According to the OS Name Books (OS1/18/6/177) the name Paible: ‘applies to a large District on the S. W. side of N. Uist, It includes the districts of Paiblesgarry, Knockintorran, Balmore, Knockline and Kyles Paible.’ It has given rise to a number of additional place-names incorporating the original Norse formation including Paiblesgearraidh, NF727868, Caolas Phaibeil NF752671, and Loch Phaibeil NF720686.

Paible, along with Pabaigh in South Uist, belongs to a group of place-names found primarily in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland which all contain the element papi/papar, which can be roughly translated as ‘a priest, cleric’. The Papar Project provides the most comprehensive discussion on the nature of papar-names in the North Atlantic region. In the project introduction, several characteristic features of papar-sites are outlined which can be summarised as follows:

  1. They are typically located in areas of fertile arable land (Crawford and Simpson 2008, 3)
  2. The ‘stamp of the medieval church certainly is in evidence’, but it does not appear to be the defining characteristic of these sites (Crawford and Simpson 2008, 4).
  3. Their high agricultural value may indicate a mutually beneficial relationship between early Norse settlers and existing Christian communities (Crawford and Simpson 2008, 5-8).
  4. They are strategically located in coastal areas with seaway access (Crawford and Simpson 2008, 8-9).

In many respects our Paible fits the criteria laid out: the area surrounding Paible, including Eilean Chirceboist to the south affords some of the best land in Uist for agricultural purposes and it is situated in a beneficial coastal location with a cluster of ecclesiastical sites to the north. This is in contrast with the other papar-site in Uist, Pabaigh, where several of these characteristics are notably absent.

The surviving name-forms indicate that Paible may have been a site of some importance in the past. It is noteworthy that two forms survive from an unusually early date: Paible and Paiblesgearraidh, both recorded in 1505. Another unusual feature is that Paiblesgearraidh represents a Norse coining which incorporates the existing name Paible (en Paible + ON gerði ‘an enclosure’). Although the incorporation of a Norse coining into a Gaelic place-name is a common occurrence in the Western Isles, it is much less frequent in Norse place-names. This indicates that at some point in the Norse speaking period in Uist the existing name Paible was transferred to a new Norse place-name (ON *Papabýlisgarðr ‘the enclosure of Paible’). This provides further evidence that the original Paible was coined in the early phase of Norse presence in Uist and transferred at a later stage in the Norse-speaking period.

The Papar Project highlights several Norse place-names in the vicinity of Paible which may be of importance. These include *Kirkibost south of Paible and *Husabost (ON hús ‘a house’ + ON bólstaðr ‘a farm, settlement’). Although it no longer survives, according to Gammeltoft (2001, 125) and Fraser (1973, 155) the latter was most likely located on the island of Baleshare and it is recorded in 1389 as Husaboste (ALI, 13-14). The high agricultural value of these areas along with the place-name evidence may be significant in demonstrating the utilisation of this area by the Norse settlers, further strengthening the strategic importance of the lands surrounding Paible.

There are other Norse place-names that are more uncertain both in terms of etymology and significance. In particular, Hogha Gearraidh NF707710, the township in which Kilmuir is located, would benefit from further investigation. Recorded in 1505 as Holf and by Blaeu as Howyairth, the name appears to contain ON haugr ‘a how, mound, cairn (over one dead)’. Parallels can be drawn to Howmore in South Uist; containing the same element, which is here identified as a potential site of significance in the Norse period. Hogha Gearraidh with its accessibility and density of Norse settlement (as evidenced by surrounding place-names showing land-utilisation) may reflect a similar pattern.

Several of the nearby ecclesiastical sites that are discussed in this project may also have a connection with Paible. In particular, a link between Paible and Na h-Eileanan Monach may be important if there was an early church site or monastic community on one of the islands of the latter (see Na h-Eileanan Monach). Additionally, the density of ecclesiastical sites north of Paible, including Kilmuir, Cladh Chothain, and Eilean Trostain means that a pre-Norse connection between Paible and the area to the north is possible. The likelihood of Paible having an agricultural function in the Norse period has already been highlighted, and it may have filled a similar function for an early Christian church to the north in the pre-Norse period.

Finally, two other place-name may lend further support to the argument that the area north of Paible was one of importance in the medieval period: Àird an Rùnair NF694706 and Loch Runabhat NF730693. The Papar Project draws attention to these names but concludes that their ‘significance is uncertain’. Àird an Rùnair represents G àirde ‘a height, promontory’ + G rùnair ‘a secretary’ (Dwelly; also see eDIL Old Irish rùinid ‘a confidant, counsellor’) and could imply a legal association with this site. Loch Runabhat represents an ON formation which may contain the ON cognate of rùinid; ON rùn ‘scrutiny, secret, secret conversation’, ON rùna ‘a friend who knows one’s secrets’ or ON rùni ‘a counsellor, friend’ (Cl.-Vig.). This etymology would imply connotations similar to those suggested for Àird an Rùnair. However, the lack of early forms makes it difficult to establish the etymology with any certainty. Additionally, Carmichael gives the alternative spelling Loch Raonavhat in the OS Name Books (OS1/18/6/159), so perhaps an etymology with ON *rauðnir ‘rowan’ is more likely (cf. Raoineabhal in Cox 1987b, 197; also see NG Raunevolden and Raunehaug in Norway).

Although we may not be able to fully re-construct an early medieval landscape, there is considerable place-name evidence which demonstrates that the area surrounding Paible was most likely an important one both politically and ecclesiastically in the medieval period. It may be significant that two of the areas (Paible with surrounding sites and Howmore) with considerable evidence for early Christian activity also appear to have strong Norse links. In addition to Paible itself, which is one of the most telling signs of early Norse interactions with Christians, other place-names and sites such as Kilmuir, Cladh Chothain, and Eilean Trostain, testify to the considerable Christian presence along the western coast of North Uist. Future intensive survey into the place-names and landscape surrounding these sites may shed further light on the nature of early Norse-Christian contact in Uist.