Wednesday, December 27, 2006

St Ninian

Hours of St Ninian. St Ninian, Bishop of Whithorn, with mitre and crozier.
Text beginning with decorated initial 'N'. Borders with foliate decoration.
Probably executed for a Scottish lady
France [possibly Bourges]; 15th century
British Library, London

St Ninian`s Chapel, Whithorn

St Ninian`s Cave, By Whithorn

Exhibits of Stones in Whithorn Priory Museum

St. Ninian(c. 360 - 432).
Also known as Ninias, Nynia, Ninus, Dinan, Ringan, Ringen

St. Ninian is a shadowy figure in history. He is acknowledged as Scotland's first saint with the date 397AD celebrated as the beginning of his mission to his people.

There is very little that we know about him.

Christianity existed in Scotland prior to St Ninian, yet his apostolate is the first distinct fact in the history of the Scottish Church. He is the earliest recorded Christian missionary north of Hadrian's Wall. He built the earliest known church in, what is now, Scotland. This was done about one hundred years prior to the landing of St Columba on Iona, and more than two hundred years before St Augustine came to Canterbury on the orders of Gregory the Great.

The earliest recorded reference is in Bede`s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People):

"... a most reverend bishop and holy man of the British nation, who had been regularly instructed at Rome, in the faith and mysteries of the truth; whose episcopal see, named after St.Martin the bishop, and famous for a stately church (wherein he and many other saints rest in the body), is still in existence among the English nation. The place belongs to the province of the Bernicians, and is generally called the White House, because he there built a church of stone, which was not usual among the Britons."

Bede lived from 673-735 AD

The original heartland of Bernicia seems to have been around the Tyne. During the 7th century,Bernicia united with the Kingdom of Deira. The unified kingdom, Northumbria, expanded west to the Irish Sea, and north to occupy much of, what is now, southern Scotland.

Ninian, says Bede, was a Briton. He was regularly trained at Rome. Further, he preached the gospel to the Picts who lived to the south of the Grampian mountains. Even these statements of Bede are qualified by his cautious 'as they relate,' showing that they were based on tradition which he considered worthy of credit. Early religious sites were not chosen at random; they were often in the neighbourhood of the seat of the local prince or king, and the position of Candida Casa suggests that Ninian was there with the approval of the British ruler of the district, whose consent and protection had been secured. Whithorn pre-dates St Ninian. It is mentioned by Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer, in the first half of the second century, A.D., as ` Leukopibia, ' a town of the Novantæ.

At the time when St Ninian was about to embark on his "instruction at Rome" three of the great masters or Doctors of the Church - St Ambrose (AD339-397), St Jerome (AD341-420), St Augustine (AD354-430)- were already in middle age. Ninian was a follower of St Martin of Tours (AD316-397). It was to Magnum Monasterium, Mór Muinntir, Marmoutier, close to Tours, (of which city, St Martin was bishop) that St Ninian went to study, before coming back to his homeland.

Fourteen years after the foundation of his settlement at Whithorn, the Roman Legions finally withdrew from Britain.

St Ninian's foundation at Whithorn was at first to be known as Muinntir Mór, but he himself called it after Martin's first foundation at Ligugé ( Logotegiacum being the Latin form of Ligugé) coming from the Celtic leuk (Gaelic geal, shining white) and tigh, a house. From this then came the name Candida Casa.

The next source for the life of St Ninian is Saint Aelred (Ethelred) of Rievaulx (c.1110-1167AD), a Cistercian monk.

This account is lengthy and must be regarded as being encrusted with legends and stories which had gathered about the saint over the 700 or so years after his death. He wrote:

"On the trustworthy testimony of this great author [Bede], we have been made acquainted with the origin of Saint Ninian ... But that which he briefly, in view of the tenor of his history, seemeth barely to have touched upon, a book of his Life and Miracles, written in a barbarous style, detaileth at greater length. This book, never varying from the foundation of this witness, hath recorded in historical fashion the way whereby he made this commencement, merited such fruit, and attained unto so worthy an end."

Aelred continues:

"Therefore in the island of Britannia ... did the blessed Ninian spring: in that region, it is supposed, in the western part of the island (where the ocean stretching as an arm, and making as it were on either side two angles, divideth at this day the realms of the Scots and the Angles) ..."

There is a strong mythological element to Ailred's account, and he makes the unlikely claim that Ninian was the son of a king.

