St Ninian’s Isle treasure is home again after 41 years
By RYAN TAYLOR
ITEMS belonging to the famous St Ninian’s Isle Treasure have returned to Shetland once again – but only on a temporary basis.
The prized treasure goes on display today at the Shetland Museum and Archives until 5th October following a loan agreement between Shetland Amenity Trust and the National Museum of Scotland.
The agreement marks the 50th anniversary of the treasure’s discovery in 1958 by schoolboy Douglas Coutts.
Consisting of silver brooches, bowls and other important artefacts, the treasure is believed to have been buried over 1,200 years ago to avoid being nabbed by raiding Vikings.
It is thought to be the single most important archaeological discovery for over a century.
But its visit has prompted renewed calls for the treasure to be brought back to Shetland on a permanent basis.
Apart from a short trip to the isles in 1967, when the hoard was briefly put on display at the old Shetland Museum, the items have largely been hidden from view at the national museum in Edinburgh.
Many have argued that its true significance is lost to visitors in the capital, who too easily pass it by as they search through the maze of other artefacts.
Now a retired librarian, Mr Coutts believes there is a strong argument for bringing the treasure back to its homeland on a permanent basis.
“Of course I would like it to be in Shetland but if everyone wanted their local treasures in their local museums then you wouldn’t have a national museum,” he said.
“That said, some of the items you see on display in the museum are more relevant in their local setting than they would be if they remained in the national museum.”
Adding that the treasure was housed in Edinburgh effectively “in a basement” and “behind some stairs so you wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it”, he said people would appreciate it more if it was kept here.
“In Shetland it would have more meaning,” he said.
“There is no mention of it being a major find in British archaeology, but for Shetland it would be a really important item.”
Mr Coutts added that the “unintelligible pile of stones” that made up the ruined medieval church in St Ninian’s Isle was often a let down for visitors who may have been expecting something more.
“We could counter that disappointment by having the wonderful treasure in Lerwick,” he said.
His comments were backed by isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who said he could see “no reason” why the treasure should not return here on a permanent basis.
“It seems this is an appropriate place for it to be,” he said.
“Whether it’s a permanent loan – if that is what the National Museums of Scotland would want to do – then I would be relaxed about that.
“At the moment, in Edinburgh, it’s lost amongst other treasures, whereas in Shetland there is a world-class building in which it would be a centrepiece.
“There is a copy of it, so I see no reason why the copy could not be displayed in Edinburgh and the original sent to Shetland.”
The temporary return was welcomed by curator Tommy Watt.
“In my 30 years at the museum we’ve always spoken about getting the treasure back, so it’s fantastic to see it back in Shetland at long last.”
As a keen 15-year-old, the young Douglas Coutts was eager to help out when he heard about an excavation on St Ninian’s Isle in July 1958.
He had heard Andrew O’Dell from Aberdeen University speak in Shetland some months beforehand, and subsequently asked to be involved in the summer dig.
On his first day at the excavations, Douglas was set to do trowel work.
Within a couple of hours he came across a flat stone, and the major archaeological discovery was made.
But Douglas was asked not to say anything about the discovery until the news was released officially from Aberdeen.
By the time members of his own family heard the news, the treasure had already been whisked away.
Interviewed by The Shetland Times that year, Professor O’Dell said he regretted the fact the treasure was taken away from Shetland before Shetlanders were given the chance to see it.
That has not stopped Mr Coutts from taking a keen interest in the treasure over the years.
During its return visit to Shetland in the 1960s, he even took his turn in the dead of night to stand guard over it in the old museum.
While most of the treasure has arrived in Shetland, some pieces have gone to other parts of the world instead.
Two items have gone to Venice as part of an exhibition on ancient artefacts.
The exhibition, called “Rome and the Barbarians”, is running at the city’s Palazzo Grassi until 20th July.
From there the artefacts will be taken to Bonn for a similar exhibition, which will take place from August to December.
The national museum’s iron age curator, Dr Fraser Hunter, visited Shetland this week to see the treasure put in place in its new temporary residence.
He said it was fitting to bring back the items 50 years after the discovery.
“It’s a very appropriate time for it to come to Shetland. The museum is such a good facility and I’m delighted to see the treasure here.
“Of course, there have been debates about where the treasure should be ever since it was discovered.
“While it’s of tremendous importance for Shetland it’s also important for Scotland and internationally.
“I know there are people who would rather it was displayed here, but our view would be there is a very important national story to be told as well.”
He added: “This is a partnership between Shetland Musuem and Archive and the national museum, and I sense it is very much this that will be the beginning of the partnership. We are really hopeful there will be further developments in the future.”
Dr Hunter added that he was very keen to see artefacts relating to the Gunnister man return to Shetland in the near future.
• The Shetland Museum and Archive has welcomed its 100,000th visitor through its doors. Robbie Jamieson was visiting the building with grandparents Ian and Ruby Sales last weekend.
To mark the occasion, the museum is giving Robbie a fishing trip on the vintage fishing vessel the Pilot Us, a model of the same vessel, and a copy of the new Shetland Museum and Archives guide. Visitor numbers to the museum have far exceeded expectations since it was opened last year.