Hamnavoe to Papa one Sunday morning to attend the service, he said the lady playing the organ was called Mary O Papa, her surname could have been Goodlad. My great granny was born on the neighbouring Island of Hildasay then moved to the smaller island of Linga. No doubt, she too would journey by boat to the Peerie Kirk.

It is said the residents of Papa would place a bible on a sloping rock, visible by spyglass from nearby Oxna. This would signify the arrival of the minister from mainland Scalloway. The residents of Oxna would then notify the neighbouring islands perhaps by waving a bed sheet from a hilltop close by.

The closest island to Papa is Oxna just across the water as seen in my image; there was a small hillock on Papa overlooking their neighbours called “The Crying Knowe” it was here that the residents would shout across the water to one another in the absence of such things as a mobile phone!

Peerie Kirk with Bible Rock
Peerie Kirk with Oxna and House in Background

There were few families in Oxna.  According to my great grandfather, Oliver Goodlad skipper, of the Emulator in the 1930’s (his notes on boats dated 1906), there was a vessel called the Leaping Water recorded in Oxna, a sail vessel of perhaps 40 feet, the owners L.F.N.Garriock skipper J.Fullerton. No doubt crewed by men from the surrounding isles.

I will deal with the sheep and their husbandry in a very interesting blog a bit later on which shows the importance of Papa to the Smith family of Berry Farm.

7 thoughts on “Papa, the Island of the Priest

  1. This is such interesting history. I we have been associated with the San Juan Islands in Washington state USA. These were more accessible, and were rapidly over run with Caucasian invaders/settlers , and the Native population was forced off.
    It is interesting that there are now quite a few small farmers growing sheep for their wool now.
    You were/are the indigenous population of the Shetland islands. We are beginning to appreciate the history of our islands prior to our knowledge of them.


  2. Thank you for your vivid recall and information on these islands !! I’m a new subscriber who has visiting the Shetlands at the TOP of my bucket list- along with the wool week!
    Thank you!!


  3. Hmm, I missed this one! Hope I don’t miss any more as these are important pieces for me and others. Thank you.


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