At any rate, Ninian studied in Rome, and Aelred asserts that:

"The Roman Pontiff, hearing that some in the western parts of Britain had not yet received the faith of our Saviour, and that some had heard the word of the gospel either from heretics or from men ill instructed in the law of God, moved by the Spirit of God, consecrated the said man of God [Ninian] to the episcopate with his own hands, and, after giving him his benediction, sent him forth as an apostle to the people aforesaid."

On his return journey to Britain from Rome, Ninian spent some time with St.Martin de Tours, at Marmoutier Abbey.

"Ninian besought of the saint masons, stating that he proposed to himself that, as in faith, so in the ways of building churches and in constituting ecclesiastical offices, he desired to imitate the holy Roman Church. The most blessed man assented to his wishes; and so, satiated with mutual conversations as with heavenly feasts, after embraces, kisses, and tears shed by both, they parted, holy Martin remaining in his own See, and Ninian hastening forth under the guidance of Christ to the work whereunto the Holy Ghost had called him... he selected for himself a site in the place which is now termed Witerna [meaning 'White House'; modern Whithorn, Galloway], which, situated on the shore of the ocean, and extending far into the sea on the east, west, and south sides, is closed in by the sea itself, while only on the north is a way open to those who would enter. There, therefore, by the command of the man of God, the masons whom he had brought with him built a church, and they say that before that none in Britannia had been constructed of stone. And having first learnt that the most holy Martin, whom he held always in wondrous affection, had passed from earth to heaven, he was careful to dedicate the church itself in his honour."

When he died (c.432), Ninian was, says Aelred:

"... buried in the Church of Blessed Martin, which he had built from the foundations, and he was placed in a stone sarcophagus near the altar ..."

A full account of Aelred`s Life of St Ninian can be accessed in the Links section below.

Whithorn, in the seventh and eighth centuries onwards, was very much a focus of Christianity, very much at the centre of things spreading Christianity eastwards.

That Ninian`s work among the southern Picts was not permanent in all cases appears from the references of his younger contemporary St Patrick to the "apostate Picts" who shared with the British of Strathclyde and the pagan Scots of Alba in the spoil of Christian captives from Ireland.

But that failure - which may well have been only partial - did not mean the eclipse of Candida Casa.

That remained long an important centre of religious life and learning, widely known and much frequented. The Irish styled it Teach Martain, 'Martin's House'; Rosnat, which is a diminutive from ross and means 'Little Cape'; Magnum Monasterium, 'the great monastery'; and Futerna, the latinized Gaelic form of the old English Hwiterne, 'White House.'

Some of the most eminent of early Irish clerics were trained there, the last on record of them is Findbarr of Magbile (Moyville) who died in 579. He came, it seems, to study under Mugint - a Briton.

From about 730 till about 800 there were Anglic bishops at Whithorn, 'and beyond these,' says William of Malmesbury, 'I find no more anywhere; for the bishopric soon failed, since it was the furthest shore of the Angles, and open to the raidings of the Picts and Scots.'

The name of Ninian was honoured to the end: between 782 and 804 Alcuin writes 'to the brethren of Saint Ninian of Candida Casa,' and causes a silken shroud (velum) to be sent for the body 'of our father Nyniga.' It is clear that long before Hí was founded by Columba, Candida Casa formed a very important link between Ireland and Scotland.

The old succession of bishops died out about 804.

By the 900s Whithorn had been settled by the Norse, who continued to use the area around the church as a burial ground. The Norse were ousted by 1100 and the Bishopric of Whithorn was re-established in 1128. This bishopric comprehended the whole of Wigtownshire, and by far the greater part of Kirkcudbrightshire, or all of it lying West of the river Urr. It was divided into the three deaneries of the Rhinns, Farines, and Desnes, lying westward respectively of Luce Bay, of the Cree, and of the Urr.

This marked the start of the second era of Christianity at Whithorn, for work began almost immediately on a much grander cathedral to replace St Ninian's original church. The cathedral of the Bishop of Whithorn was probably complete by the time Whithorn also became a Priory of the Premonstratensian Order of White Canons in 1177.

Gilla Aldan, the first bishop, was consecrated by the Archbishop of York. His successors looked to York as their proper metropolitan till at least the 14th century. The bishops of Galloway afterwards, like all the Scottish bishops, became suffragans of St Andrews. But on the erection of Glasgow, in 1491, into an archbishopric, they, along with the bishops of Argyll, Dunkeld, and Dunblane, passed under the surveillance of that arch see.

