The Norse name ‘Papay’ means the ‘island of the Priests’ and was given by the Vikings suggesting that missionary priests of Celtic origin may have formed a community here, perhaps as early as the 6th or 7th century. Papay ‘Stjora’ means the ‘big island of the priests’ to distinguish it from another priests’ island called Papay Little.
After the earls of Orkney lost Shetland in 1195 Papa Stour became the personal property of the kings of Norway, and was held by Duke Hakon of Norway, later King Hakon V. It was during this time, at Easter 1299, that a dispute arose between the Duke’s bailiff and a local woman called Ragnhild Simunsdatter (‘ daughter of Simon’) over taxation and rents on the island. These events were recorded in what is now known as the ’1299 Document’, which is Shetland’s oldest surviving document. This dispute took place at the Biggins farm and, following excavations by Dr Barbara Crawford of St Andrew’s University, the remains of a mediaeval Norse wooden house called a ‘stofa’ was uncovered. In 2007 /8 the Papa Stour History Group togther with craftsmen and students from Norway undertook a partial re construction of the stofa which can be visited at the Biggins.
Although Shetland was pledged to Scotland in 1469 the Lairds of Norway kept their estates in Papa Stour until well into the 17th century.
By the 18th century two Shetland lairds owned Papa Stour, Thomas Gifford of Busta and Arthur Nicolson of Lerwick. They maintained a prosperous fishing industry known as the Haaf, carried out in the summer season using six man boats known as sixareens.
In the 19th century the population of 360 inhabitants was stabilized by the opening of the Crabbaberry fishing station. Unfortunately the advent of the steam drifter which centralised the fish curing industry in the Lerwick, and the lack of peat for household fuel, reduced the population dramatically.
By 1940 only 100 remained in the isle and these only through help supplied by Government war grants. After the war, with the men away at the whaleing and the children having to go to the mainland for secondary education, the population continued to fall and by 1970 it had reached a critical stage. Only sixteen people still remianed, when through an advertisement in the national press a number of young couples came and settled. The school was re opened and for the next twenty years the population remained stable. But since 2000 numbers have dropped to less than 20 and the isle is in need of re population.