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  • Stephen Jennings

In Depth - (not the) St Ninian's Isle (treasure)

What follows is a hard copy summation of a multimedia presentation given to the public on Halloween night 2017. Care has been taken to include sources in the references section where possible. Much of the work was a result of archive research at the Shetland Museum and Archives. This replaces an article of the same title but the scope has been dramatically broadened.

In The Celtic and Scandinavian Antiquities of Shetland by Gilbert Goudie he described the scene of his finding the Ogham-inscribed St Ninian’s stone in 1875 in the grisliest of terms:

'All was desolation and silence except for the moaning of the waves, the screeching of sea fowl, and the bellowing of cattle…there was some difficulty in prosecuting a search on the site, the cattle contesting possession of the ground, and tossing the skulls and trampling the bones which are strewn about the sand-blown surface, or protrude from beneath.'

The picture he paints for us, from a period nearly 150 years past, stands in contrast to the experience most visitors have today while spending time on the tombolo or isle, yet it reminds us that there is more of interest here just beneath the surface that the hoard so often, and unfortunately, outshines. With elements of archaeology, history, folklore and memoir it is time to take a more in depth look at the whole of St Ninian’s Isle.

Let’s begin with a quick examination of the Isle’s namesake, something we addressed back in 2016. St Ninian was an early 5th century Christian missionary among the Picts of lowland Scotland. Referred to as The Apostle to the Southern Picts, his major shrine is at Whithorn in Galloway, the Candida Casa, where people make pilgrimage particularly on his feast day of September 16th, Saint Ninian's Day. In addition to being credited with introducing Christianity to Scotland he is also considered the Patron Saint of Shetland and the early Christian church on St Ninian's Isle may have resembled the shrine in Whithorn. However, he may never have existed at all. He first appears in the historical sources rather late - 300 years after his death - when Bede made passing reference to him and provided the caveat that he was only drawing on traditional information. He then drops from the record until Aelred picks up the story around 1160 with considerable questions around the motive of these writings. Further sources are either more questionable or simply derivative. On top of that, his absence from any contemporary sources is striking. If he did exist perhaps the closest source of inspiration would be Saint Finnian, a Briton who became a missionary in Ireland in the 6th century.

Regardless the origin of St Ninian, the Isle itself is sacred ground. It was known locally a chapel, perhaps a church, existed prominently just beyond the tombolo when you approach. The 1654 Joan & Willem Janszoon Blaeu Atlas with Timothy Pont’s map from 1608 confirm this where we have a church with what is believed an associated manse, giving it a certain eminence, while the island is referred to as St Tronon’s based on the Pont maps of 1608. This is repeated in the 1725 Herman Moll maps where the church site on St Tronon’s is again given prominence. Yet, this is a bit troubling because in 1701 the Reverend Brand in describing what is at this time often known locally as St Ninian’s, at other times St Ringan’s or St Ronan’s, gives us this description: “To the North West of the Ness lyes St Ninian’s Isle, very pleasant; wherein there is a Chappel and ane Altar in it whereon some superstitious People do burn Candles to this day.” This clearly describes a site abandoned by this time though substantial ruins must exist. It begs the question, exactly what was Moll attempting to represent? And did the Blaeu Atlas capture the site just before it was abandoned?

Bones and buildings aside for a moment, the first substantial glimpse of the remarkable potential of the archaeology on St Ninian’s comes from Goudie’s 1875 visit. It is a place familiar to him as it appears to have been a favourite haunt over the years and on this occasion was largely prompted by references he read which pointed to a vaulted ceiling in the kirk and the substantial burial ground. Curious, and in the company of Reverend J C Roger, they set out with the express purpose of finding some relic from earlier times. There was no trace left of the chapel, it being removed a century before when John Bruce Stewart, owner of Bigton, used every visible stone from croft and chapel to build the retaining wall we still see today. Poking among the handful of visible tombstones, some dating back 70 years although we know of burials up to the 1830s and a further burial supposed to have taken place in the 1840s when a servant at Bigton prevailed upon the Lady of the house to allow his burial with ‘da auld fokk’, he found the Ogham-inscribed stone which is now housed in the National Museum. Interestingly, he removed it and had it heading south the next day recognizing its importance and before having actual permission to do so (he later confessed his deed to the landowner for which he received his blessing that it was the right thing to do). Tragically, he found two other well-weathered fragments, also Ogham-inscribed, but they were gone by the time he returned and have not been found since.

