The night before getting the ferry to Papa Stour I drove down to the small harbour intending to camp there. I didn't want to be too far away as there's just one narrow, winding road to get to the harbour and if I got stuck behind a tractor or something I could easily miss the ferry. For the first time I struggled to find somewhere to pitch my tent. There was virtually no flat ground apart from a tiny patch near the toilet block which was so hard I'd never have got my tent pegs in. I thought about sleeping in the little waiting room, but it had a light on a timer or sensor that seemed as though it would be on all night, and there were fishermen coming and going all night. So I ended up piling everything from the back of my car on to the front seats and sleeping on the back seat. It wasn't as uncomfortable as I'd imagined it to be and I did get quite a bit of sleep. But it's reinforced my idea of buying some kind of van that I can easily sleep in the back of when the need arises. I can't afford a proper campervan, but I'm sure I can find something that I can adapt.
Below is the extract from my diary of arrival and first day on Papa Stour.
I woke up and had time for a shower (£1) before getting the ferry over to Papa Stour. There is a shower in with the disabled toilet. It got very hot and I had to keep adjusting it, but it lasted ages. It was drizzling a bit as I waited for the ferry. I spoke to an older woman who was also waiting with her car. Her name was Jane and she was going over for the day as she has land on the island. She told me about camping by the waiting room near the pier. It has a heater which she said I was free to use, just remember to turn it off afterwards. She also asked me not to have a campfire. She said that a few weeks ago a group of people had dug up a patch of grass by the waiting room so they could have a fire. They hadn’t replaced it. The islanders have since replaced it, but it’s quite obvious where it was. As this area of grass is more like a lawn and is well maintained this didn’t go down well. She said another group had removed stones from an old wall to put round their fire. The wall was broken anyway, but is still part of the ‘look’ of the island. I assured her that I’d only be using my camp stove and wouldn’t light any fires.
The ferry journey took about forty minutes and it was raining more heavily when we arrived. Jane pointed out the waiting room to me which is slightly up the road from the pier. It has a great view of the bay and some sea stacks. There was a lot of information on the walls – both community and tourist information. Lots about the history and nature of the island. There were plenty of chairs and a proper kitchen sink. Also a table with a kettle, proper cups and takeaway ones, teabags, coffee, coffee creamer powder, sugar, hot chocolate sachets and little individual cartons of milk for the tea. This was free with a sign saying to help yourself, but donations to the local history society would be appreciated. Jane came in to top up the supplies. The following morning a couple came in to do the same and said that someone always comes down when the ferry comes in to make sure everything is topped up.
Next to the waiting room was a toilet block, but no shower. The only thing it was lacking. There was enough room for a shower though so who knows in the future. Outside there was the nice lawn perfect for pitching a tent on and a picnic bench.
As it was raining quite heavily by this time I sat in the waiting room and had a coffee. I used my own supplies as I thought I wouldn’t deplete theirs. I did leave a donation though before I left for the use of the facilities. I finished reading ‘Shetland Black’, a slim novel I’d started the night before. The speech parts are written in dialect but it was understandable if read it ‘out loud’ in my mind. It was quite a dark novel about a small community in the north of mainland imploding. But did cheer up a bit at the end.
As it was still raining I had a second cup of coffee and read through some of the National Geographic magazines that were in the waiting room along with the island’s library book box. After that I decided I had to brave it and put my tent up. Then I had lunch. By this time it was about 2pm and the rain had eased off a lot. I walked up the road to the church, past a few houses, one of which had a beautifully laid out garden. I stopped at the Stofa. Jane had mentioned this and told me that I could find out what it was when I got there. It turned out to be a rebuilding of a traditional Norwegian house. The community had got together with a group from Norway to rebuild it. There had been three houses on the site and two are marked out on the ground. The main house, the Stofa, is the one they’ve partially rebuilt. Dry stone walls surround two sides of it to protect it from the harshest Atlantic weather. The building itself is made from logs; huge logs that have been planed and carved in Norway using traditional techniques. Norway funded part of the project and the Papa Stour community raised the funding for the rest. Part of the agreement was that some young Shetlanders would go to Norway to work with the Norwegians and learn the techniques. Three young men were chosen. One was unable to take up the opportunity as it clashed with his exams. One was a local boy (I think he was from Papa Stour) of sixteen who got permission to take a few weeks out of school to go. The third was from Mainland, in his early 20s and already working as a cabinet maker (or carpenter?). The project was a success and on the information boards are photographs of the logs being worked on out in the open in a town square in Norway and then the challenge of getting them loaded on to ferries and delivered to Papa Stour. Once on the island the house was reconstructed. There’s no roof and the whole thing is not a finished house, but this is intentional and shows the technique quite clearly.
Stofa Reconstruction (from the information boards)
This partial reconstruction was a partnership project between Papa Stour History Group, Norwegian Crafts Development and other Norwegian groups. Craftsmen and students took part in an exchange, passing on traditional skills.
The large logs were worked in Borgen, Norway, using tools and methods typical of the medieval period. They were then shipped to Shetland, before being reconstructed on site.
