[from Proc IoMNH&ASoc vol2 #4 1926]


Rev. J. DAVIDSON, J.P. 24th January, 1924.

When and by whom was Christianity introduced into our land? Some consider that St. Paul not only fulfilled his intention. of extending his missionary tour to Spain, but from Spain was led to Britain and planted on her shores the standard of the Cross. We cannot forget the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, who brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury, and founded there the first British church. The Roman occupation brings us within historic times. The great world conquerors landed in 55 B.C. and finally quitted Britain in 410. The Empire had reached the zenith of its power and greatness, and the heart that beat on the banks of the Tiber sent its pulsations to the Orontes in Asia Minor and to the banks of the Clyde and the Spey. The military system of Rome, while rigid, was yet elastic. The soldiers carried their language. and law and religion to the lands they conquered. Very early in the Christian era there were not only saints in Cæsar's household but in Caesar's army. Some legions were stationed in the same provinces for many decades, and were recruited from Rome, or other parts of the Empire. They were more like military colonists than, say, our soldiers in India to-day. Native Britons were either press-ganged or they enlisted voluntarily in the Roman army, and served at home or were sent abroad, some to return, others to lay their bones in alien soil.

In this way, the blessings of an ancient civilisation came to our forefathers, and not only the waning pagan religion of Rome, but a nascent and virile Christianity, which was being grafted on the old stock. Let me give you a single illustration. One of the most perfect Roman camps in Scotland is at the junction of the Tweed with its tributary the Lyne, near Peebles, On the uplands of Manor Water, a few miles away, stands a hoary monolith, known during untold centuries as St. Gordion's Cross. In the tower of the parish church is a very ancient bell, with St. Gordion rudely carved upon it. The tradition, which is firmly believed in the district, is that Gordion was a Christian Roman soldier stationed at Lyne camp, who evangelised the natives, and who preached, or perhaps, was buried where his cross now stands. It is significant that there is a Roman camp near Whithorn, the probable birthplace of St. Ninian, and this brings us close up to the subject of our paper. While we may assume that, scattered among the Roman garrisons, there were numerous Gordions, their work was local and sporadic. Ninian was the brave pioneer, the devoted leader of the first organized Christian mission to the Britons. He and his apostles moved through the land in small companies preaching the Gospel and living it. They went right through the eastern half of Scotland, as far as the Shetlands, where are many traces of their work. They passed over to Ireland, and St. Caranoc, pupil of Ninian, who was a native of Cumberland, extended the influence of the saint into England and Wales. Who will say the Isle of Man, whose shores and hills the saint could see almost every day, was neglected by him ?

No Church--no existing Church-can lay exclusive claim to St. Ninian, although, as we shall see, he owed his missionary zeal, and probably his missionary methods, to the Celtic Church in Gaul before that Church was merged or submerged in the Roman organization.

If no Church can claim Ninian, neither can any nation, although he was a Celt, and was the first native evangelist of both Picts and Celts, chiefly the former.

It has been affirmed that the work of St. Ninian was ephemeral. When his magnetic personal influence was withdrawn his followers had not staying power, and gradually melted away. What promised to be a fertilizing river of spiritual and intellectual life lost itself in the sand. But Ninian's converts did not return to paganism. The muinntir or community, as it was called, lived on. May we say it is alive to-day?

The supposition of its rapid decay probably arose from a natural mistake. St. Columba, 200 years later, had many converts among the Picts, who were pagans, but these lived on the western half of Scotland, where the name of Ninian has not been immortalized. The Picts converted by St. Ninian were those who lived on the eastern half of Scotland, from the Tweed to the Shetland Isles. We never read of St. Columba. touching the east coast of Scotland or anywhere near it. The furthest he got was to Inverness, on his various missions to King Brude.

For our knowledge of St. Ninian we are indebted to the Venerable Bede, and Allred, Abbot of Rievaulx. Bede flourished between 673 and 735; Allred was born in 1109 and died 1166. The former was separated from Ninian by nearly 300, the latter by 700, years. The life work of Bede was at Jarrow, a few miles south of the river Tyne. He was no traveller. But he had correspondents over a wide area, and bands of pilgrims from all quarters visited this holy man for instruction in spiritual things. He would know all that could, at that date, be known of the Scottish saint and his wonderful civilizing and Christianizing power. I doubt if he possessed any documentary evidence going back to Ninian's time or near it. He would have to rely upon tradition, written or unwritten. Indeed, he but brings in a reference to him by the way, while describing the coming of St. Columba and his work among the western Picts. After showing that the northern Picts were divided from the southern by a barrier of steep and rugged mountains, he says:-' For the southern Picts themselves, who have settlements up to the inner side of the same mountains, long before, as is told, having left the error of idolatry, had received the faith of the truth from the preaching to them of the word by Ninian the Bishop, a most reverent and holy man of the nation of the Britons. He had been regularly instructed at Rome in the faith and mysteries of the truth. His episcopal see, famous by the name and church of St. Martin the Bishop (where also his body rests, with more saints) the nation of the Angles holds even now. This place is commonly called Ad Candidam Casam (at White Hut), from the fact that there he made a church of stone in a fashion unusual to the Briton's ' churches made of wattle and daub.

