The feast day of Saint Ninian is remembered in recent history as the day Pope Benedict XVI visited Scotland in 2010, but what of the saint himself? Bishop of Galloway, William Nolan, reflects on the figure that brought Christianity to our country.
I feel closest to St Ninian when I am on the beach at Physgill. This is the site of the annual pilgrimage in honour of the saint. Old pilgrim crosses etched on the nearby cave testify to the tradition that Ninian himself used this cave as a place of retreat.
Just a few miles away are the ruins of the medieval cathedral which used to house the remains of Ninian and which had been a great place of pilgrimage before the Reformation. Robert the Bruce was once a pilgrim there, as was Mary Queen of Scots. Richard III of England, made famous in the Shakespeare play and for the words “a horse a horse my kingdom for a horse”, had a devotion to Ninian. His prayer book contained the collect from St Ninian’s Mass.
Renovations in the abbey have uncovered some stones dressed in white. Are these the remains of the famous Candida Casa or white house that Ninian is said to have built and which gives the town itself its name (Whithorn from the anglo-saxon Hwit Aern)? Historians debate the facts, but St Bede and St Aelred, writing centuries later, give what is now the traditional story. That Ninian, a Briton, travelled to Rome where he was ordained Bishop by the Pope. On his return to Scotland he spent time with Martin of Tours. Ninian arrived in Whithorn in 397, the same year that Martin died, built his shining white church in a style that was new to the locals and dedicated the church to St Martin.
To put Ninian in the context of his time. In the same year that Ninian arrived in Scotland John Chrysostom became Bishop of Constantinople. The Roman emperor had already moved his capital from Rome to the east. Rome was in decline and the Roman hold on Britain was weakening.
The area around Whithorn and the nearby Rhinns of Galloway were at one stage a great centre of Christianity. Ancient stones such as those of Kirkmadrine (with the famous chi rho symbol) and the Latinus stone (bearing the inscription ”te dominum laudamus”, “we praise you Lord”) show how far back in history our Christian roots go. The Latinus stone dates from around the year 450. It is the oldest Christian monument in Scotland and takes us almost to the time of Ninian himself.
Whithorn nowadays can seem a remote spot. But back in Ninian’s day it was well located with excellent transport links on the seas, which were the motorways of their time. There are many place names associated with Ninian throughout Scotland, a testimony perhaps to the missionary efforts of him and his disciples.
Many people in Scotland mistakenly think that it was Columba who first brought the faith to our country. Ninian predates Columba by a century and a half. Ninian suffers from the fact that there is little historical detail about him. He is like so many of the 12 apostles of Jesus. We are told our faith is built on the foundations of the apostles but beyond their names we know little about them or their missionary efforts.
The great medieval church is now but a ruin, and all that is left of the famous Candida Casa are a few white stones. But the cave is still there, a place of retreat for Ninian, and on our annual pilgrimage, even with several hundred people there, it is a place of tranquillity, a place where you are close to Ninian, a place where you are grateful for the faith that he brought to Scotland, a place where you are close to God.
Bishop William Nolan is the 8th and current Bishop of Galloway. He has been in office since early 2015. Prior to his appointment as Bishop he was the Vicar General of the Diocese of Motherwell and parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes, East Kilbride.
Since his priestly ordination in 1977, Bishop Nolan has also served in parishes in Baillieston and Plains.
He also spent time as the Vice Rector of the Scots College, Rome in the 1980’s.
The stained glass image of Saint Ninian features in one of the corridors leading to the Saint Andrew chapel at the Scots College, Rome. It was also donated by the high school in Kirkintilloch that bears the saints name.