A rectangular slab of sandstone roughly 2 ½ feet by 10 inches and 2 inches thick, the St Ninian’s Stone has obvious Ogham script running down one side. Undoubtedly sculpted on the face, the weathering had worn away any trace that might have been left by the time Goudie found it. With most Ogham stones dating to the 5th and 6th century, they very often contain the name of a person being commemorated. A good example of this, and what the St Ninian’s Stone likely once resembled, is the Bressay Stone with its cross, early Christian symbolism and Ogham inscription running the length of the edge.

The rest of the archaeology surrounding this site on Shetland would have to wait another ¾ of a century to be uncovered and is a further draw to this area much beyond the treasure – a lot of bodies. And by lots of bodies, we mean thousands. Beginning in 1955, Geography Professor Andrew O’Dell of Aberdeen University began his excavations which would continue for four seasons over an area just 16 x 16 metres to locate the Medieval chapel on St Ninian’s that local tradition believed there. As his team continued to dig they eventually turned up the remains of a second, smaller and earlier church which we now know to date back to the 8th century; very early in the Christian period. Concluding his work after the 1959 season, Professor O’Dell unfortunately died in 1967 before any substantial publication on the findings could be finished. It wasn’t until 1973 when Alan Small, who as a student supervised at the site during the 1950s dig, with a handful of other former students published their findings based on their own memories, notes, photographs and sketches. Sadly, it all amounted to little more than a handful of pages.

In 1999-2000, Rachel Barrowman of Glasgow University commenced further fieldwork first by using non-intrusive methods (topographical and geophysical survey) and then by opening four trial trenches before ultimately doing a wider survey with two trenches in the second year. Smaller in nature, Trench 1 was a reexamination of O’Dell’s original excavation including backfill and reconstructed features. Trench 2, however, was to the north of the chapel outside the fenced area and traced the Medieval and post-Medieval burial ground partly for study and partly to determine a method for protecting the burial ground from further disturbance.

What do we learn from this later excavation? The site of both the 8th century church and 12th century Medieval chapel overlay areas of earlier occupation. In the case of the late Bronze Age this comes in the form of some rough pottery sherds but as we transition into the Iron Age we see domestic buildings and middens. A part of these were uncovered in O’Dell’s original excavations and they continued along a clay layer well beyond the scope of his trench. Very late in the Iron Age all evidence of domestic activity on the ecclesiastical site ceases and by the 8th century we have the first church erected. This appears to continue in use up until the 10th or 11th century when it is abandoned, perhaps for as long as 100 years, when the Medieval chapel is then built. It is during the late Iron Age and the cessation of domestic activity that the area is then held as sacred ground and the burials begin and continue, largely unabated, until the 1830s and the exceptional 1840s singular interment.

Some of the more interesting aspects of this site, and most informative, comes from the bodies themselves. In the first we have ‘Rosemary’, the earliest burial (non-cremation) on the site with a radiocarbon dating of between 660AD and 780AD, the end of the Iron Age/Pictish period in Shetland. Several aspects of this burial are of note – she appears to be pre-Christian, and just; a burial with an earliest date of 680AD has elements of a Christian burial. This accords nicely with the transition to Christianity the Picts undergo at this time because other than some quartz pebbles, found to accompany burials through pre-history into the early Medieval period, this short cist burial has no features associated with the early Christian age. Moreover, she was rather tall for the period (5’4”) and muscular; so much so that the identification regarding sex was rather difficult. Aged between 18 & 25, there were few injuries or congenital defects (one leg was shorter than the other) and the diet, predominately terrestrial, appears adequate as no malnourishment is evident.

