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History / Petition launched to bring St Ninian’s Isle treasure back to Shetland

Scabbard chape of silver with zoomorphic terminals with glass insets for eyes, Pictish, from St Ninian's Isle, 8th century. Photo: National Museums Scotland

A PETITION has been launched to bring the famous St Ninian’s Isle treasure back to Shetland.

The historic silver items were found buried on the isle by Douglas Coutts as a schoolboy in 1958.

However, they are stored at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland – with only replicas on show at the Shetland Museum.

Local resident Scott Nicolson has now started an online petition to bring the original pieces, which are a hugely significant find for Shetland, back to the isles.

A spokesperson for National Museums Scotland said the treasure is in Edinburgh due to its national and international significance.

Bowl of silver, decorated with four pairs of grotesque animals, interlocking, Pictish, from St Ninian’s Isle, 8th century. Photo: National Museums Scotland

But they said the organisation is “open to discussion” about other forms of collaboration and sharing of the national collection following the publication of a refreshed strategy which commits to working with museums across the country.

There have long been calls for the items to return to Shetland on a permanent basis.

They took the trip north on a temporary loan basis back in 1966 and 2008 before heading back to the Scottish capital.

The treasure find consists of 28 silver and silver-gilt decorated objects, thought to have been made during the second half of the eighth century.

It includes bowls, a spoon, decorative pieces from swords and 12 brooches.

It is thought they could have been hidden from Viking raiders.

It was found during University of Aberdeen excavations of a medieval church that once existed on St Ninian’s Isle.

The treasure, which was taken down south after its discovery, was found buried under a slab marked with a cross.

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Coutts was helping out on the excavations when he came across the discovery on his first day on site.

National Museum Scotland said it is generally assumed that the treasure was hidden beneath the floor of an earlier chapel. It is the only Scottish hoard of fine metalwork of this date to survive in its entirety.

At the time of writing, Nicolson’s petition has gained more than 120 signatures.

It says: “We wish to see the repatriation of the true St Ninian’s Isle treasure to Shetland – the place where it was discovered and is historically and locationally linked, where it can then be put on display in the museum for all of Shetland and the world to see in its natural habitat.”

Nicolson added that he realises “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and there are obviously hoops to jump through – while he says he would not want any other potential exhibits to be jeopardised or “put on the back burner just for the sake of getting the real treasure back”.

“But even if this is just the first step towards some dialogue between the museums hopefully that can get the ball rolling towards something in the future,” he said.

Back in 2007 Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael lodged a motion in parliament calling on the treasure to be housed in the newly opened Shetland Museum and Archives.

Alistair Carmichael. Photo: Shetland News

Speaking this week, the MP said his view remained that the Shetland Museum was the best place for the treasure.

“The idea that treasure like this was best help in national museums in capital cities belongs in the twentieth if not maybe the nineteenth century,” he told Shetland News.

“Modern technology can allow access to it for people around the world from Shetland. Housing the treasure here would put it in its proper context.

“It would also be front and centre of the museum’s exhibition here whereas in Edinburgh it will always be just another exhibit.

“I first raised this in a parliamentary motion at the time of museum opening in 2007. It is interesting to note that one of my co-sponsors of the motion then was Angus Robertson, then an MP but now a cabinet secretary in the SNP/Green government with responsibility for, amongst other things, culture.

“He presumably could have some influence that would help us to move this on.”

A spokesperson for National Museums Scotland said: “The St Ninian’s Isle Treasure is part of the National Collection due to its national and international significance, and it sits appropriately in the context of the wider story of medieval Scotland in the National Museum.

“However, we have recently published a new National Strategy in which we set out our commitment to supporting the sector and working with museums across the country, and so we are open to discussion about other forms of collaboration and sharing of the National Collection.”

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