St Ninian (September 16)

Ninian (fl c 400) is the earliest saint associated with Scotland, a missionary who introduced Christianity north of Hadrian’s wall at least a century before St Columba.

The principal source for the work of Ninian is the Venerable Bede, who wrote about him in the fourth chapter of Book III of his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731), as follows: “The southern Picts, who live on this side of the [Grampian] mountains, are said to have abandoned the errors of idolatry long before this date [565], and had accepted the true Faith through the preaching of Bishop Ninian, a most reverend and holy man of British race, who had been regularly instructed in the mysteries of the Christian faith in Rome.

“Ninian’s own episcopal see, named after St Martin, and famous for its stately church, is now used by the English, and it here that his body and those of many saints lie at rest. The place belongs to the province of Bernicia, and is commonly known as Candida Casa, the White House, because he built the church of stone, which is unusual among the Britons.”

Tradition and archaeology have identified the White House at Whithorn, which is 10 miles south of Wigtown on the north side of the entrance to the Solway Firth in Dumfries and Galloway.

Certainly there was an early church at Whithorn, the masonry of which had been painted white. Moreover, a number of inscribed stones point to the existence of a monastery nearby.

Yet when Bede referred to the southern Picts he may have meant to indicate the people who lived in the area of Stirling, Perth and Fife, some 100 miles north of Wigtown.

There is indeed an area called St Ninians on the south side of Stirling, though no one seems sure when it was so named. Many other dedications to St Ninian are found in Scotland, and three in the north of England.

If Ninian did study in Rome, as Bede relates, he might have known St Ambrose (339-97), St Jerome (341-420) and St Augustine (354-430). The reference to St Martin (died 397) suggests that he might have visited that saint at Tours on his journey to and from Rome.

Seven centuries after Ninian’s death, St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a life of the saint, wholly unreliable as to fact. With typical medieval snobbery Aelred decided that Ninian must have been the son of a king. He also reported that the masons who built the White House had accompanied him from Tours.

In 1128 a bishopric was established at Whithorn, and a cathedral built to replace Ninian’s original church. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the town remained a place of pilgrimage on account of its founder, whose saintly reputation attracted visits from several Scottish monarchs.