There are six infant burials, however, all of whom show clear signs of malnourishment and rickets. Buried in the 10th century and encompassing perhaps 3-4 generations, all six were still of breastfeeding age indicating the mothers were also suffering from the same issues. Like the adults, naturally, we still see evidence of an overwhelming terrestrial diet even though this is well into the Viking period where fishing expanded dramatically. The presence of rickets is particularly noteworthy as it is a result of vitamin D deficiency which a marine diet would counteract. Also, the style of cist burial beneath a cairn with early Christian elements has little in common with a Viking/Norse burial of this period. This may hint at the continued existence of an impoverished native population that has lived through, though not well, the Viking invasions and destruction of the Pict civilization that preceded it. Yet, to say it was a result of the Vikings/Norse and an intentional starvation would be purely speculative because the evidence indicates the 10th and into the 11th century is also a time of increased storminess which may have disrupted shore fishing as much as crops and animals.

Lastly, we have what may be the burial of a warrior from the Norse period who met a very violent end. Arranged in an odd flexed position and packed into a short cist, the remains date from the early 11th to early 13th century. Partially bound with clothing and with a small iron knife, this body is in fact a reburial with no features suggestive of a Christian burial so likely of Norse descent. With signs of a sequence of gruesome injuries he finally had his head lifted and his throat cut from behind. Having died elsewhere, this could be a case of returning to retrieve the body from a battle site while it was in a semi-decomposed state.

With the thousands of burials going back to at least the late Iron Age and in such a small area we forget that the rest of the Isle was also occupied. The records are scant for most of this time and what do exist relate solely to property transfers. However, by his and our good fortune, the diary of the Reverend John Mill is given to Gilbert Goudie late in the 19th century by Mr Bruce of Sumburgh. A well-educated man and excellent record keeper, we do know a little something about St Ninian’s from his tenure as minister of the Parish of Dunrossness including the isle, a full 62 years until his death at the age of 92 just before his birthday. From him we know that in 1749 there was 16 males and 7 females on St Ninian’s, probably comprising two families, and by 1774 it was abandoned when the peat gave out, two-year-old James Sinclair the last to be born on St Ninian’s.

John Mill himself is a fascinating portrait and worthy of diversion as it tells us much of this era, albeit from his perspective. A fire and brimstone preacher, he defied his age, the Age of Enlightenment, by adhering to dogma as rigidly as one can imagine which harks back to an earlier time. A study in contrasts, he both loved and detested his parishioners being both kind and generous while referring to them as vermin and ‘dry bones’. He hated dancing, making the strange and perhaps euphemistic accusation against a potential wife who spurned him as liking to dance with ladies while later when a daughter moves south her abilities in dance, gained while under his care in Shetland, are listed as a virtue. He detested Catholics (where his language is the very essence of sectarianism), people of means (while courting and delighting in the same) and revolution. A great promoter of empire and royalty, he called the people of his parish who hid from the press gang cowards all the while reserving his harshest feelings for people who made a living on the sea. Even while in tumultuous seas himself and in fear of capsize as the boatmen struggle to keep the ship afloat he can’t help but note and chastise their detestable language. So unconcerned was he for their lives he frequently notes in his diary the fortune God has shown him by never losing a commission of goods from down south. No concern for the ship or the crew and whether they sink or not, just that his goods are safe. He believed in superstition while chastising it in others. He even felt those who die in unfortunate circumstances have somehow warranted it and even reveled in it occasionally such as the justice served to a man who drowned with his two sons when their boat overturned in calm conditions simply because he had the temerity to fear going out in rough seas. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect to John Mill was his relationship with Satan.

The enemy of souls was a frequent foe, particularly, it seems, in the 1750s. A constant struggle, Satan most often manifested himself in the guise of something black, such as a sheep, where it lured people into temptation and suicide. It once even appeared as a small, black dog following he and his riding companion the latter of whom, upon getting more nervous at the appearance, was soothed when Mill tells him not to worry, it is only himself he is after. And Satan is not a silent devil either. Often, he was overheard alone in a room having an argument with Satan and once, as it is related, Satan had the poor sense to enter the church during service whereupon he argued with Mill in several languages before retreating over the heads of the parishioners and out the door, much to their astonishment. There was also the manifestation of the old devil in persons too but strangely, he once credits the possession of a woman as helping to ease the pain of childbearing; faint praise.

