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  • Stephen Jennings

Site in Focus - St Ninian's Isle


Due to the UK's largest active tombolo St Ninian's Isle is either an island or a peninsula depending on the time of day and year. Aesthetically speaking it is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Shetland, the pale sands and clear blue-green waters enough to rival nearly any place along the Mediterranean. It is also home to one of the more important archaeological sites in Shetland and source of the St Ninian's Isle treasure, the only complete hoard of fine silver metalwork known to survive from this period of around 800 AD.

The 12th century chapel ruins on St Ninian's overlay an earlier pre-Norse church which is in turn built on an earlier Iron Age site, probably a wheelhouse. Burials from all three major building periods have been unearthed during excavations in the late 1950s and again in 1999/2000. The graveyard itself remained active into the 19th century, the chapel abandoned a century earlier.

Among the thousands of artefacts discovered during the excavations none is so captivating as the treasure itself. Found under a cross-marked slab in the floor of the pre-Norse church on the 4th of July 1958 by a schoolboy helping the archaeologists it consists of 28 exquisitely decorated silver and silver-gilt objects Pictish in origin and dating from the latter half of the 8th century. The items fall into three categories – feasting (including seven bowls), weapons (the removed decorative parts) and jewelery (12 brooches). It is commonly believed this hoard belonged to a single family rather than an ecclesiastical holding and was likely buried for safe keeping during the beginning of the Viking raids. They clearly and unfortunately were never able to return to collect their valuables.

The site is currently being actively eroded by rabbits though it still holds the potential for much archaeological discovery. If you'd like a very detailed look at St Ninian's Isle please visit here, very much worth the effort.

And don't forget the beauty!

St Ninian's Isle Treasure & Douglas Coutts

On his first day as a dig volunteer in 1958 then 15 year old schoolboy Douglas Coutts unearthed the St Ninian's Isle treasure.

​"I came to the site and was allocated a small area to begin some trowelling, which is the task normally allocated to novices. I had been at work only possibly for an hour when I came across a thin stone slab, which I levered up with my trowel and underneath I saw a hollow with some green material in it. I realized it was something unusual and I called over the professor, and I could see by his expression that this was indeed something unusual. So I was asked to step aside while he and his team investigated further." The significance largely lost on him at the time, he knew something important was found when he was asked to keep quiet about the find.

These excerpts are from interviews conducted during the 50th anniversary of the find Mr Coutts made when the treasures returned to Shetland in 2008 for the first time in 41 years. You can read more here - the Shetland News & The Shetland Times.

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