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The Walk to St Ninian’s Isle
by Stephen Howarth

Contrary currents and conflicting waves
have marked this place out: Saint Ninian’s sands,
dividing the water from island to island:

a beach that reaches across the sea,
a boyhood playground with multitudes of
memories, to be told another time —

Today, let me walk you to the thistle-bound isle
to show you the remnants of the ancient
chapel in which a Pictish silver hoard was found:

the feasting bowls, the dragon-headed brooches
used to fix the folds of a cloak, the sword-hilts,
the chapes and thimble-shaped mounts,

all buried here for St Ninian’s protection,
twelve hundred years ago in defence against
the horror of the Viking raids – which helped create

Hjaltland, Shetland. An easy walk through
a thousand years of this almost holy island,
this almost heart of Shetland, absorbing

the light, the wind, the bleating of the sheep,
the washing of the sea, and the whispering waves.
In the ebb lie flattened pebbles, stones

shaped for skimming in moments when
the sea is smooth. The waves say
Hush, this calm afternoon, take rest in

our music, we will play as you play. In this country,
this is unique, a sea-crossing sand, and we,
we are the eternal beach-makers.

AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: This photo shows St Ninian’s sands, looking from St Ninian’s Isle to Mainland and the village of Bigton. Mainland is the name of the main island of the Shetland archipelago. Bigton was pretty much my Shetland family’s home there when I was a boy, with another vital set on the island of Bressay. I still have one aunt living there in Bigton, a Scrabble fanatic, whom I hope to see and play against in September. She is 88 and will probably win. Photo by Stephen Howarth (August 2019). 

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I am English by birth but only 3/8 English by blood: for the rest, I’m 1/8 Scottish and half Shetland. Shetland (the most northerly part of Britain) is officially Scottish, but geographically and emotionally the archipelago is as close to Norway as it is to mainland Britain. I am positively internationalist. I call myself British, identifying as European, and have active treasured friends in many countries – not least the USA, literally from coast to coast. In pre-lockdown years I loved to travel widely and hope to do so again. Meanwhile, I invite you to a tiny taste of Shetland.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephen Howarth has been an independent professional author of history all his working life. He served in the Royal Naval Reserves both on the lower deck and as an officer and wrote the official centenary history of the RNR – for which he was appointed an honorary Commander by HM the Queen. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Life Member of the US Naval Institute and The 1805 Club. He earned a Master’s degree (with Distinction) in creative writing at Nottingham Trent University.