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The Northern and Western Isles are dotted with islands called ‘Papay’ or ‘Pabbay’. What do these strange names mean? This report is the first stage of an attempt to find an answer.
It focusses on all the places in the Northern Isles of Scotland (Orkney and Shetland) and Caithness which have the name Papay, meaning ‘the island of the priests’ and Papil meaning ‘the settlement of the priests’. By gathering together all the evidence for the history of these places, and of the archaeology round about, especially surviving ecclesiastical sculpture, it is hoped that we will be better able to make some assessment of the association with Celtic priests which the name suggests.
What sort of priestly establishment was it from which these places got their name? Were they monastic communities in solitary retreats who were seeking to live their lives dedicated to the service of God in outlying places in the northern seas? Or were they groups of priests who lived more social lives and who were devoted to missionising among the newly-Christian Picts in neighbouring communities? A programme of soil studies which is integral to this project may help to give us clues as to the agriculture of the Iron Age societies who farmed the often fertile Papay islands and Papil places. Then we also have to consider the fact that these place-names were given by the incoming Vikings, and it is their comment on the communities which they found in these islands, and whose existence they probably threatened. This raises another significant question for our understanding of the fate of Christianity in the locality; why did the Vikings give the ‘papar’ name to these places if the priestly communities were immediately dispersed?
These are some of the questions raised by these enigmatic ‘papar’ names, and this is the first attempt to consider the reality of the topographical location behind the name. The second phase will look at the Hebridean examples and attempt to draw together the evidence from the Northern and Western Isles in a wide-ranging attempt to compare the situation behind the name in both parts of the insular Celtic and Viking world.
Read The Papar Project - Inception, Parameters and Purpose for the complete background to the project.