Saint Ninian (Ninia), a Briton by origin, is one of the most venerated saints of Scotland. He is commemorated as “Apostle of the Southern Picts.” Although few details of the life and activities of St. Ninian are known, in addition to ancient traditions several early written pieces of evidence about the saint have survived. Our great authority, the Venerable Bede mentions St. Ninian in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731). In the ninth century, an anonymous author wrote an account of St. Ninian’s miracles. Ailred of Rievaulx in the twelfth century and the Irish Archbishop James Usher of Armagh early in the seventeenth century wrote about St. Ninian as well.
The future saint was most probably born in the second half of the fourth century, perhaps in about 360. He belonged to the so-called “Roman-British” tradition of early British Christianity. His native land was most likely Cumbria; at least it is nearly certain that he was born south of Hadrian’s Wall in today’s northern England. His father, according to some sources, was a local Christian ruler. While still very young, St. Ninian very clearly began to feel a calling to Christianize his native country. According to tradition, after the saint went to study in Rome, he then visited Gaul where at his monastery in Tours he met St. Martin, a great missionary, and father of monasticism of Gaul. There is an opinion that St. Ninian was consecrated bishop either in Rome or Gaul (and, if the latter, the consecration was probably performed by St. Martin himself).
Some believe that shortly before his repose St. Ninian may have moved from Scotland to Ireland and died there, though there is no evidence to confirm this. According to a legend, at the moment of St. Ninian’s repose, a bell began to ring by itself, announcing the death of the righteous man and calling everybody to his deathbed. St. Ninian was buried in a stone coffin near the altar of the church that he had built on Whithorn. Pilgrims flocked to his relics up to the sixteenth century Reformation.
The Whithorn monastery had close connections with Mediterranean countries. Its monks were famous for their learning and severity of ascetic life, adopted by them from the Christian East. It was Whithorn where there studied many future missionaries, now venerated in different parts of Scotland. Today Orthodox, Catholic, and other Christian pilgrims visit Whithorn on a par with other important early Christian shrines in northern Britain. The cave where Ninian used to pray and (possibly) the saint’s personal bell have survived. The cave is located on the east side of the peninsula. It is a truly peaceful, quiet place in idyllic surroundings, and all Christians who visit it feel the holy bishop’s presence there to this day. A very ancient settlement, now a district within the city of Stirling in central Scotland, is called St Ninian’s in honour of the saint.
Excavations carried out on Whithorn in recent times have confirmed the authenticity of the ancient traditions concerning St. Ninian (this is true for many other early Christian sites in the British Isles as well). Specifically, the remains of a very ancient circular church were discovered, and its walls had indeed been whitewashed. Ancient inscribed Christian gravestones, as well as very small wattle houses, were discovered near the church, which indicates that a monastic community had existed here in the Celtic period. Supposedly, the monastery had more than one church and it definitely had a school. Though it is impossible to ascertain whether this monastery was dedicated to St. Martin or not, it was believed that the monastery kept a portion of his relics. Later, such was the fame of St. Ninian that his veneration spread to Kent and to Denmark. Today he is even venerated in the Nova Scotia province of eastern Canada.
Numerous parish churches and chapels dedicated to St. Ninian or associated with him are scattered all over southern Scotland. Nearly all of them are more than 1000 years old. Some of them were founded by the saint himself and later partly rebuilt, others were founded by his disciples, who spread the Gospel to the north, west and other parts of the country. One of the greatest disciples of St. Ninian was St. Kentigern. Notably, most of the surviving medieval churches dedicated to St. Ninian are situated to the south of the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde estuaries, on Orkney (where he is widely venerated), Shetland (of which he is a patron-saint) islands as well as on the Isle of Man, on the island of Bute and on the island of Sanda in the Faeroes. Ruins of the chapel built by St. Ninian as well as early crosses and a holy well have survived on this island. Local legends relate that the holy bishop is buried on Sanda and that his grave can still allegedly be found here—under an old alder tree. True, this is just a legend, but Sanda originally belonged to the Whithorn Monastery and had close links with its community. St. Ninian’s disciples also erected a chapel on the isle known as “St. Ninian’s Isle” after him; this is in Shetland, and the ruins of a twelfth-century chapel survive there to this day.
The Whithorn peninsula is considered to be the main site of the veneration of St. Ninian to this day. Here, visitors, today can see ruins of the late medieval Roman Catholic priory, including its nave, vault and the very site where the shrine with St. Ninian’s relics used to stand. The museum on Whithorn houses a large collection of interesting artifacts discovered here during the recent excavations. In addition to the priory ruins, the parish church, cave and other ancient monuments, the peninsula also has another museum which exhibits a considerable number of ancient Celtic crosses, the oldest of them dating back to the fifth century. A thirteenth-century chapel dedicated to St. Ninian has partly survived not far away, though it is now roofless.
- Saint Ninian, Bishop of Galloway and The “Apostle of the Southern Picts”
- Remains of St. Ninian’s Chapel on Whithorn
- St. Martin the Wonderworker, Bishop of Tours
- Remains of St. Ninian’s Chapel on Whithorn
- St. Ninian’s Bell
- St.Ninian’s Cave Entrance
- St. Ninian’s Priory Ruins, Whithorn
- St. Ninian’s Cross
Header: Remains of St. Ninian’s Chapel on Whithorn