Despite being thwarted in his attempt in 1777 to go on a heresy hunt by the enemies he perceived all around him, he was a man determined to root out transgression and deliver punishment. Whether encouraged or not, neighbours seemed to have been the main driving force in rooting out the sin that infested them. Most often this was taking the Lord’s name in vain or imploring the devil to make quick work of the neighbours’ crops or person, sometimes a wish by the blasphemer for the devil to fly down their throat and the like. There was also sabbath breaking, profanity and fornication. In fact, in one case of excommunication it was a result of repeated years of obstinacy for refusing discipline and continued adultery. We see a lot of repeat fornicators whose sentences become longer and longer the more they refuse reform which in all cases of sin consisted of a small monetary fine (based on the means of the sinner) and a public rebuke whereby the sinner had to stand before the parishioners every sabbath for as many weeks as deemed fit for the crime which, in the case of some, was up to a year. In one case, the couple flat out refused and the punishment as set down was only for the woman, of the man’s punishment we know nothing. This was an unusual case where her husband had been gone for four years without word or return. She had taken up with a single man and they applied to be married. Once denied, they stated in defiance they would simply cohabitate as man and wife which they did.

Despite this, his diary is in some cases the only firsthand accounts we have of the many trials and tribulations of the period. For example, we know fever and smallpox took almost 200 lives in his Parish in 1761 and that a harsh winter followed where poverty and starvation took hold. We see this again in repeating patterns through the 1770s and 1780s where fevers, famine and foul weather were ravaging the countryside. It was during this time that his disdain for his parishioners seems to increase as the shipwrecks become more numerous and the looting – often fighting over same – and general sins and transgressions increase; as one would expect.

Long after John Mill’s accounts of the period, a final high profile local crime occurred on the 26th of January, 1855 – sheep rustling. It was on that morning William Swanson, Jr led two servants from Bigton, Arthur Irvine & Thomas Thomason, along with two juvenile members of his own family, to St Ninian’s to collect 7 sheep that he informed them were purchased during the harvest. Rounding up the 20 or so sheep on the Isle, Swanson advised them they would know the seven by the tether around their necks. Sure enough, they found the 7 sheep and brought them across but left them grazing outside of Bigton. It is unclear why but perhaps a moment of discomfort on the part of Irvine and Thomason because there happened to be an auction scheduled for that day including the 20 or so sheep on St Ninian’s.

On the 6th of February both Irvine and Thomason were arrested for the crime of theft and brought before the court on the 8th where their statements strongly protested their innocence; they were set up. It is unclear what happened in this case, but it does seem reasonable they were let go. William Swanson Sr was already in custody over an unrelated matter and there are hints this wasn’t the first run-in he had with the Bruce family or their agent. In his defence, it does make logical sense that with an auction going on, the fact that 7 were indeed tethered and, quite frankly, who would go to all that trouble with a powerful family over 7 sheep, that there was an element of truth to what the Swanson’s were alleging – that the Bruce’s were going to auction off property that rightfully belonged to them.

A final exploration of St Ninian’s Isle is also one of the more fascinating aspects of the archaeology and history – shipwrecks. There is a score of wrecks around St Ninian’s found in the records and undoubtedly many scores more which are unknown to us. The earliest on record was 1050AD. Most carry cargoes of wood, salt or sundry goods (pots & pans, stoves) and occasionally alcohol. Later in the 19th century and very early 20th century there is an influx of French fishing boats being wrecked, apparently a result of their increased presence off the west coast. There is an earnest attempt to recover what cargo is found as well as any usable wood from the ships. Though some of this wood gets spirited away, a rare commodity on a largely woodless landscape, the rest goes up for auction.

This is true with the Endeavour, a wreck from the 13th of January, 1782 carrying a cargo of timber. In this case 9 men died while 5 were saved. They commissioned another ship to take what was salvaged back south but the remaining was put up for auction. However, there was much friction over the dispensation of salvage charges the locals were claiming and so the courts had to get involved. In due course nearly all charges from all claimants were reduced to a level deemed fair.

