St Ninian’s shrine was one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Scotland for centuries, and attracted visitors from the British Isles and beyond.
In 1302, the future Edward II of England visited Whithorn while commanding an occupying army in Scotland. Scots apparently attempted to thwart him by removing a famous picture of the saint to Sweetheart Abbey, which then miraculously transported itself back to Whithorn. In 1329 Robert the Bruce endured a long, painful journey to Whithorn seeking a cure, just three months before his death.
His son, David II, also visited Whithorn. At the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, two arrow-heads lodged in his body. Tradition has it that one of them resisted extraction until he visited the shrine.
As the numbers of pilgrims grew, so did the town. Inns and hostelries offered shelter to travellers, and townsfolk were kept busy providing food and goods.
Craftsmen had a ready market for their wares, blacksmiths repaired carts and shod horses, and cobblers repaired shoes worn out during long journeys. Pilgrims to Whithorn lined the roads of Galloway. In 1427 James I issued a decree of safe conduct to pilgrims to Whithorn from England and the Isle of Man.
The late 1400s and early 1500s were a golden age for Whithorn and its priory thanks to visits from James IV. A building campaign started around 1500, in which a large chapel was added at the south of the east end. It created a grander setting in which pilgrims could observe the main shrine.