Whithorn is the home of the earliest recorded Christian community in Scotland and was the episcopal seat of Bishop Ninian, the apostle of the southern Picts.
In the centuries after St. Ninian's death, the original British community was transformed by contact with Irish, Northumbrian, Viking, Hiberno-Norse, Anglo-Norman and Scottish settlers.
The story of St. Ninian brought pilgrims and prosperity to Whithorn for a thousand years. After the banning of pilgrimages at the time of the Reformation, the town and area went into a decline.
In modern times, Whithorn's ancient status as the original site of Christian influence in Northern Britain sadly has been forgotten by many, the memory of its greatness considerably eclipsed by the popular fame of Iona.
The Machars of Wigtownshire
The Machars of Wigtownshire, the peninsular area in which Whithorn was established, is a treasure-trove study for historians of every period, from pre-history stones to major historical features of the last century.
Chambered cairns, cup and ring stones, stone circles and individual standing stones dot the unspoilt landscape.
There are iron age forts, crannog sites, ancient wells, early Christian sites, medieval castle and church sites, with the remaining evidences of early harbours, roads, causeways and bridges that connected this area to the wider world. The spacious medieval town squares of Whithorn and Wigtown, with market crosses and town halls, indicate their prominent roles in trade in the once-prosperous county.
Seventeenth century Covenanter graves and martyrdom sites feature locally. Grand estates and their nearby planned new-town villages speak of the times when the farming of the land changed from the ways of ancient times to more modern practices.
The remains of a railway line and old mills workings appeal to those drawn to the industrial archaeology of more recent centuries, while Garlieston is a draw for those interested in the World War II preparations for D-Day.
Many families from the Whithorn area emigrated to Canada, the United States and Australia from the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the unique Machars surnames were therefore scattered widely all over the world.
Those wishing to trace family connections in the area will find that, since population movement in the Machars was relatively limited in the nineteenth century and since many families both in villages and farms have remained resident for well over a century, the Machars is an ideal place to begin ancestral research.
The local registrar (Archie Taylor , 75 George Street, Whithorn) and local libraries have amassed considerable amounts of relevant archive material. There are several volumes of names and inscriptions from Whithorn's cemetery painstakingly composed by Mr. Birchman, and you will also find that local people are approachable and knowledgeable on the subject of family history. Some prominent local families, like the Hannays (Hannahs, Hannas) of Sorbie and the Vances (Vans, Vaux) of Barnbarroch, occasionally have family gatherings of members from the local area and from as far afield as Canada and Australia. The Ewart Library at Dumfries also provides a professional genealogical research service, and details can be obtained from libraries at Whithorn and Port William.
The 'Through the Lens' series of old photographs of Dumfries and Galloway has done much to publish vintage pictures of the area, and volumes relating to Whithorn and the South Machars, farming, ports and characters are all on sale from bookshops and the local libraries.
For on-line listings of those buried in Whithorn, please visit:
St. Ninian's Old Churchyard
Genealogy in Wigtownshire
Register House for Scotland