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Where I Live - Kirbister

The Orcadian placename "Kirbister" - or "Kirbuster" - derives from the Old Norse "Kirkjubolstaðr", which literally translates as "church farmstead".

The name seems to indicate that the rich farmland in the area was once owned by the church, although it has also been suggested that Orkney's Kirbusters were farms with prominent early churches.


Kirbister. Picture Sigurd Towrie

Early kirk or church land?

The Orcadian antiquarian, Mr Hugh Marwick, studied the development of Orkney's farm names in great detail, particularly the Kirbister placenames.

Marwick suggested that the farms after which the Kirbister/Kirbuster areas were named must have been in existence well before the "official" conversion of Orkney to Christianity in AD995.

His theory was that, after the conversion, the spread of Christianity meant that a settlement incorporating a church, or a chapel, would not be "unique" enough to make it easily identifiable. In pre-Christian days, however, the scattering of ten or so Christian farms would have stood out sufficiently to make the areas recognisable and therefore warrant the eventual development into a placename.

Although Dr Marwick's theory is not generally accepted these days, regarding Kirbister, in Stromness, it is interesting to note a local record that does indicate an ancient chapel, with a cemetery, in the area.

The Kirbister Chapel

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) records declare that, although there was no local tradition, evidence or knowledge of it, there was once a chapel and graveyard in an area of the Stromness Kirbister.

"Popularly ascribed" to the 14th century, all evidence of the chapel had disappeared by 1880, although RCAHMS records that, according to the Rentale Orchadie pro Rege et Episcope (Church and King's rental records), it had fallen into disuse before 1595. The burial ground was said to be related to it and was supposed to have fallen into disuse by the end of the 16th century. No remains were visible in 1928.

Although this chapel would have been much too late to be responsible for the Kirbister placename, it is tempting to wonder whether there was an earlier chapel on this marshy site – perhaps not far from the farm of Langskaill.

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