St Ninian was an itinerant evangelist Bishop who converted Irish and Picts – the first had moved here, the second lived here. Details of his work however are not clear. Whithorn, in Dumfrieshire,Scotland had easy sea connections across the Solway Firth; it may well be that the small community there was numerous enough, in the very early 5C, to request a bishop from Carlisle.
The outline of a double circular enclosure on the crown of the hill at Whithorn indicates an early monastic site. The inspiration of St Martin is evident (St Bede says the church was dedicated to him), though exactly how this came about is not clear. The caves of Marmoutier described in the life of St Martin however became a template for early British monasteries.
The name ‘Shining House’ (Candida Casa) applied by St Bede to the church could refer to well-dressed stone in the Roman fashion, or a covering of limewash.
Whithorn became an important centre and had its own school. St Ninian’s influence can be seen in the large number of dedications to him made by disciples throughout the length and breadth of Scotland.
In the museum at Whithorn is an inscribed tombstone which begins: ‘Te Dominum laudamus’, ‘We praise thee, O God’. It belongs to a man with the name of Latinus. This stone is usually dated to 450. Latinus is described as a ‘nepos’, ‘grandson’, which takes us back a further two generations in the area. If this is true we are back almost in touch with the Roman period.
Further West on the ‘Rhinns’ of Galloway there is a church on a hill at Kirkmadrine, where several other memorial stones have been collected. One stone, with a Chi-Rho symbol and an alpha (the omega is missing) commemorates two holy and outstanding Bishops named Viventius and Mavorious. This is more hard evidence of the spread and continuation of church life beyond the boundaries of the Empire.
A similar stone remembers two men, possibly priests; one of them was called Florentius. Another stone, now lost, commemorated a deacon, Ventidius. The fourth stone bears an encircled Chi-Rho symbol with the words ‘Initium and Finis’ (‘Beginning and End’) – the equivalent of ‘Alpha and Omega’. Here, almost ‘off the map’ (the end of the Mull of Galloway is nearby), are tomb-stones of sub-Roman British Bishops, priests and deacons. This evidence is of inestimable value.
St Ninian may have been born in Cumbria. There is a strong proability that at Ninekirks (St Ninian’s Church) was the site of a British monastery with caves for hermitages across the river from the church. There are also several holy wells attributed to him. It may be that he preached the Gospel at Brampton near Carlisle an early site adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall
The Life of St Ninian, written probably written by St Ailred of Rievaux in the 12C, contains many miracles of St Ninian both before and after his death; St Ailred also says ‘more have continued to the present’.
Troparion Tone 4
‘You went forth from Britain to preach the Gospel
into the lands of the southern Picts.
the Shining House that you built was a symbol
of the Light that you brought to this land.
So great was your zeal that your disciples
carried it to the far extreme of the Shetlands.
Holy Ninian how great is your glory in heaven.’