The original drystone walls were designed to protect the Stofa’s timbers from the prevailing winds and weather. These have been rebuilt on the original foundations with stones from the site.
Drystone dykers from Shetland and Norway rebuilt the walls (‘vernemurer’) during the summer of 2007. A protective membrane was used to separate the old masonry from the new.
The long wall is thicker than the gable, to enable it to withstand Atlantic winds. Both walls are wider at the base, and taper slightly towards the top.
The gable is slightly stepped due to the uneven ground surface.
The lowest logs (‘sills’ or ‘svill’) were cut from pine trees growing in Romsdal, and the remaining logs from trees in Granvin.
Trees more than 150 years old were felled from Norwegian forests for the rebuilding of the stofa.
The logs were worked on in Norway, then transported to Shetland by the sailing ship, STATSRAAD LEHMKUHL. The joints for each log were carefully protected for the journey.
The construction was assembled on site in June 2008 by carpenters from Norway and Shetland students. The building measure 7.75 metres by 5.75 metres, with some of the sills (lowest logs) weighing over 500kg.
Excavations at Da Biggins revealed the remains of a 13th century house. The building found is a stofa (a timber building made from notched logs), and dates to the time when Shetland was part of Norway.
The stofa belonged to Duke Hakon Hakonsson of Norway, and was part of his farm at Da Biggins.
Stofas were smaller, more comfortable buildings than the older Viking longhouses, but bigger than the homes of most Shetlanders.
Dispute at Da Biggins
Some dramatic events took place here at Da Biggins in 1299, when Shetland was part of Norway. At Easter that year a woman called Ragnhild Simunsdatter confronted Thorvald Thoresson, Duke Hakon Hakonsson’s representative in Shetland, the lord of Papa Stour.
She accused him of betraying Duke Hakon by taking higher rents from the farm of Brekasaetr (Bragaster) than was due. Ragnhild accused Thorvald of cheating Hakon. The case came to the Lawthing, Shetland’s parliament, at Tingwall. The lawmen rejected Ragnhild’s allegations, and the court drew up a document giving details of the quarrel. It is Shetland’s earliest surviving written record.
The document tells us that one of the incidents took place in the stofa, which you now see partially reconstructed today.
The building had just one room, with a hearth in the centre, and a door in the middle of the west gable. To the right of it a small extension was built, which archaeologists think may have been an outside toilet. The roof may have come down over the top of the wall, as shown in the reconstruction drawing above.
The wooden floor of the stofa was discovered by a team of archaeologists, led by Dr Barbara Crawford of St Andrew’s University, during excavations from 1977 to 1990.
The log timbers of the stofa must have rotted away and had been removed, but the wooden floor was left in situ and partially survived. It was carbon-dated to between 1200 and 1400.
The team also found the foundations of outer protective walls. Their purpose was to protect the wooden timbers from bad weather.
I then walked up to the church and saw Jane outside tending her sheep so I chatted to her for a while. She’d been the primary school teacher on the island before she retired and had also spent two winters working at the school in Foula. She had handed over five years ago to the teacher who has just left. She had sheep when she was teaching and this got me thinking that I could also have sheep if I was a teacher in Skerries (there is a job going there which I'm seriously tempted by). I could add ‘shepherdess’ to my list of the many jobs I’ve done!
She has about seventy sheep including lambs and has names for at least some of them. I might want to give mine names too, but that might make them seem like pets and be difficult when it comes time to send them to slaughter. Jane has one small, mostly dark brown lamb called Jacobina – she was the runt of a litter of three and was born late, hence the name. She seemed more like a pet and was fussing around Jane and me wanting her head stroked and presumably after food as well.
Jane seemed a really involved member of the community – important in an island of only twenty. Not only did she have her croft and had been the teacher, but she was involved in the local history group and had done most of the fundraising and liaising for the Stofa project.
The island community apparently was in crisis a few years ago when there was a lot of infighting. At the time Ron McMillan wrote ‘Between Weathers’ it almost seemed as if the community wouldn’t survive. But a few families have left (have others moved in?) and things presumably have settled down. I didn’t bring up the topic as I think in the past it had been a sore point and got bad press in the national papers. From the efforts the islanders are going to, to show they are a community and to make visitors feel welcome, I wondered if this was a deliberate thing to move them away from the fragmented recent past and show the outside world that their reputation doesn’t deserve the tarnish.
The church is a small, calm building surrounded by its graveyard. There is more information on the community and for visitors in a small room to the right of the entrance. There were slim books on sale for £5 each by a local author, George P. S. Peterson. They had some history and a lot of poems in dialect in them. I would have bought one as a souvenir and as a contribution (profits go to the history group) but only had a £20 note.
As it was starting to rain again I walked back to the waiting room. I spent the rest of the evening in there reading. Jane popped in on her way back to the last ferry and changed my £20 note so I could buy one of the books tomorrow. The evening cleared and as it got dark I sat in the waiting room until late with the lights off, just gazing at the wonderful view. The stacks (geological features - big stacks of rock standing just off the coast) look stunning in the diminishing light.