St Ninian's Isle
St Ninian's is one of the finest sand tombolos in Europe, and it is the largest active tombolo in the UK.
enlarge Spits, bars and ayres or tombolos are characteristic of the inner coast and voes of Shetland. They are typical of submerging coastlines. Today in Shetland you are never more than 5km from the sea but it wasn't always like this. During glacial times, a large amount of water was locked away as ice, making sea levels considerably lower. Only when the ice began to melt some 12,000 years ago did the seas begin to rise.
Much of Shetland became a flooded landscape as the lower ends of its valleys drowned beneath the rising waters. Numerous sea inlets - the 'voes' now characteristic of Shetland - were formed. In addition, rising sea levels reworked sediments to produce stunning sandy or shingle beaches, bars and tombolos like St. Ninian's.
The chapel on St. Ninian's Isle is famous for the "treasure": 28 Pictish silver objects and the jaw bone of a porpoise which were buried under a cross-marked slab close to the altar.
The site was excavated in the late 1950s and in 2000/2001 and the graveyard demonstrates a continuity of pre Christian and Christian burial. The earliest burials were in long cists, stone boxes which were aligned north-south. The bodies were laid on their sides with their knees drawn up to their chests. A group of babies, aligned east-west and with tiny crosses at their heads were buried under empty cists and may represent the point at which Christian practices were being introduced, with pre Christian tradition still lingering. Other early Christian Pictish finds include corner -posts from stone shrines and stones with crosses carved onto them. The graveyard remained in use until the19th century.
The chapel which is visible is not the earliest chapel on the site. There are traces of a wall beneath it. The dedication to Ninian is thought to be late and not contemporary with the founding of the chapel.
The "treasure" was of several different styles and was thought to be the collection of a family rather than ecclesiastical and includes bowls, weaponry and jewellery. People believed that the Church would not be violated and that it was therefore a good place in which to hide things for safekeeping. Whilst tragedy may have overtaken the owners, the treasure was indeed safe until 1958 when a Shetland schoolboy working on the excavation discovered it. The silver is in the National Museum of Scotland, but replicas can be seen in the Shetland Museum.
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