In the 300s AD, Whithorn was an established centre of trade and control for a native British population, within the sphere of Roman Carlisle.
The year 431 is the traditional date ascribed to the death and burial here of St Ninian. In 731, Bede wrote of Ninian as a bishop who built a famous church at Whithorn, known as Candida Casa (or ‘shining white church’).
Recent studies by Dr Kathryn Forsyth and Dr Adrian Maldonado cast doubt on Bede’s account. Whithorn was certainly an important place – possibly even aroyal settlement. Excavations unearthed a large amount of coloured, imported glass, originally from drinking vessels – a quantity inconsistent with Whithorn being an early monastic community.
It was usual for royal settlements and Christian sites to develop together. The presence of so much glass suggests that Whithorn was in fact a secular settlement – though Christian – and the great church referred to by Bede was somewhere else nearby.
Several possibilities have been suggested for its location. The favourite is Kirkmadrine, across the bay, where there is another important collection of carved stone crosses. Water was then the easiest and fastest form of travel, so Kirkmadrine would have been easier to reach from Whithorn than it is today.
However Whithorn developed as a religious site, it became one of the most important in the land. It was associated with Ninian, and held his relics. His shrine was visited by many thousands of people, who came here to seek the saint’s healing powers.
There was a thriving commercial settlement at Whithorn by AD 1000, part of an extensive sea-trading network. The inland church benefited from wealth and ideas passing through the natural harbour at the Isle of Whithorn, just 3 miles (5km) to the south.