Medieval castle with connections to Saint Magnus – and a sea monster!

29th December 2015

Sandwiched between two stormy nights with gale force 80 mph at its fiercest, we were given a beautiful golden day basking in ten degrees and low sunshine. We decided on Holm in the East Mainland – the parish which is spelled “Holm” but pronounced as “ham” because it comes from the Old Norse name for a harbour. The estate of Paplay is very old land, having belonged to the earldom and later the bishopric. That name derives from “Papa-byli”, meaning the settlement of the Papar – which was a name for Christian priests or monks in Old Norse. There are other “pap-“ names in Orkney, too.


Paplay has deep connections to the Orkneyinga Saga. The land was part of the dowry for Saint Magnus’s sister, and when Saint Magnus was martyred in a conflict with his cousin Hákon in around 1116/17, his mother Thora lived at Paplay. Thora was from Iceland and had first been married to Earl Erlend, the father of Magnus. However, she later married a man called Sigurd and stayed at Paplay. With Sigurd she had another son, named Hákon and known as Hákon karl – Hákon the young man.

We went to find the Medieval castle there at Paplay. It’s one of those square stone towers, not offering much in the way of comfort as accommodation, but useful for defence. I suppose Thora’s daily life would have been at the farm nearby, and not in the tower itself.

Paplay, in Holm parish, Orkney.

Paplay, in Holm parish, Orkney.

We parked at the precariously posed St Nicholas Church at Howes Wick (“mounds bay”). The church looks as if it’s about to fall off the edge and into the sea as the waves crash against its churchyard wall. The brief lull in the storm was not long enough to calm the waves, which were glittering spectacular. And the sound! First the rush and the crash, but then, as the wave withdraws, the soft rapid rumbling of thousands of beach stones rolling over one another as they are being sucked back.

All sorts of things had been thrown up by the waves. “Dad, it’s a seamonster!” came a shout from our nine-year-old. What a sight! It was not very big, but it had spikes like a dinosaur all down its back, and spotted skin like some sort of lizard. We needed grandad’s help to identify it as a Lumpfish.

"Sea monster" lumpfish

“Sea monster” lumpfish

Over the bay towers the tall mound known as Castle Howe [make this a link to], topped by the remains of the Medieval castle. What can be seen now is a stone-built square, which is quite deep when you go down into it. How deep does it really go, under the grass and rubble? And what’s underneath it? Has this site, with its spectacular view of the sea and land around it, been occupied way back before the Vikings, too?

Remnants of a medieval castle with connections to St Magnus in Holm, Orkney

Remnants of a medieval castle with connections to St Magnus in Holm, Orkney

Read more at Professor Barbara Crawford’s Papar Project:

%d bloggers like this: