St. Ninian and Early Christianity in Whithorn

St Ninian Stained GlassHistorical evidence : Whithorn’s real fame rests on its claim to be the location of the first Christian Church in Scotland : although overshadowed in popular imagination by Columba and his church at Iona, Whithorn’s claim to be the first church in Scotland was substantiated as early as 731 AD by the Venerable Bede who wrote of Whithorn and St. Ninian or Nynia, in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum: the Southern Picts “a long time before.. (565 AD, Columba’s ministry) embraced the true faith as the fruit of the preaching of Ninian, a Briton, a deeply revered bishop and a man of great sanctity”.

There are other shreds of historical evidence, which help build up a picture of the somewhat shadowy figure of Ninian : in the late eighth century the “Miracula Nynie Episcopi” was written and later still, sometime between 1154 and 1160, Ailred of Rievaulx wrote a prose life of Ninian. Both texts, although containing slightly different stories, detail the life of Ninian and the miracles attributed to him. Some of these became part of a popular picture of Ninian, which still survives today : for example, Ninian’s visit to Rome to train and return to Whithorn is detailed. The texts also refer to his meeting St Martin at Tours and the resulting construction of Candida Casa (the word “Whithorn” means likewise : shining house), his white-walled church. The traditional date for the commencement of Ninian’s work is AD397, which is the date of the death of St Martin, to whom Ninian dedicated his church. Although this date has been questioned by academics, the research at Whithorn has neither proved nor disproved this belief. Other stories of healing and miraculous deeds include his punishment and cure of King Tudvael, the acquittal of a priest accused of fornication, the providential growth of leeks, the miraculous umbrella which saved his book from the rain, cures of the blind, leprous and malformed and, after his death, the subsequent cures associated with a visit to his grave.

Christian stones in the MuseumAll the texts are written centuries after the death of Ninian and therefore the details are the subject of much discussion; a huge scholarly literature has grown up round Ninian’s life, and the Friends of the Whithorn Trust annually host a lecture given by a specialist in history or archaeology, which have added new material to this debate.

The “who, whence and when” of Ninianic debate is therefore still alive and kicking, after a century of writings, and many centuries of tantalising comment : one leading academic, however, recently asked if the historical fact behind the person really matters. Is it more important to focus on the faith of people over many centuries and the effect of that faith on their lives and actions?

The crypts and Priory precinctArchaeological evidence : In the 1980’s, a renewed effort was made to discover the archaeological evidence for the existence of a Christian site at Whithorn, with dramatic results. There had been excavations in the preceding century and in the post-World War II years, but most had focussed on the area round the crypts and within the bounds of the Priory, at the top of the hill. In 1984, the proposal to build sheltered housing in Whithorn just below the crest of the hill, on what is now the field open to visitors, led to an excavation which uncovered exciting evidence of many periods of occupation. From the period which we could call “Ninianic”, say, from around AD 450, there was evidence of trade with countries of the Mediterranean, which recalled the traditional story of contact with Gaul; together with evidence of technological advances in metal-working and agriculture, as well as the testimony of the carved stones (housed in the Museum) this pointed to a literate, highly organised and sophisticated people settled in Whithorn in the early Christian era.

The excavations also established that during a period of Northumbrian influence, Whithorn first became a pilgrimage centre, where visitors to the shrine of St Ninian sought cures ; the church from this period is now marked out on the site which you can visit. In the 9th century a fire, caused either by accident or malicious act, destroyed the church. Whithorn also came under Viking influence and from this period, archaeological evidence suggests that cats were farmed for their skins and finely decorated antler combs were manufactured. The great Whithorn School crosses with their characteristic round heads and interlace decoration were carved during this period.

A wooden image of St. NinianWe can now only speculate on the fine Romanesque cathedral that was built by Fergus of Galloway in 1128. Few remnants of this building remain except the fine archway built into the ruins of the nave on the hill at Whithorn. By this time, Whithorn was a pilgrimage centre to which roads and sea-routes led from all parts of Scotland, from Ireland , Man and England. The exhibition has on loan, from the National Museum of Scotland, a wooden figure believed to be Ninian, the fine 12th century Whithorn crozier, a chalice and patten and bishops’ rings, which attest to the prosperity and the flourishing of the arts at this time. We have to turn to historical records, such as James IV’s Treasurer’s records, to imagine the pageantry which must have accompanied the royal pilgrimages to Whithorn during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

The dissolution of the Priory resulted in great secular estates being formed and in the post reformation period the medieval street plan was preserved although buildings were altered in height. Much work remains to be done on the development of the town in the aftermath of the Reformation. The future of archaeological excavation, however, is more likely to lie in small-scale excavations which aim to answer a particular question or focus on a particular aspect, than in the large-scale excavations of 1984-1996.