This is surely a meagre and fragmentary. account of so great an evangelist and saint, and one wonders if this was all Bede knew, for he was a more trustworthy and veracious historian than Allred, who dilutes the truth with myth, legend, and miracle. Competent critics think that Bede knew far more of Ninian's history than the paragraph quoted above, and that the record of his life by Bede or some other historian was handed down to Allred. Allred, wishing to glorify the saint, endowed him with prophetic and miraculous power. Truth and error are so blended in his pages that it is quite impossible to separate the one from the other. But the following may be taken as substantially correct.

Ninian, with many variations of the name, as we shall see, was born about 360 in Galloway, probably near the site of the church he built. His father was a petty chief and a Christian, shall we say, won from paganism by a Roman soldier, stationed at the camp at Rispain, a mile from the present town of Whithorn.

An inscribed stone of very ancient date was discovered at Whithorn, which casts a most interesting light upon this period. It shows there were Roman Christians living in the district in which Ninian reared his church and distributed widely the bread of life first brought to Galloway by the soldiers of the Caesars. The translation from the Latin is 'We praise Thee, O Lord. Latinus, of years 35, and his daughter of five years. On this stone the Clan Barrovad made this monument to them.' Here we have a distinctive Roman name, and we have also an early formula of the opening words of our greatest hymn, the heritage of the Universal Church I do not forget that the Te Deum is ascribed to Nicetius of Treves, in 535, but probably it grew, for, in a simple form, it dates back to St. Hilary, in 355. This indicates the spiritual atmosphere in Ninian's day.

He was baptised in infancy, and grew up nurtured in a pious home. He early developed a love for the Church and for the society of religious men, and was a diligent student of the Holy Scriptures. A consuming desire to visit Rome took possession of him, and he set out on his long and dangerous jtourney. As he passed through Gaul he saw paganism disappearing, and the religion of the crucified Nazarene gaining power. At length he reached the centre of the world's religious life to find very little of the spirit of Christianity in high places Damasus I was Bishop of Rome. He had mounted the episcopal throne through the blood of 137 followers of Ursinus, the Anti-Bishop. . Ninian would hear the strife of combatants over the heresies of Origen and the teaching of Jerome. The Church of Christ in Rome was in a bad way. But in the provinces the torch of truth was being held aloft by men like St. Ambrose, St. Hilary, and St. Martin. How long Ninian remained at Rome we know not. The fame of St. Martin of Tours attracted him, and, on his homeward journey, he turned aside to visit that famous saint and ecclesiastical statesman. Much of the wealth of Rome had migrated to Gaul with the imperial officials, and so had luxury. St, Martin had planned a collegiate organization which was the beginning of the monastic system. This was a protest against riotous living and a protection to his clerics. About the year 307 Ninian, having been consecrated by a Bishop of Tours, returned to the old home, and one of his first acts was to build a church, said to be the first stone church in Britain. The tradition is that he brought masons from Gaul to build the edifice. The site of Candida Casa, or Whiterne, is, without doubt, on the peninsula called the Isle of Whithorn, where stands to-day the ruins of an ancient church; probably of the 12th or 13th century, with a graveyard adjoining. There are rude steps leading up to a small mound, 12 or 15 feet above the level of the ruins. Mr. Anderson, the Presbyterian Minister at the Isle, who is known to some of you, and accompanied me in my visit to this sacred spot last summer, hopes to have this mound dug into. The ruins of a Presbytery, perhaps a Seminary, may be discovered. The church was dedicated to St. Martin. As Ninian returned to the homeland in 397, and the Romans left in 410, he might reckon on their protection for fourteen years. After 410 till his death the district would be ruled by tribal chiefs, who probably were friendly, and, by that time, may have been won to Christianity.

