Whithorn Priory and St Ninian, Galloway, South West Scotland.
The first Christian settlement in Scotland.
This commemorative stone (right) was found in the 1880's and remains the earliest evidence of Christianity in Scotland.
"Te Domine Laudamus...";
"We praise you O Lord..."
St Ninian (c.360-c.432 AD)
Whithorn Priory was one of the most holy places in Scotland having been founded by St Ninian in 397 AD; the first Christian settlement north of Hadrians wall. St Ninian was born in Galloway, and as a young man visited Rome. He is reputed to have been friends with St Martin of Tours.
The first church, the centre of St Ninian's mission to the Picts and Britons, was whitewashed and known as "Candida Casa", The White House, which became translated by the local Picts as "Hwit Aerne", hence Whithorn. During recent archaeological excavations remnants of white plastered wall remains were found possibly indicating this first church. Saint Ninian had chosen to found the church on top of a rolling plain a few miles inland from one of the major trading ports in Scotland (at that time): the Isle of Whithorn.
The present day picturesque town of Whithorn's main street echoes the old high street which was built when it was a major site of pilgrimage in medieval times. Mary Queen of Scots visited in 1563 as had her father, James V, and her grandfather, James IV who used to visit annually.
The site of recent archaeological excavations. Rows of markers outline the form of the Northumbrian Church of 730 AD. Behind is the later church and 17th century manse built on the site of the medieval cathedral. The original "Candida Casa" would have been behind the stone wall to the left.
Sketches of Archaeological History
Ninian's settlement was simple; the white church and a few small houses with central hearths. The church is depicted in a light colour (In these illustrations the form of the later medieval Priory and Cathedral is faintly drawn in the upper right corner).
About 150 years later this settlement was abandoned and two shrines built on either side of the paved road (dotted lines). Later more were added, and a graveyard, One of the shrines had steps going up to it; it must have been important since its four internal pillars became the central focus of the next church built in the seventh century.
Northumbrians established a bishopric at Whithorn in about 730 AD and set about building this next, more substantial, church incorporating not only the pillars of the shrine, but also the steps leading to it. Later the church was divided into two and the East part became a burial chapel. Evidence of stained glass indicates that it was an important building.
King Alexander II drew Scotland together by suppressing local dissent, including those who wished for Galloway's independence. At this time Whithorn became an ecclesiastical burgh in about 1307 and was totally re-built as a Cathedral. The town grew in size and importance, especially around the 1500's. During the reformation, in 1581, pilgrimage was banned in Scotland and Whithorn transformed from a centre of national importance into the small country town it is today.