St Ninian's Isle Shetland

Grade: Easy coastal walk

Distance: 4miles/6km

Time: 2-3 hours 

ST Ninian is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland long before Columba and he was, for a time, the Abbot of Lindisfarne. A lovely little island, just off the shore of Shetland's south Mainland is named after him, although it's unlikely Ninian ever travelled this far north.

The ruins of a 12th century church are to be found on the island but what makes this place so special is the double curve of cockleshell sand that links the island to the mainland of Shetland. Technically this feature is known as a tombolo. Tides and currents sweep around the island and meet on either side of this golden strand, constantly washing sand up from the seabed.

The National:

Apparently this is the only tombolo in the British Isles that has been formed by sand. Other tombolos are shingle, or pebbles, although it's likely that the St Ninian's tombolo has its origins in shingle.

A car park and picnic area below the hamlet of Bigton offers access to the 'sand road' and once through some marram grass dunes you can enjoy the walk across to the island with the unusual aspect of waves lapping on bothleft and right. Arctic terns are very territorial hereabouts and will swoop down very close to you, screeching and sniping at you for invading their territory.

Once across the tombolo a sandy path climbs up onto the island itself. The remains of the old church lie to your right but leave that to the end of the walk. Head south around St Ninian's Bay and enjoy the prospect of the island's ragged coast, culminating in the cliff-girt islets of Inns Holm and Coar Holm. Although the cliffs are sheer the sheltered waters tend to be calmer here and you may see, or hear, a raft of eider ducks crooning gently or seals basking on the low lying rock ledges.

Follow the coastline west, crossing a stile over a large wall, before turning north with views across a broad expanse of ocean towards the distant outline of Foula. Pass Longa Berg and the seabird haunted island of Hich Holm, before negotiating your way round the big cove of Selchie Geo. Beyond a stone built wind-break follow the cliffs out towards the long nose of The Neapack and its trig point. A narrow grassy ridge leads on towards the bare rock of Loose Head.

Foula and away to the south, beyond the big lump of Fitful Head, lie the distant shores of Fair Isle, midway between Orkney and Shetland. Dominating everything are the continual, elemental cries of wheeling seabirds. Virtually every cliff has its own population of young fulmars - downy, fluffy lumps with two eyes and a gaping, hungry beak wait patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, for their parents to return to the ledges and regurgitate some food for them.

Natural history tends to dominate most walks on Shetland but there is human history here too - plenty of it. The ruins you come across on the way back towards the tombolo are the remains of a 12th century church, but it's believed the site was previously used by Norse settlers and before that as a pre-Christian burial site dating to the 3rd century AD. During excavations in the 1950s a local schoolboy found a larch box containing 28 items of Pictish silver ornaments. They are all on display in the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, with replicas in the Shetland Museum in Lerwick. Would it not be better the other way round?

Map: OS 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 4 (Shetland – South Mainland)
Distance: 4 miles/6km
Time: 2-3 hours
Start/Finish: Car park below the village of Bigton on west Mainland, Shetland (GR: HU 375209).

The National:

Route: From car park follow path through the marram grass sand dunes and on to the sandy tombolo. Cross the ‘sand road’ towards the island and take obvious path up a sandy gully. Turn L at the top and cross a stile. Follow coastline W before turning N. Pass Longa Berg and Hich Holm, before negotiating your way round Selchie Geo. Beyond a stone windbreak follow cliffs towards the long nose of the Neapack and its trig point. A narrow grassy ridge leads on towards Loose Head. Return from Loose Head and follow cliffs back to the sandy gully, just beyond the remains of the old church. Return to the mainland via the tombolo.

Link to digital map: © Crown copyright 2020 Ordnance Survey. Media 059/20.