Celts to the Creche: St. Ninian of Whithorn

Icon of Ninian

Icon of Ninian by unknown writer

Celts to the Creche: Day 30

December 14

St. Ninian of Whithorn

c362-c432 AD (or perhaps later)

On this 30th Day of Celts to the Creche, we join on this pilgrimage to Bethlehem with fifth century British Bishop St. Ninian (Ninias) of Whithorn. He is considered to be the first apostle to Scotland. He was a very industrious apostle, missionary, and Bishop! Ninan 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. 

Ninian is also known as Ringan and Trynnian. 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 in means, “white or shining house.” In Old English this was translated  as whit æurn from which was derived Whithorn. It is said that it 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 Scotland now known as Cumbria, perhaps near Carlisle and the area near 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.

Drawing of St. Ninian's Bell. from Prehistoric Annals of Scotland. v.iip. 468

Drawing of St. Ninian’s Bell. From “Prehistoric Annals of Scotland”. v.iip. 468. Most Celtic evangelists had a bell that they rang to call people to hear them preach the Gospel.

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: He 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 returned to Ireland. 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 and St. Kentigern 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, 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.

This stained glass window of Ninian in the Whithorn Story Exhibition by Richard LeClerk is a copy of a Douglas Strachan window in St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle.

This stained glass window of Ninian in the Whithorn Story Exhibition by Richard LeClerk is a copy of a Douglas Strachan window in St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle.

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 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 Ninian that had been written in “barbarous language.”

This stained glass window of Ninian in the Whithorn Story Exhibition by Richard LeClerk is a copy of a Douglas Strachan window in St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle.

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 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.

Ninian in the 14th c. Book of Hours of the Virgin and Saint Ninian. photo from Wikipedia

Ninian in the 14th c. Book of Hours of the Virgin and Saint Ninian. University of Edinburgh Library. photo from Wikipedia

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.

Entrance to Ninian's Cave

Entrance to Ninian’s Cave

About 13 miles from Whithorn is St. Ninian’s Chapel which marked the place where pilgrims first landed on their way to Whithorn.

Ninian's Chapel on the Isle of Whithorn

Ruins of Medieval Ninian’s Chapel at Whithorn

There are churches, place-names, and legends throughout Scotland that bear Ninian’s name in some form.

Map of Dedications to Ninian

Map of Dedications to Ninian

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.

Latinus Stone in Whitburn Museum and Priory. Latinus is the first Christian in Scotland whose name we know, and his stone is clear evidence of the existence of a group of Christians at Whithorn as early as AD 450.

Latinus Stone in Whitburn Museum and Priory. Latinus is the first Christian in Scotland whose name we know, and his stone is clear evidence of the existence of a group of Christians at Whithorn as early as AD 450.

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.

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.

Archaeological Excavation of Whithorn, 1990's

Archaeological Excavation of Whithorn, 1990’s



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,and store clerks are particularly overwhelmed with all the extra services that they provide, so include them also in your prayer of encirclement.


Some Resources:

Ailred of Rievaulx. The Life of S. Ninian. available from Google Books.

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.

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.

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.

Turpie, Tom. Kind Neighbours: Scottish Saints and Society in the Later Middle Ages. Brill Academic Publishers: 2015.


Whithorn Way. St. Ninian’s Cave to St. Ninian’s Chapel.

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.

About Pastor Brenda

Pastor Brenda is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister. I am married with two grown awesome sons; and an equally awesome daughter-in-love; and two Maine Coon cats named for Celtic saints: “St. Fursey” and the paternal line of St. Columba, “Nialls.” Nialls is a gorgeous, huge, charming re-homed cat and he arrived with the name Niles. My pets must have Celtic/Anglo-Saxon names and since he seemed past the age to change his name...it became “Nialls.” My son asked me how to pronounce the cat’s new name and I said, “Niles.” As a former public and theological Library Director, I love doing research that has helped me in composing this Advent devotional. My research has been enriched by libraries, way too many books and journals purchased, and numerous pilgrimages to the places where these saints lived and worked and had their being. I cannot even begin to express what a great gift it has been to meet like-minded friends along the path who have generously and kindly shared their scholarship, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints. I often wonder if the saints have in some way been instrumental in introducing me to their friends on both sides of the thin veil. "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org. is one of my blogs. I have written of some of my pilgrimages and random musings at pastorpilgrim.wordpress.org. Some of my recent sermons can be found on YouTube under First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), San Angelo, Texas.
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