The cathedral and priory were extended in the 1200s and later modified on a number of occasions. The result when viewed from the south east by 1500 would have been a large church of fairly traditional design with a cloister surrounded by ranges of domestic buildings beyond it.

After the Reformation in 1560 parts of the cathedral fell rapidly into disrepair.

Whithorn was long a noted place of pilgrimage, owing to its connection with the memory of Saint Ninian. In 1425 James I. granted a protection to all strangers coming into Scotland as pilgrims to the shrine. In 1506 the Regent Albany granted a general safe-conduct to all pilgrims from England, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

Medieval pilgrims visited the shrine of St Ninian located in the vault of the Priory.A legend grew up that a cave about 5 miles away was the cave used by St Ninian for prayer. It is likely that in medieval times this cave was the site of a small church or shrine.

Many Scottish sovereigns, among them Margaret (queen of James III), James IV, and James V, made repeated pilgrimages to the saint's shrine, and left rich offerings behind them. The monastery, thus endowed, became opulent, and its income at the dissolution was estimated at over £1000.

The last prior (Fleming) was committed to prison in 1563 for the crime of saying Mass. But the practice of travelling to the shrine of St Ninian in quest of both physical and spiritual good, that, it continued for some time after the Reformation, and was not effectually put down till an Act of the Scottish parliament, passed in 1581, rendered it illegal.

The whole property of the priory was vested in the Crown by the annexation act of 1587, and was granted in 1606 by James VI to the occupant of the See of Galloway when he established Episcopalianism in Scotland in 1606.

The priory continued to belong to the bishopric until the revolution of 1688, at which date that see was the richest in the kingdom next to St. Andrews and Glasgow.

Little of the Priory survives today. The Romanesque cathedral is in ruins.

However in recent times there have been extensive archaeological investigations in and around the Christian sites at Whithorn. There has been much effort to re-discover the patrimony of the area which was long regarded as the cradle of Scottish Christianity.

The Priory, the Cave and the graveyards have been investigated. Many of the results now are within Historic Scotland`s Whithorn Priory Museum.

In the Museum are carved stones which were part of the Whithorn landscape, many of them standing within the precincts which surrounded an early church on the site of the medieval Priory. The earliest dates from around 450AD, but the majority were carved between 900AD and 1100AD.

Among the stones is the famous Latinus Stone, the earliest Christian stone in Scotland, which dates from about 450AD, less than 20 years after Ninian's death. It derives its name from its Latin inscription: "We praise you the Lord! Latinus, descendant of Barravados, aged 35, and his daughter, aged four, made a sign here."

The stone also carries a "chirho" symbol, the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek, Chi (X) and Rho (P), one overlaid on the other. This predates the use of the cross as a Christian symbol.

Another stone implores us to "Pray for Hwitu". The inscription dates from the 9th or 10th century when the area was controlled by the Anglians. Hwitu was a woman who took her name from the Old English place name for Whithorn itself which was Hwit-erne, meaning white house. She, and the loved ones requesting prayers for her soul, were probably people of some standing. Even though the cross was already old when the Anglo-Saxon runes were added, it was only the wealthy who could afford to be commemorated in such style.


For modern accounts of the life of St Ninian, see:

Catholic Encyclopaedia
Wikipaedia (which refers to a theory that St Ninian may also be the medieval St Finnegan)

For The Life of St Ninian by Ailred, Abbot of Rievaux
Translated from the Anglic language into Latin, see

For accounts of the history of Whithorn, see:

Catholic Encyclopaedia
The Whithorn Trust
Whithorn Priory on Undiscovered Scotland
Royal Burgh of Whithorn & District Business Association

For account and images of St Ninian`s Cave, see

Caves of Britain: St Ninian`s Cave

For The Whithorn Priory Museum and its exhibits:

Dumfries Museums
Historic Scotland site
Whithorn Priory Museum

For discussions on Celtic Christianity, the following sites may be of interest. Despite the sandals, there was nothing "New Age" about Celtic Christianity.
The Angelus: December 2000, Volume XXIII, Number 12
The Early British Church by Rev. Fr. Gerard Culkin

For a history of early Monasticism in context of the history of the times and in the history of early Christianity, see
A Study of the History of the Early Church in the First Six Centuries:Notes from a course taught by
Dr. James B. North, Cincinnati Bible Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio Spring 1990