St Ninian’s Isle eyesores (Allen Fraser)

The overgrown site of the St Ninian's Isle chapel.
The overgrown site of the St Ninian’s Isle chapel.

Images of the St Ninian’s Isle sands have long been used as promotional icons by Shetland’s tourism industry and often appear in national lists of “best beaches”.

Not only does this beach look stunning, but is regarded by those who admire landscape and natural history to be the best “classic” example of a shell-sand tombolo to be found anywhere.

Unfortunately visitors’ photos of the sands have been spoiled this summer by an abandoned, rusty eyesore on the beach.

The St Ninian’s Isle beach and the outstanding coastal walk around the isle are not the only factors that bring visitors here. A great part of the isle’s attraction is its human history, and in particular the story of the fabulous treasure discovered in the ruined chapel by a schoolboy back in 1958.

St Ninian’s Isle has a terrific story to tell of human and natural history to the many thousands of visitors a year who walk across the sands and seek out the chapel site.

What these visitors cannot understand is why the Shetland community ignores the now unmarked chapel site and have left it abandoned to become an overgrown, decaying disgrace.

For some reason the disgraceful state of the St Ninian’s Isle chapel has been totally ignored for years by those who have been tasked to promote and look after our history and culture.

To cut down nettles, maintain the gate, fence and steps and paint the bench would hardly be at a high yearly cost.

In the past I have contacted Shetland Amenity Trust and Historic Scotland about the state of the site but neither organisation is interested in the upkeep of an important part of Shetland and Scotland’s heritage.

I guess if there was a multi-million pound vanity project to build a roof over the site there would be much more interest shown in looking after an important part of our culture and heritage.

Allen Fraser
Shetland Geotours


Add Your Comment
  • John Tulloch

    • September 16th, 2015 13:54

    Yes, Alan, im afraid you’re 100 percent right. This is a shocking embarrassment that so iconic a historic Shetland site be so neglected.

    When the St Ninian’s Isle treasure was discovered and excavated, the Scottish authorities were only too willing to ransack the place for the booty which they uplifted and took to Edinburgh, going to court to overrule the landowner’s and Aberdeen University’s udal law claim to retain it in Shetland.

    Ironically, when it comes to maintaining this incredibly important site where the treasure was found, I read elsewhere that the authorities say it’s “up to the landowner”!

    Pretty damned rich, that, in my book!

    The sooner Shetland has control of her own destiny, the better.

  • Brian Smith

    • September 16th, 2015 18:21

    Yes, the Old Norse prescribed that udal proprietors must cut their grass.

    • John Tulloch

      • September 16th, 2015 20:15

      Yes, Brian, thanks for that snippet which I might have supported but for the fact that we are dependent on the Scottish courts to administer justice.

      Given that they have already created the precedent of flouting udal law by ruling in favour of the seizure and subsequent transfer of the treasure to Edinburgh, they could not now enforce it on the St Ninian’s Isle landowner, regarding the non-cutting of the chapel grass, without invalidating their original decision.

      There is, however, a rather neat solution which could redress the injustice, namely:

      1. The Scottish authorities apologise for the breach of udal law and return the St Ninian’s Isle treasure to the Shetland Museum where it will stay from now on.
      2. Shetland Amenity Trust buys the tiny plot of land on which the chapel sits from the St Ninian’s Isle landowner.
      3. The new proprietor of the chapel respects and reinstates the udal law requirement that the proprietor cuts the grass.

      That would redress the original breach of udal law, return the treasure to where it should have been all along and the new chapel owner will honour the requirement to cut the grass.

      As I say, “neat”?

  • Bill Smale

    • September 16th, 2015 21:22

    “Shetland Amenity Trust constantly strives to preserve and enhance everything that is distinctive about Shetland’s cultural and natural heritage”…………….or does it?

  • Johan Adamson

    • September 17th, 2015 8:56

    I dont understand why Historic Scotland are responsible for some sites and not others. Why is it up to the Amenity Trust? I guess if they could get a grant to maintain this and other sites, such as the Staneydale temple site, they would do it. There seems to be a hierarchy of historic sites?

    • John N Hunter

      • September 17th, 2015 22:59

      Unlike Scalloway Castle and Fort Charlotte Historic Scotland don’t own the ground so they are not interested in maintaining it.

  • Martin Watt

    • September 23rd, 2015 16:43

    Seriously? If it’s really such an issue why not get a group of volunteers together to go and tidy it up. It seems community spirit has all but disappeared to be replaced by reliance on under-funded public services.

  • Johan Adamson

    • October 15th, 2015 11:35

    After a visit to Orkney it is obvious that our crofters are missing a trick. These sites on private land could be made good with a tidy up, some information and/or a visitor centre with guides. One site we visited in Orkney on private land (and they even give out wellies) has 11,000 visitors a year. At £20 for a family of 4 that is £55,000 per year. And St Ninians for one is an extremely good site. Im away to contact geophys …

  • Leslie Sinclair

    • October 15th, 2018 15:41

    The chapel is part of shetlands christian heritage. Please look after it.

  • Tony Gillings

    • June 25th, 2020 16:47

    Sometime in 1987, I think, a group of volunteers – headed up by Val Turner – did some work on the site to try restore it. They spent a weekend there and the work was featured on BBC Radio Lerwick. The volunteers were all local people, who cared deeply about the site and were supported by some students from Glasgow University. The Shetland Times and Shetland Life all covered this work….


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