A Journey to St. Ninian’s
A view from St. Ninian's Isle. (Credit: Emilie Knudsen)
By: Emilie Knudsen
When I arrive in Shetland at the end of June, I discover that there are only a few hours of grey-dark twilight to bookend the day. True night doesn’t exist here. At 2 a.m., I can look out of my cabin window to see the shadows of trees and the slim shore of the fjord. During the day, the weather is cool and constantly laced with fog, which the slapping wind cannot lever from the ground. So, I closet myself in my little cabin, but I soon learn that you can chase the sun here in Shetland, that even though there might be clouds at the heart of the island, it doesn’t mean there isn’t somewhere a beach bathing in sunlight.
On my last night in Shetland, I follow the flight paths of puffins as they sail wind currents on Sumburgh’s cliffsides until the clouds grow thick and my glasses are covered in a relentless film of rain. During my drive back, the clouds break apart along the west coast and I follow that square of sunshine to the small village of Bigton, where I discover St. Ninian’s Island. My day had been weather-beaten and grey, but here in front of me, awash in sun, is a deep green isle connected to Shetland’s mainland via a golden tombolo, a narrow shelf of sand that bows across the Atlantic to the island. Access to St. Ninian’s fluctuates seasonally — in winter the arcing beach is often tumbled over by high tides. Walking over the tombolo is like walking across a tamer version of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. On both sides of me, there is the cold wrath of gods.
St. Ninian’s is divested of human habitation. Not much remains of its 12th-century chapel nor of its last inhabitants, whose exodus occurred as the world eked into the 19th century. All that can be found here today are a few herds of locally owned sheep and an immense number of rabbits. I walk among their warrens, move around their hawk-vandalized corpses, and accidentally step into their hide-y holes. As I move across the island, the landscape moves with me — out of the corners of my eyes I can see stringy brown bodies diving for cover, the scrub twitching at their passing.
Though the center of the island belongs to the rabbits, the cliffs belong to the herds. I go from stepping in rabbit scat to that of sheep as I follow the little paths they’ve made to circumnavigate the island. If it is a path safe for the sheep, it is safe for me too, I tell myself as I creep along the cliff edge so I can look back upon Ninian’s tombolo. Eventually, I find an ewe and two lambs to follow with my camera who are not too wary of me. The lambs gambol together under the watchful gaze of their mother, whose face contains all the structural beauty of a mashed brick. The lambs are fragile in comparison, having never weathered a winter on this barren island thrust into the Atlantic.
The narrow clifftop sheep path. (Credit: Emilie Knudsen)
I come to a divergence in the sheep path — one way follows along the main cliff-line of the island, the other bisects a narrow gap of grass. To cross it, I would have to not look down, as I fear heights. I already know my body’s instinctual reaction: shaking legs, fluttering heart, shallow breaths. And the gap is only two feet wide. On either side is a drop off to sharp rocks jutting from turbulent waves. I wonder if I should risk it. No one knows I’m out here. If I were to slip and fall, if I were to misplace one step, or trip over the toes of my heavy boots, I would be done for. I tell myself that I need to work on my self-assurance, that I need to trust this body I’ve been given to perform this simple task, that I simply cannot continue gently walking through the world, but must learn to bravely forge my own path. So what if that brave path is one that I coincidentally share with sheep? And so I leap forward, practically running as I cross the gap.
Relief floods me as I make it the few steps to the other side where the earth widens. But the grass is long and thick here, presumably less grazed upon by sheep. The cant of the clifftop is steeper than I thought. The ground seems to point downwards and I think about sinking to my knees. Would that be safer? Navigating the world on all fours like the sheep? But I came here to stand tall, breathe deep, and take pictures. I will leave in a moment, I tell myself. So, I fumble out my phone, too afraid to risk dropping the lens of my Nikon, and I snap some photos of the cliffs.
Looking through the screen of my phone at the dizzying landscape is what sets on the nausea.
I suddenly reel, taking a few involuntary steps back towards the slip-slide into the sea. I drop my phone to my pocket and squint my eyes, trying to kneecap my fear by decreasing the amount of terror-tinged information my brain is receiving. What is left is this: me staring downwards over the steep slope that is trying to claim me and into the waters below. A seal is there, head out of the water, nostrils flaring, eyes fixed directly onto me. Though the seal bobs in the waves, she is the only thing held still in my reeling world. Her gaze centers me, stays my body from making an ungainly tumble into oblivion.
We stare at each other for what feels like minutes, but I know is just long enough for me to gain a center of gravity once more. I turn and flee back across the cliff edge and the narrow gap and I’m among the sheep scat once more. I look back long enough to see the seal sink beneath the waves. I had been planning to continue my journey around the island, but I escape the ewes and their playful lambs. Through the rabbit warrens and across the tombolo I flee until I finally collapse on the beach’s far side to drink some water from my shaking bottle and to write my name in the sand so that the ocean might still yet claim some small part of me.
Emilie Knudsen is a fellow with the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center working on a novel incorporating the fabled landscapes of ancient Scottish cultures. Knudsen is a third-year MFA student studying fiction and traveled to the islands of Scotland for two months during the summer of 2022 to explore the country’s varied and isolated geographies, and to visit the many chambered burial cairns, menhirs, Neolithic settlements, and megalithic structures that populate Scotland’s far reaches.
Emilie Knudsen at the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. (Credit: Emilie Knudsen)