St Ninian’s isle is probably Shetland’s best-known beach. Its iconic image is found in most brochures and internet searches for places to visit in Shetland, and rightly so. St Ninian’s Isle is a picture-postcard pristine white sand tombolo spanning some 500 metres from the Shetland Mainland, across to the uninhabited St Ninian’s Isle.
Surrounded by some of Shetland’s best farmland, the beach is tucked away on the west coast of the South Mainland with views across to the island of Foula, dominating the Atlantic horizon. The beach leads to St Ninian’s isle, famous for its 12th-century chapel site and the incredible discovery of one of Scotland’s most significant Pictish treasure hoards: the St Ninian’s Isle treasure.
The Chapel site is easily found as the original church’s ruins are fenced in against the burrowingrabbits, and there are interpretation panels that fully explain the site. This is the spot where, in 1958, schoolboy Douglas Coutts discovered the St Ninian’s Isle treasure hoard. He had joined ateam from the University of Aberdeen on a dig led by Professor O’Dell at the 12th-century chapel site. It was the first day of the summer holidays and his first day on the dig site. He was sent to a corner of the site, away from the important work of the ‘real archaeologists’. He was handed a trowel – the spade used by archaeologists – and set to work digging.
The tombolo, or ayre, was formed following the last Ice Age as sea levels rose and the sea deposited sands and sediments. There are impressive dune systems at either end of the sand with marram grasses and a plethora of wildflowers in the calcium-rich sandy soils.
On the island, walk to the southwest corner for some stunning views towards Fitful Head. The rugged coastline is unexpected after the sweeping sands of the tombolo. It’s important to remember that the island itself stands on the exposed Atlantic coast of Shetland, where much ofthis coastline is dramatic and sheer.
From here, there is an access path that will take you around the isle, passing the impressive Hich (High) Holm, an important breeding ground for kittiwakes, and on to Selchie Geo. Selkie is the Shetland name for a seal, and, as expected, you can often see seals bobbing around in the inlet. This is also a fantastic place to watch fulmars as they soar in the thermals.
Following the coast, the path leads around Loose Head and back along the island’s eastern fringes, where you’ll reach the Chapel site and the way back to the beach once more.
This is a fantastic three-hour circular to be enjoyed at leisure with a generous picnic.
How to get there:
From Lerwick, follow the main A970 south towards Bigton. There is a limited bus service operating to the village of Bigton, so it is recommended that you take your car to reach this walk.
From Bigton, follow the signs that point towards the beach, passing the impressive Bigton Farm on the way. Park in the car park next to the beach and cross the sand to get to the island.
Although the tombolo is not usually covered by the sea, in winter and at times of extreme high tides in spring and autumn, or during periods of bad weather, the sea can wash over the tombolo. You’re unlikely to become stranded, but you may get wet feet at these times!
Did you know?
The iconic St Ninian’s Isle treasure, now on display in the National Museum in Edinburgh, is a national importance collection. The hoard comprises twenty-eight pieces of highly decorated silverware (the main items are brooches, bowls and pieces of weapons) and a fragment of a porpoise’s jawbone. It is thought that the treasure is Pictish and dates to about AD 800. It was buried in a larch box (a type of tree that did not grow in Scotland or Shetland) and uncovered in the later 12th-century chapel under the church’s nave. It is generally believed that the treasure was buried below the floor of an earlier chapel.
Written by Laurie Goodlad