Celts to the Crèche
St. Ninian of Whithorn
c362-c432 AD (or perhaps later)
On this 30th Day of Celts to the Crèche, we join on this pilgrimage to Bethlehem with the fifth century British Bishop St. Ninian (Ninias) of Whithorn. He is considered to be the first apostle to Scotland.
Ninian, also known as Ringan and Tyrnnian, was a very industrious apostle, missionary, and Bishop, to say the least! He evangelized not only the southern Picts who lived in western Scotland, but he also preached throughout southern Scotland, south of the Grampian Mountains, and conducted preaching missions among the Picts, as far north as the Moray Firth. He is said that he preached in the Solway Plains and the Lake District of England.
It is appropriate that Ninian would join us on this journey to Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity as Whithorn is considered by some to be the cradle of Scottish Christianity. Ninian’s monastery, Whithorn, on the west coast of Scotland may have been named Candida Casa as in Latin it means, “white or shining house.” In Old English this was translated as whit æurn from which was derived Whithorn. It is said that Whithorn was built of stone painted a gleaming white which was reminiscent of the Roman churches cloaked in marble.
You may desire to continue reading more about Ninian or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.
Early Life: Ninian was born in the area of northwest Great Britain now known as Cumbria, perhaps near Carlisle and the area near the Roman Hadrian’s Wall. His father was either a priest or the chief of a tribe that held land on both sides of the Solway Firth.
Ninan was instructed as a teenager and young adult in Rome and must have spent some time in France as he was a great admirer of St Martin of Tours who had greatly influenced his life. When he returned to his homeland of Scotland, Ninian brought back two French stone masons with him who would have the knowledge of building stone churches.
His Monastery at Whithorn: Ninian may have been ordained as bishop by Pope Siricius in 394. As bishop, Ninian built churches, ordained priests, consecrated other bishops, and divided the land into parishes. Many Irish monks came to Whithorn to study including St. Finnian of Moville who later returned to Ireland and did great ministry there. Interestingly though, some scholars believe that Finnian and Ninian are the same person. He paved the way for the later gospel work of St. Columba (see day Four of Celts to the Crèche) and St. Kentigern (also known as St. Mungo) in Scotland.
It seems that Ninian must have been a lover of nature as the later St. Francis of Assisi was. It is said that Ninian would visit the shepherds and their flocks surrounding his monastery. He would gather them all together in one place where he would raise his hand in prayer and with his staff draw an imaginary circle around the sheep and pray over the sheep asking for God’s divine protection.
How We Know About Ninian: We know of St. Ninian mainly from three sources, firstly, in chapter 3, book four of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede writing 400 years after Ninian says that he knew of Ninian from hearsay and called Ninian “a most holy man.” Some think that the first Saxon Bishop of Whithorn named Pechthelm may have relayed the information about Ninian to Bede.
Another source about Ninian, the 8th century poem, The Miracles of Bishop Ninian was written at the monastery at Whithorn. A copy of this poem was sent to Alcuin at Charlemagne’s court. Alcuin thanked the Whithorn sender and in return, sent a silk veil for Ninian’s shrine. The third source, The Life of St. Ninian, was a hagiography written in the 12th century by the Cistercian Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx who was raised in the court of King David I of Scotland. Ailred said that he has used a Life of St. Ninian that had been written in “barbarous language” (meaning the Celtic language instead of Latin).
Place of Resurrection: Ninian died about 432 AD and was buried in the Church of Blessed Martin at his monastery at Whithorn. His body was placed in a stone sarcophagus near the altar of the church. It is said that the clergy and congregation sang hymns and sobbed over the loss of their spiritual leader.
Pilgrims Flock to Whithorn: Pilgrims immediately began to come to Ninian’s tomb where it is said that the sick were cured, the lepers were cleansed, and the blind received their sight. King James of Scotland had an arm bone of Ninian encased in silver which was kept at Whithorn until the Reformation when it was taken to France and lost during the French Revolution. Even King James IV walked barefoot to Whithorn when his wife, Margaret Tudor was thought to be dying. She was miraculously cured and they returned together on horseback to give thanks to Ninian. Their son James V and their granddaughter, Mary Queen of Scots also made a pilgrimage to Whithorn.
There is also a cave about 5 miles southwest of Whithorn that is known as Ninian’s Cave that was probably Ninian’s hermitage where he went on retreat to pray. Inside the cave were numerous stones carved with crosses and even some Pictish-style graffiti. The crosses have been transferred to the Whithorn Museum and Priory. Modern day pilgrims often travel to the cave to pray and seek the presence of God.
About 13 miles from Whithorn is St. Ninian’s Chapel which marked the place where pilgrims first landed on their way to Whithorn.
