St. Ninian of Whithorn

Saint NinianSt. Ninian of Whithom

Jonathon M. Wooding

Journal of the Sydney Society for Scottish History: Vol. 1 (1993)


Bede, the Northumbrian historian, writing at Jarrow around 731, tells us of St. 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 epsicopal see, named after St. Martin and famous for its stately church, is now held by the English and it is here that his body and those of many saints lie at rest. The place belongs to the province of Bemicia and is commonly known as Candida Casa, the White House, which is because he built the church of stone, which is unusual among the Britons.’ A list of the Anglo-Saxon bishops at this church in the 8th century survives and doubtless Bede obtained his details of Ninian from the first of these bishops, Pecthelm (whom Bede cites elsewhere as a source for his history). They are sparse details and, did they not come from an historian of the reputation of Bede, they would probably earn for Ninian a place in obscurity – along with many other early saints.

There are many accounts and other commemorations of Dark Age saints in Celtic Britain, Ireland and Scotland. Of the earliest Scottish saints our records are mostly of questionable reliability. With the single exception of St. Columba of Iona, the biographies of Dark Age Scottish saints are written hundreds of years after their subjects lived and the details in them are not generally reliable that far after the event. The 12th century Life of St.Ninian by Ailred is no exception. While it may draw upon earlier Celtic or Anglo-Saxon biographies, ·most of its detail can be explained as fanciful expansions of the facts provided by Bede. An 8th century verse Life of St. Ninian has similar problems. We are fortunate, then, that Bede has preserved some earlier facts. But we must not forget that even he writes some two or three centuries after the time of Ninian. My interest here is in finding usable information regarding the centuries before Bede and in the way in which new data, especially the outstanding recent archaeological discoveries at Whithom in Wigtownshire (which is certainly the site of Candida Casal.


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