Is Papa Stour at the end of its tether?

Forty years after the first ‘hippies’ came to the island, and with only eight full-time residents, Andy Holt asks  if there’s still hope for the future. He believes there is.

Papa Stour is in trouble. And of course, we’ve been here before. 

At the beginning of the 1970’s the island’s population had dropped to a seriously low level. With the school closed, an ageing population and no hope of local resettlement, morale on the island was at rock bottom. However, Billy Tulloch, an incomer to the isle from Gunnister who had married a wife from Papa, took the courageous step of advertising in the national press for young families to make their home here. 

This was courageous because many of the Papa Stour crofts were tenanted by absentees and in order to provide land for the incomers, it would be necessary to call in the Scottish Land Court to hold a hearing and transfer tenancies to people willing to live on the island. Despite these difficulties, as a result a number of young couples with their children came to live on Papa, and the island enjoyed a brief renaissance for a decade or so. 

For one reason or another most folk from this era eventually moved on and we entered what one might term a second wave of immigration. This cohort generally laboured under the misconception that the relatively cheap housing and land, sometimes purchased over the internet without benefit of personal inspection, could be made to defy the laws of economics and produce a living through agricultural production alone. In some of the more extreme cases this delusion was accompanied by a sense of economic and social entitlement and a disastrous unwillingness to accept advice, particularly on matters agricultural. Now this wave too has receded and Papa is left with the population at an all time low of eight full-time residents.

Once again the land is showing signs of neglect with two crofts under ‘management’ from the English home counties and a further two where good agricultural land is un- or under-used. A couple of years ago when the problems associated with depopulation first began to look chronic an appeal for help to the Crofter’s Commission resulted in a flying visit by the chairman who arrived with out-of-date and inaccurate maps, and a concerned look. He talked with a few folk, borrowed my digital camera to take some souvenir snaps and flew out again that same afternoon leaving only disappointment in his wake. I believe he’s since gone on to higher things!

Now, before folk rush to accuse me of exhibiting the same pessimistic tendency and social entitlement syndrome which I have accused others of displaying, let me say that I am convinced that Papa Stour has a bright future. The three and a half thousand year unbroken settlement history of the island is writ large in the landscape, a testament to the enduring legacy of human endeavour: from the lichen covered stones of the bronze-age farmsteads and burial mounds through the ruins and artefacts of the ‘dark’ ages and medieval period and beyond to the ruins of nineteenth and early twentieth century croft houses. 

The name of the island, Papa Stour (The Great Island of the Priests), is a living reminder of the important place which it occupies in the history of Christianity not only in our islands but also in our nation and Western Europe. Where the Celtic monks pioneered, the marauding Vikings eventually followed and settled and Papa played an important role in that period, as witnessed by Shetland’s oldest extant document of 1299 and the work of investigation carried out by Dr Barbara Crawford and others. Today, however, the march of ‘progress’ has left Papa far behind in the minds of the majority of people in Shetland. 

So, how can I be sure that the Isle, seemingly of so little significance, has a future and that it is bright?

Well, I can’t but I suspect that most of us are very much aware that we are living in tumultuous times. “Wars and rumours of wars” abound. Europe is in economic meltdown, the Middle East in crisis and at home confidence in our political system, the law,commerce and the media is at an all time low. The population of our planet is expanding rapidly and the agricultural and energy systems essential for our survival are in delicate balance. Where are we to turn in this age of uncertainty?

Our family have been here on Papa for forty years now, from the days of Billy Tulloch’s hippy pioneers right up until the present population crisis. From the time we put the first roof on the ruin which eventually became our home we have had guests to stay with us and spoken with numerous visitors to Papa and the one thing which the majority have commented on is the sense of peace which they have experienced here. Now, in an age of turmoil could anything be of greater value than a shelter from the storm, an oasis in the desert? 

 There are other perhaps more exotic places on the planet where the wilderness can still be experienced of course, but they are becoming rarer and as the remaining ones get to be increasingly well-known and visited the dividend of isolation must be devalued. Papa Stour is an unspoiled place of peace, with no background roar or even hum of traffic, only the haunting calls of wild birds and the soulful singing of seals in the geos. All this treasure lies waiting to be discovered anew in our own backyard. The Celtic communities of monks and lay people valued the isolated holms and stacks of Papa for the opportunity they offered to draw near to God in peaceful contemplation. The Vikings valued the island for the ease with which it could be defended, its sheltered voes and gently sloping beaches, the fertility of the land and the rich fishing grounds of St Magnus Bay. 

What value do we place on this beautiful island? For me the sadness would be immense if the isle were to finally succumb to our indifference to the priceless inheritance of our generation. The loss would not just be ours but that of the generations who will follow.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.