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. No written references to St Ninian from the period he was alive have been found. We can only refer to works written many years after his death. Historians now read these texts carefully trying to separate the truth from tradition and embroidery from fact.
Whithorn's history as an Early Christian centre cannot be doubted. Archaeologists have uncovered clues from the earliest settlement in the 5th century. The people were trading and importing luxury goods from the Mediterranean and were working the land to produce food together. The Latinus Stone, which is the earliest Christian monument in Scotland shows that the community was Christian. Historically we do know that from the 7th century people have made a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of St Ninian in Whithorn believing in his power to cure illness and perform miracles. The town became a cult centre and over many centuries both kings and commoners made the journey and the fame of Ninian and Whithorn spread.
In the 7th century Whithorn came under the control of the Northumbrian church. In AD731 Bede, a famous historian completed his book “History of the English Church and People”. In this book he said that Ninian was ‘a most reverend bishop and holy man of the nation of Britons’ who had been trained in Rome. The Episcopal see was named after St Martin and his church was known as Candida Casa because it was built from stone in a way unknown to the Britons. At this time there were arguments between the Celtic Church and the Roman Church. The Northumbrian church supported the Roman Church and Bede made much of Ninian receiving training in Rome. The complex of buildings revealed from this time was able to feed and house visitors to the shrine. One of a probable range of churches was also discovered with a burial chapel decorated with stained glass windows.
In the 8th century a Latin poem ‘Miracula Nynie Episcopi’ was written by a monk at the monastery at Whithorn. In the 12th century Ailred of Rievaulx wrote his “Life of St Ninian”. Some stories in the books tell of the life, good works and goodness of the saint and some tell of cures and conversion of people to Christianity. Churches and altars across Scotland and further away in Europe were dedicated to St Ninian.
Archaeology shows that new churches are constantly being built and altered in Whithorn. By the 12th century a huge cathedral was on the hillside with a thriving town around it. The many people visiting the shrine needed food and other trades in the town, much like a visitor to the town today.
It was only after the Reformation that Whithorn’s fortunes began to fail. Pilgrims still visit Whithorn and others come to discover the history of the town and its role in shaping the history of Scotland.
This stained glass window in the Whithorn Story Exhibition by Richard LeClerk is a copy of a Douglas Strachan window in St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle.
St. Ninian Placenames
Schools in the Cradles of Christianity
Bethlehem is the Cradle of Christianity, and Whithorn has become popularly known as The Cradle of Christianity in Scotland. In 2002, the Whithorn Primary School undertook to form a linkage with an Arab Christian school in Bethlehem, pictures and gifts sent from each school to the other, and letters written between the children of the two ancient towns.
In spite of the vast differences of political situations and cultural backgrounds, there were poignant reasons why an instant sympathetic bonding occurred between the children across the miles. Bethlehem was being ringed off from the rest of the world in an increasingly stringent security control; the Whithorn area was under a different kind of siege caused by the foot and mouth epidemic. Children in Bethlehem were preoccupied with the reality of recent deaths and shootings, including shell bombardments of fringes of the town; children of the Whithorn school had recently experienced the trauma of the deaths of an entire local fishing crew in the Solway Harvester tragedy. More normal things helped form friendships between the children of the two places. They were gleeful in sharing titles of favourite video games, football heroes and pop music titles. There was a video in which Whithorn children were singing “Walk in the Light” for the benefit of Prince Charles during his visit to the ancient priory. As children in Bethlehem watched this video, they spontaneously burst into singing in accompaniment, for it was one of their favourite songs.
The Ninian Room in Bethlehem
In token of the title 'Cradle of Christianity' in both Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and also because of the influence of Jerome's Vulgate version of the Bible upon the early British churches, a room for visitors to Bethlehem at the Bethlehem Bible College on Hebron Road was dedicated as "The Ninian Room".