St. Ninian is venerated in Galloway and the Orkney Islands.
There are churches, place-names, and legends throughout Scotland that bear Ninian’s name in some form.
Whithorn Today: The Whithorn Priory and Museum provides not only a exhibition and an audio-visual program, but also guided tours of the site. At the center is the 5th c. Latinus Stone that is believed to be the oldest Christian memorial in Scotland.
In the 1990’s, an archaeological excavation led by Peter Hill was done at Whithorn. This dig found the outline of a circular Celtic monastery with a number of Christian graves. Other artefacts were also discovered including fragments of eight Mediterranean, Spanish, or Roman glass bowls; Mediterranean, African, and French pottery shards; and a pile of builder’s stones of gray lime coated with a thick skin of calcium carbonate. These stones would have made a gleaming white hut when wet, which would be often near the sea. Also, a wall built of those white stones was located.
There is a 149 mile (239 km) long distance trail to Whithorn called the Whithorn Way that has been walked over the centuries by countless pilgrims.
The Treasure of St. Ninian’s Isle: In the Scientific American of November, 1960, there is an interesting article by R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford about an archaeological excavation on St. Ninian’s Isle, a tiny isle off the northern tip of Scotland in the Shetland Islands group. On July 4, 1958, archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen were digging under the floor of a 9th century church that was buried under a 12th century church. In the nave area was a slab with a lightly incised cross. The slab was carefully moved by a teenager named Justin Coutts and underneath it was a tightly packed treasure trove of 28 greenish objects in a wooden box. These items were silver mixed with a copper alloy and dated between 750-825AD. Interestingly, in this treasure trove was also a fragment of a porpoise’s jawbone. These treasures are now in the National Museum of Scotland. It is the only treasure trove of metalwork of this date ever found in Scotland. These treasure items fall into three groups: items connected with feasting, weapons and jewelry.
Note: It is the thought by some recent scholars that Ninian may not have existed, that he was a composite of several saints. There is an excellent scholarly discussion of this in Kind Neighbours: Scottish Saints and Society in the Later Middle Ages by Tom Turpie listed in the Resources below.
Feast Day August 26/September 16
Sellner in his Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, records the story of St. Ninian and his prayer of encirclement. St. Ninian liked to visit his flocks and the huts of his shepherds. He wanted the flocks of sheep to also be partakers of the blessings like humans were. When the animals were gathered together in one place at the end of the day, Ninian raised up his hand and prayed that they would all be protected by God. Then he went around the flock and with his staff, drew a circle around them, praying that all within that circle would be protected by God. Then, Ninian himself would go and rest.
As we are only 10 days until we reach the crèche of Christ and most of us are in the crazy fun, not fun times of the Christmas season, perhaps we too need to draw a circle around ourselves or someone we know that is being overwhelmed by the secularization of this holy season. Pastors, priests, church leaders, parents, grandparents, and store clerks along with medical personnel and hospitals are particularly overwhelmed with all the extra services that they provide during this quarantine/holiday time, so include them also in your prayer of encirclement.
© Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org, 2018-2029. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org (Celts to the Creche) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Book 3.iv. From Fordham.edu.
Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford, UK: Lion Book, 2006.
Browne, G. F. The Importance of Women in Anglo-Saxon Times: The Cultus of St. Peter and St. Paul; and other Addresses. New York: Macmillan, 1919.
Bruce-Mitford, R. L. S. “The Treasure of St. Ninian’s.” Scientific American. Vol 203, No. 5. November, 1960, p. 154-170.
Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.
Duckett, Eleanor. The Wandering Saints of the Early Middle Ages. New York: Norton Press, 1959.
Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.
McGrigor, Mary. Paths of the Pilgrims and Lives of the Early Saints in Scotland. Dalkeith, Scotland: Scottish Cultural Press, 2006.
National Museum of Scotland. St. Ninian’s Isle Hoard. Video.
Rees, Elizabeth. Celtic Saints Passionate Wanderers. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
___________. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. New York: Burns and Oates, 2003.
Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. & expanded ed. St. Paul, MN: Bogwalk Press, 2006.
Stanford, Peter. If These Stone Could Talk: The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland Through Twenty Buildings. (in 4th Century chapter, he discusses Ninian of Whithorn). Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021.
Turpie, Tom. Kind Neighbours: Scottish Saints and Society in the Later Middle Ages. Brill Academic Publishers: 2015.
Undiscovered Scotland. Whithorn Priory.
Warren, Brenda Griffin. St. Ninian of Whithorn: Encircling Prayer. Godspace Light, August 26, 2021.
Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.
Yorke, Barbara . The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain, 600–800, Religion, Politics and Society in Britain. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 1970.
Ziegler, Michelle. Candida and the White House. Hefenfelthblog.
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