The courts were also heavily involved with the wreck of the far more famous Gesina of the 9th of March, 1863. Driven ashore but luckily losing no one, the cargo of sugar, iron pots, ovens, 36 bottles of champagne and most of its fittings were promptly looted. The captain, trying vainly to recover the goods, enlisted the help of the authorities to find and arrest those responsible. Although much was subsequently recovered, no one stood trial and the rest was auctioned with the hull.

But this ordeal pales in comparison to a wreck earlier in the century, the Atlas on the 23rd of January 1807 with one man lost. To appreciate this wreck and the aftermath, one should first look at the situation the boat faced in more detail. Heading for Jamaica with a cargo of sugar and Black Bess rifles, the ship was overtaken by a hurricane on Christmas day which snapped its masts and rudder. Adrift for two days, it miraculously found its way to Bigton Bay where it dropped anchor and Captain Dolling made his way ashore. Seeking help at Bigton House and meeting with James Strong, clerk to estate owner Robert Bruce, he was refused help under the pretense that Strong was but a servant and had no power to compel the locals to offer either aid or protection for the cargo. Captain Dolling then made his way to Lerwick in search of aid for the stricken vessel. Eventually inspected, deemed unseaworthy and in need of being moved to a safer anchorage, the ship within minutes wrecked when the temporary rudder they hastily fashioned snapped. Refused help once again from Strong, Dolling returns to Lerwick while his ship was being mercilessly looted in the meantime. Accusing Strong of orchestrating the theft, a back and forth ensued where they demand the arrest of one another, Strong for theft and Dolling for false accusations and slander. Ultimately, on the 29th of January, what remained is auctioned off. In a final blow to Dolling, and in a sense vindication for his assertions and accusations, the auction was won by none other than James Strong after a couple of token bids. Rather than getting the market value of £15, or even the £10 to which it was lowered, the final bid was for just over £6.

A mere 15 years later, in 1822, undoubtedly the most intriguing of all the wrecks occurs – the Earl Spencer. Yet, before examining the lurid tale of the ship, a brief exploration of the state of the times in which it was operating is essential. By the end of the 18th century, smuggling by local merchants was a significant factor in the Shetland economy. Chiefly made up of wood which had a customs duty of close to 50 percent at this time, it quickly moved into tea, tobacco and, most importantly, gin by the beginning of the 19th century. Mostly Dutch vessels, the smuggled goods were originally brought to outlying areas such as Fair Isle and Foula where the merchants would then bring them to the mainland. As this became more perilous local fishing boats were then engaged and the transaction thenceforth occurred in the open seas.

It was around the 1820s that the illegal trade reached its peak before quickly falling off. The reasons for this are varied such as the poor state of the local economy where the primary purchasing was done by the poorest tenants. There was now also relatively cheap whisky from Scotland where the excise duty had been reduced thus the merchant’s eyes now trained elsewhere. But the dominant reason was the end of the Napoleonic Wars which saw an increase in now idle navy personnel put on patrol in the Preventive Service to bring an end to smuggling which was draining the crown of much needed monies.

It is in this world that the ill-fated Earl Spencer enters our story. A sloop painted a distinctive black and yellow, like most smuggling ships still operating in this increasingly hazardous world, it was heavily armed with 14 guns and two more in the rear for ‘stern chasers’. Plying the seas under Captain William Aylsebury, known by his crew as Long Will, between the Dutch town of Flushing and Faroe, it was a well-known smuggling ship to the spies the British government had planted in ports throughout Europe. Much hunted, it was finally caught on the back of Whalsay on the 4th of August 1821 by the government ship the Earl Moira. Advised by his own crew not to approach the Earl Spencer alone, the captain disregarded their wishes and hooked onto the ship. A mighty volley of musket fire was let loose from the sailors hiding on the Earl Spencer killing one and wounding several others on the Earl Moira. Able to get away, the Spencer safely made its way back to Flushing.

On the 12th of October it comes out of port again. Alerted by their spies that Long Will and 3 or 4 of the original murderous rogues were aboard, the hunt began but they just missed him and by November the Earl Spencer is once again in Flushing.

