Papa Stour has a piece of Shetland’s Norse heritage which does not exist anywhere else in the UK; the recreation of a historically-recorded, log-timbered building. This is a replica of the wooden building known as a ‘stofa’ in Norway and which is referred to in Shetland’s famous 1299 document (a copy of which can be seen in the Shetland Museum). A stofa was a wooden building built of log timbers (with notched corners), and which became a feature of the wealthier farms in the middle ages (from the eleventh century), additional to the Viking longhouse or ‘skali’. We know that one existed on Papa Stour in 1299 because the document recorded that a meeting had been held in a ‘stofa’ when Thorvald Thoreson, the royal bailiff, was accused by a local woman called Ragnhild Simunsdatter of having cheated his royal master of some taxes and rents. This is a very early record of such a building and shows that Papa Stour was a centre of royal administration and officials felt they needed such a high status building for their meetings.
Remarkably, a series of excavations at the Biggins (which was the main farm on the island) from 1977-2003 uncovered the remains of a wooden building, with parts of a planked floor intact, dating back to the period of the 1299 document. It was of just the right size and with the right internal features as the standard Norwegian stofa, so we believe that this may have been the site of the stofa recorded in the 1299 document. This is such an unusual building in Shetland’s history that it was important to try and recreate it for locals and visitors to understand what a ‘stofa’ was. In 2007-8 the Norwegian Craft Union and the Papa Stour History Group together undertook the partial re construction of a log-timbered ‘stofa’. This project involved an exchange craftsmen between Shetland and Norway and received funding from Norway, Shetland and Scotland.
As it is constructed on the actual footprints of the excavated building the stofa has been left unroofed, but the expert craftsmanship gives a wonderful impression of what such a building would have looked like in 1299 (a miniature model of a roofed stofa can be seen in the Shetland Museum).
The massive notched logs also make us appreciate how difficult it must have been to safely transfer the timber from western Norway to Shetland in the small sailing ships of the time.
The partial reconstruction of the stofa can be visited at the Biggins, along the road to the church, and the information boards give more details about the historical and archaeological research which led to the successful completion of this innovative and exciting project.
Interpretative panel showing process of excavation of site together with an artist’s impression of how the orginal stofa might have looked.
Interpretative panel showing preparation of timbers, transport from Norway to Shetland and assembly on site in Papa Stour.
Barbara Crawford, School of History, University of St Andrew’s
Details of re construction project to follow