Early Christian outpost found in remote Orkneys

One of early Christianity's most remote outposts has been discovered on a tiny island in the Orkney archipelago, 45 miles north of the Scottish mainland.

One of early Christianity's most remote outposts has been discovered on a tiny island in the Orkney archipelago, 45 miles north of the Scottish mainland.

It is the most northerly early Christian monastery ever found, and is thought to have been used as a base for missionary activity - and for servicing the needs of Stylite hermits who marooned themselves on Orkney's rock stacks.

Working on the island of Papa Stronsay, a team of archaeologists - from the University of Birmingham and Headland Archaeology of Edinburgh - have discovered a complex of monastic buildings dating from the 7th or 8th century.

So far the excavations have yielded the remains of a tiny 23ft by 11.5ft church, an even smaller circular corbelled chapel measuring just 16.5ft by 10ft, and small huts where some of the monks would have lived.

When the monks arrived - probably from Northumberland - sometime between 650 and 750, they would have had the task of converting the native pagan Pictish population.

The monastery would also have supplied food and water to those monks who opted for a more solitary existence. Archaeologists have so far located at least half a dozen of these remote Orcadian hermitages. The hermits would have seen themselves as following in the footsteps of a 5th century Middle Eastern monk called Symeon the Stylite (literally, "pillar man") who lived for 38 years on top of a stone pillar, over 50ft high. Between the 5th and 11th centuries, thousands followed his example and sought to keep away from the sins of the world by perching on high.

The Papa Stronsay monastery ceased to operate in medieval times, but last year the Transalpine Redemptorists, a Catholic religious order, bought the island and have re-established monastic life on it.

"Papa Stronsay was a holy island," said Professor John Hunter, who is co-directing the excavations. "Even after the demise of the monastery, it retained its religious significance, with two chapels remaining in use till the 18th century."

He believes the discovery is of great importance for the history of early Christianity in Britain. "It demonstrates the impressive geographical reach of early missionary activity and reveals for the first time what an early monastic complex looked like in Scotland's far north."

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