St Ninian's Isle

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St Ninian's Isle
Scottish Gaelic nameUnknown
Old Norse nameUnknown
Meaning of namena
St Ninian's Isle is located in Scotland
St Ninian's Isle
St Ninian's Isle
St Ninian's Isle shown within Scotland
OS grid referenceHU365210
Coordinates59°58′N 1°21′W / 59.97°N 1.35°W / 59.97; -1.35
Physical geography
Island groupShetland
Areac. 72 ha
Area rankna [1]
Highest elevation53 m
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaShetland
Populationlast inhabited 1796

St Ninian's Isle is a small tied island connected by the largest tombolo in the UK[2] to the south-western coast of the Mainland, Shetland, in Scotland. It is part of the civil parish of Dunrossness on the South Mainland. The tombolo, known locally as an ayre[3] from the Old Norse for "gravel bank",[4] is 500 metres long.[5] During the summer the tombolo is above sea level and accessible to walkers. During winter, stronger wave action removes sand from the beach so that it is usually covered at high tide, and occasionally throughout the tidal cycle, until the sand is returned the following spring. Depending on the definition used, St. Ninian's is thus either an island, or a peninsula;[6] it has an area of about 72 hectares.

The nearest settlement is Bigton, also in the parish of Dunrossness. The important early medieval St Ninian's Isle Treasure of metalwork, mostly in silver, was discovered under the church floor in 1958. Many seabirds, including puffins, visit the island, with several species nesting there.


As its name suggests, the island has ecclesiastical connections, which may like others in the Northern Isles, Hebrides and Faroes have connections to the Culdees or papar. However, the island's history is far older than Christianity, and Neolithic graves have been found within the walls of the chapel (formerly beneath the floor).

The ruins of a 12th-century chapel can still be seen near the end of the tombolo. The dedication is to Shetland's patron saint, the enigmatic Saint Ninian of Galloway, who is also widely venerated on the nearby Orkney Islands, and may be commemorated in the name of North Ronaldsay. In 1958, an excavation found a hoard of 8th century silver in the chapel grounds under a stone slab in a wooden box, which caused a renewed archaeological interest in the island.[7] It was suspected to have been buried to hide it from, or stolen in, a Viking raid. The remains of a pre-Norse chapel were also found, which may indicate some kind of Culdee presence.

The last family to live on the island, that of Henry Leask, left the island in 1796. Henry Leask was married twice and had 13 children.

St Ninian's Isle Treasure[edit]

View from above the beach

The St Ninian's Isle Treasure was discovered under a cross-marked slab in the floor of the early St. Ninian's church, on 4 July 1958 by a local schoolboy, Douglas Coutts. Coutts was helping visiting archaeologists led by Professor A. C. O'Dell of Aberdeen University at a dig on the isle. The silver bowls, jewellery and other pieces, not all of which were probably new when deposited, are believed to date from c.750–825 AD.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Area and population ranks: there are c. 300 islands over 20 ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  2. ^ St Ninian's Tombolo. J.D. Hansom, Coastal Geomorphology of Great Britain (2003). Extract from the Geological Conservation Review.
  3. ^ Nicolson (1972) p. 21
  4. ^ Guide to Scandinavian origins of place names in Britain. Archived 4 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine Ordnance Survey, 2004.
  5. ^ "Get-a-map" Ordnance Survey
  6. ^ Fettes College Shetland Landscapes Archived 30 August 2004 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 3 August 2007.
  7. ^ Haswell-Smith, Hamish. (2004) The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh. Canongate.
  8. ^ "St Ninian's Isle Treasure". National Museums Scotland. Retrieved 5 December 2020.


  • O'Dell, A. St. Ninian's Isle Treasure. a Silver Hoard Discovered on St. Ninian's Isle, Zetland on 4th July, 1958. Aberdeen University Studies. No. 141
  • Nicolson, James R. (1972) Shetland. Newton Abbott. David & Charles.
  • Youngs, Susan (ed), "The Work of Angels", Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th–9th centuries AD, pp. 108–112, 1989, British Museum Press, London, ISBN 978-0-7141-0554-3
  • Webster, Leslie, Anglo-Saxon Art, 2012, British Museum Press, ISBN 9780714128092

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 59°58′20″N 1°20′53″W / 59.97230°N 1.34797°W / 59.97230; -1.34797