The Church in Stronsay Part 1

From Ian Cooper’s series ‘Records of a Bygone Age’, and republished here with kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet.

For well over a thousand years the Church has played an important role in life in Orkney and, while there is no exact date for the coming of Christianity to the isles, there is some evidence to suggest that Irish monks had visited the islands, some possibly even settling here, by the early 700s.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, in 995 AD the Viking Olaf Tryggvason was returning to Norway after a long voyage plundering along the British coast. He called in along Orkney on his way north and there encountered Orkney’s Earl Sigurd at Osmundswall in South Walls. Earl Sigurd and his followers were trapped in the narrow bay and the Earl was ordered to come aboard Olaf Tryggvason’s ship, now anchored nearby. On his recent journey of plunder Olaf had been converted to Christianity and baptised and was keen to share his new found faith with as many others as possible. On Sigurd’s arrival aboard ship Olaf informed Sigurd that “I want you and all your subjects to become Christians and be baptised”. Not an unreasonable request you would think, given his new found faith and fervour, but the caveat that followed was a little less reasonable and certainly owed little to Christian principles! Olaf followed up this request by stating “If you refuse I’ll have you killed on the spot and I swear that I’ll ravage every island with fire and with steel.” This gentle persuasion seemed to have the desired effect and after that, the Saga tells us, “all Orkney embraced the Faith.”

Orkney was still under Norse ownership at this time, and Papa Stronsay still known by the Norse name of Papey Minni or Papey in Litla “the little island of the priests”. By 995 monks could well have been in residence on the fertile little island for nigh on 300 years and continued to live on the island until at least 1045. When this Priestly presence came to an end it was to be a long time – possibly more than 900 years – until Papa Stronsay was to turn full circle and be inhabited once again by monks. These monks were The Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer (Transalpine Redemptorists) who had been looking for a new base for their Monastery and the peace and solitude of Papa Stronsay, coupled with the strong links to the island’s Monastic past, led them to purchase the island in 1999 and set up their new Monastery there.

Papa Stronsay viewed from Stronsay (FG)

Papa Stronsay has a wealth of archaeological sites and one of those sites is Saint Nicholas’ Chapel on the south east corner of Papa Stronsay. This chapel was thought to date from the 11th century but, after the Chapel had been abandoned in the 16th century, it was used as a farm building for many years, Then, in the late 18th century or early 19th century the building was demolished and the stones used to erect farm buildings at the home farm.

In the late 1990s funding was received for an archaeological dig at the site where by now there was little to be seen but a few random stones sticking through the turf here and there. The dig proceeded over two or three summers and quickly (in ‘dig’ terms at least) revealed the form of the old Chapel. More excitingly, as the dig proceeded it was found that St Nicholas’ Chapel had been built on top of the remains of a previous Church, thought to date from the 8th century, and the remains of further stone buildings were excavated nearby. It was thought by the team of archaeologists that this could possibly be the remains of a Pictish monastery, with the cells of the Pictish monks nearby.

A short distance west of St Nicholas’ Chapel, located in what is now the farm house garden, was another chapel site, this time dedicated to St Bride. John Scott, a former tenant of Papa Stronsay told of how the shop and ice-cream parlour erected in Papa Stronsay during the herring fishing boom was built on top of the remains of St Bride’s Kirk and this site too was partially excavated in 2000.

Stronsay was divided into 3 parishes; St Peter’s, comprising of the north end of the island, including Papa Stronsay, the Huip Holm, Linga Holm and Little Linga Holm; Lady Parish, which embraced the centre of the island plus the whole of the Rothiesholm Peninsula, and St Nicholas, formed by the south end of the island, the district of Everbay and the island of Auskerry. Each of these parishes had their own Parish Church with a cemetery alongside, with St Nicholas’ Parish apparently being regarded as the most important and valuable of those. Indeed the post of Priest at St Nicholas’ appears to have been tied to the role of Treasurer for the Church in Orkney, a quite prestigious position.

The remains of St Peter’s Kirk is out along the shore to the north-west of Whitehall Village and is described in ‘The Archaeological Sites and Monuments of Scotland’ as:

The walled graveyard E of Whitehall village occupies a situation characteristic of the Orkney ‘Peterkirks’. The church foundation was said to be traceable in 1879, but the graveyard is now hopelessly confused and overgrown. The walled enclosure occupies the E Slope of an extensive settlement mound, which rises rather higher to the W of it. This mound fills the space between the shore and a shallow loch and extends 25m W of the graveyard wall, reaching a height of 2.5m above loch level. On the seaward side the mound shows a series of rectilinear wall-footings, while on the lower slope above the loch, a curved wall face and some erect slabs indicate prehistoric structures.

Moving on briefly to the 1980s, an OIC ‘special projects’ team was tasked with tidying up St Peter’s Kirkyard, which had been badly neglected since it was last used for burials in the 1930s. The team had been instructed to set any loose but still intact stones lying within the burial ground up against the boundary wall and to toss any broken ones over the dyke onto the shore. This they did to the letter, even though one of the broken stones disposed of in this way had a quite legible carving and inscription on it. Luckily both parts of the broken stone were spotted and rescued from the shore by Tom Shearer of Seafield, who carried them home with him for safekeeping.

Future research by Tom led him to believe this was an Armorial Stone that had originally been built in the gable wall of St Peter’s Church in that area. The Pottinger family, who rented the farm of Whitehall where the St Peter’s site lies, had taken the stone with them when they moved to the neighbouring farm of Huip and, when they later left the island, they returned it to the St Peter’s Kirkyard. It must have become broken at some point in these travels and so got thrown onto the shore where Tom found the bits and rescued them.

They lay at Seafield for a while and then Morris Pottinger, one of the Stronsay Pottinger family now living in Caithness, heard about it and asked if he could take the stone away and get it repaired, then return it to Stronsay. Tom believed that Mr Pottinger had indeed got the stone repaired but, as there seemed no suitable place in Stronsay to display it at the time, had then loaned it to the Orkney Museum at Tankerness House in Kirkwall.

Steve Weaver, who has a great interest in archaeology, heard the tale and decided to investigate! Next time he was in Kirkwall he enquired about the stone at the museum and the assistant could confirm they had indeed received it on loan many years previously but was having difficulty in locating its current whereabouts. She told Steve she would continue to search the records to see if she could track it down so Steve went for a wander through the museum while he was waiting. Imagine his surprise and delight when he spotted the missing stone on display among others of a similar ilk in a glass case in an upstairs room in the museum!

With plans for a new Heritage Centre in Stronsay now well under way, it would be great to see the stone back in Stronsay at some point and also to have the symbols on the stone interpreted.

Ian Cooper, February 202

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