In for a brief refit, Long Will decided at this time to relinquish command. Feeling the heat from the authorities and his status as a wanted man he handed it over to Captain Stephen Marsh. After much delay the ship left port finally on the 23rd of December loaded with tea, tobacco and cheap spirits. Once again the hunt was on and the Earl Spencer was tracked as it made its way to Shetland.

Thus far able to evade all capture, the ship anchored in St Ninian’s Bay in the face of a strengthening storm on the night of the 7th of February 1822. Curious onlookers kept watch on the distinctive black and yellow sloop from the safety of their homes in Bigtown. In a mighty struggle with the weather, government ships sure to be bearing down, Captain Marsh decided the following morning to raise sail as the ship was already dragging anchor. But it was too much for it and with a mighty crash it ran aground at Shingley Geo.

Knowing it would soon completely break up in the heavy surf, a brave crewmember with a rope managed to get on the rocks below where he tied the ship up just in time for the rest of the crew to get off and make their way to shore. Stuck on St Ninian’s as the storm raged, wet and shivering, no source of shelter or heat and the tombolo completely covered by the raging tempest, they could do little but watch, as did the good residents of Bigtown, as the ship broke apart and their precious cargo began to wash ashore. Having finally had enough, one sailor decided he would brave the waves and make his way across – and very nearly did – until just within reach of those onshore straining to grab him a mighty breaker rose up and dashed his now lifeless body on the rocks. Eventually the storm subsided, the tombolo reappeared, and the remaining crew made their way across to claim the body of their fallen mate.

Meanwhile, much rejoicing was made as the locals descended the shores and claimed the booty, particularly the gin bobbing in casks upon the waves. Some were smart about concealing their luck such as one man who took the gin home and buried it underneath shafts of corn knowing agents would soon arrive to claim the cargo. Others had more immediate needs and an orgy of drunkenness descended on Bigtown that night. Yet, before the night was through a second victim would be claimed; feeling the heady night air, a snootful of gin and still more slung from nets on his back, one unlucky reveler strangled himself to death as he clambered over a wall, the casks of gin on one side, his body on the other with the ropes cutting deep into the flesh on his neck.

The next morning all was calm and quiet save the wailing for the lost soul with the net full of gin. It was then that Captain Marsh asked permission to bury the dead sailor in the ruined chapel at St Ninian’s which he was granted. After a solemn service he and the rest of the stricken crew made their way to Sumburgh hopeful they could still escape but it was here the government agents finally caught them. Feigning innocence, that they were from a wrecked ship called The Three Friends, it was to no avail and they were brought into custody.

Curiously, when they were apprehended they had nothing with them – no remains of the cargo and, crucially, no money. This got the people of Bigtown thinking and for the next couple of years they spend their time searching all over St Ninian’s for what they assumed had to be a chest of lost silver. They never found a thing and it was soon forgotten until suddenly one June morning a schooner arrived in the bay and dropped anchor. A woman attending a calving cow was watching and before long a small boat was seen let loose and made its way to shore. The whole thing queer, it suddenly dawned on her what must be happening, and she rousted what few men she could who weren’t out at the fishing and they made their way over just as the schooner slipped out of the bay. Scrambling to the kirkyard they found the opened grave of the dead sailor from the Earl Spencer and inside was a clear impression in the dirt, as from a chest laden with silver. Captain Marsh had returned for his loot and had returned, for a brief time, to smuggling.


Canmore. St Ninian's Isle. Canmore ID 587, Site Number HU32SE 4.

Canmore. Canmore ID 240273, 289199, 289208 & 240274.

Goudie, Gilbert (1904). "The Celtic and Scandinavian Antiquities of Shetland", 30-37.

Barrowman, Rachel (2011). "The Chapel and Burial Ground on St Ninian's Isle, Shetland"

Further references from the personal diary of Gilbert Goudie, the Diary of Reverend John Mill via Gilbert Goudie, the O'Dell excavations, crime in Shetland and shipwrecks from the Shetland Museum and Archives and Canmore.

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