Early Christian Shetland - St Ninian's Isle
7 Jan 2018
The Mother-Church of Shetland?
Perhaps the earliest Christian site in Shetland is associated with St Ninian, whose feast day falls on 16th September.
St Ninian's Isle is to be found in the South Mainland, about 24 km south of Lerwick and is clearly signposted from the main Lerwick to Sumburgh road. The island is linked to the mainland by a beautiful tombolo of white sand. The chapel site is a little to the right on first reaching the island and is enclosed by a wire fence with interpretative boards within.
There were five seasons of archaeological excavation here from 1955 to 1959, and on 4th July 1958 a local schoolboy working on the dig - Douglas Coutts - uncovered the famous St Ninian's Isle Treasure. Twenty eight silver objects (bowls, brooches and parts of weapons) were found buried within the medieval church under a broken stone slab. The originals are now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh but replicas are to be seen in Lerwick Museum.
One of the sword-chapes had a Latin inscription,"INNOMINEDS" - abbreviated from "In nomine Dei Summi", "In the name of God the Highest", which shows thatits original owner was a Christian. It was probably buried in an earlier church on the same site about AD 800 and may have been hidden away at the time of the early Viking raids.
There is a strong local tradition that St Ninian's Isle was the Mother Church of Shetland, but there are no pre-Reformation documents relating to it and the chapel fell out of use during the 16th century Reformation. The Revd. John Brand, visiting the site in 1700 wrote, "To the North West of the Ness lyes St Ninian's Isle, very pleasant; wherein there is a Chappel and an Altar in it whereon some superstitious People do burn candles to this day." It is a sign of continuing Catholic devotion on the site into the 18th century.
Pont's map, published in 1654, shows it as 'S Tronon's Yle'. In other areas St Ninian has also been known as St Trinyon.
St Ninian was apostle to the people in the South West of Scotland in the Fourth Century. There is nothing to link his original missionary journeys to Shetland. Christianity was probably brought to these islands by Celtic monks in the late 7th century.
The "Shetland" website has some beautiful photographs of St Ninian's Isle and suggestions for a 6 km circular walk around the island.