At this point we may consider the meaning of the name Ninian and its numerous variants. The stem of his name - his baptismal name, we take it-was like himself, Celtic: Nan or Nen, which means little. His Latin-speaking friends would naturally call him Nyma, which Bede uses. By and bye, the Celts added to the Latin name the Celtic diminutive of endearment, and it became Ninian. The coming years and centuries brought curious variations. This was due to the fluidity of the Celtic tongue, which had its dialects, peculiar to certain districts. So we get Ringan, Rinian, Trinian, Trillion, Tringan, and many more. The name became associated with towns, churches, wells, and fairs, which caused further variations In the Isle of Man we have Ballakillingan, the church town of Ninian, also Ballingan. In Wigtonshire Chibberdingan, the well of Ninian; and also Kilantringan, the church of Ninian. Two place names in Scotland used to puzzle me greatly. It is Ninewells, one, in Berwickshire; the other near Dundee. Locally, the pronunciation is 'Ninells," which, I find, is a corruption of Ninian. There is an Island in Strangford Lough, called Nendrum, where wonderful finds were made by Irish archæologists last summer. The original remains go back to prehistoric times, and right through the Celtic period, and on to the time of the Danish invasion, and after all, Nendrum may be simply 'small hill,' or it may just as likely be 'Nen ' or Ninian's hill.' What is more important is a sentence or two in an old Irish MS., attributed to Colgan, that two young men, Tighernac and Eoghan, were sent by a princess of the Britons to the Monastery of Rosnat, the other name of which is Alba or White. Rosnat or Rosnant means the headland of Ninian, and it was doubtless applied to what is still called the Head, or the Isle Head, the point of the Isle of Whithorn near which visitors to the monastery from seaward were landed

The most heart-moving feature of the whole district is undoubtedly St. Ninian's Cave at Physgill, in the parish of Glasserton, three miles from the Isle of Whithorn.

'Local tradition has for long associated the cave with St. Niman, whose devotional retreat it is said to have been, and the discovery of various crosses incised on the rocks and on stones found in the cave is consistent with the history assigned to it. The first discovery of Christian work in the cave was made in 1871, on the occasion of a visit of Dean Stanley, when an incised cross was observed on the rock at the west side of the entrance. A great part of the roof had fallen in, and in 1883-4 the debris was removed under the auspices of the Ayr and Galloway Archaeological Association.The farther discovery was made of similar crosses on the walls adjacent to that previously observed, and of two stones bearing incised crosses. One of these shows a small equal-armed cross with the arms expanding to their terminations, set on a short shaft and surmounted on an exactly similar cross; the second is a coffin-shaped slab, 2ft. 1in. in length by 9½ ins. in greatest breadth: at the upper end of it is carved within a circle an equal-armed cross with round hollow angles at the intersections and arms expanding to their terminations, sef immediately above a cross-head of similar form incised and resting upon a shaft. Both crosses have circular depressions in the centre.

'Across the mouth of the cave stretched a wall of dry stone masonry, 28ins. thick, from which, towards one end, four steps of a stair descended to the level of the interior, aft. below the level of the original threshold at the top of the wall. On the lowest step were incised three encircled equal-armed crosses with the arms expanding to the circumference of the circles : one has parabolic curves at the intersections and a small depression in the centre; while one rests upon a short shaft slightly concave at each side. The cave-floor was completely paved with flags throughout its entire length, except at a place where there was a space 6ft. by aft. to 4zft, unpaved, but floored with hard beaten earth, and in one corner behind the wall, where there was an open depression for the escape of water. The pavement bore the marks of fire, and was covered with wood-ashes, bones, and shells. About halfway along .the left wall, carved on the rock, aft. above the pavement, is a faintly incised cross with the arms expanding outwards. Upon a flagstone beneath it was a rudely cut inscription on which the letters SANCT remain. Outside the cave were found other two NI--P small crosses, and some human bones. Built into the wall across the opening of the cave were two cross-incised fragments, thus showing the secondary character of the structure. A well-made drain was also traced outside the wall, and close to the upper end of it was found a large water-worn boulder in which was cut a circular basin, gins. in width and 5ins. in depth-the toolmarks of the pointed instrument with which it was cut being plainly visible. A small rill which fell over the mouth of the cave descended straight into this basin, while the overflow was carried away by the drain. On the occasion of a further excavation in 1886, in the debris outside the cave was found a free-standing cross of sandstone, 2ft. 6ins. by ift. by 31ns., sculptured on one face thus:-On the head a central raised boss, surrounded by irregular interlaced work, double-beaded, and forming an equal-armed cross with expanding arms and circular hollows, each containing a boss at the intersections. On the shaft interlaced work formed from a four-cord plait, double-beaded, with, at the bottom, the remains of an inscription in Anglican runes, which was read by Prof. Stephens as the equivalent of. 'wrote,' i.e., wrought, made, worked' - Inventory of Ancient Monuments, Wigtonshire.

No one can stand within that sacred enclosure, as I had the privilege of doing last summer, and look around on the rude emblems of an ancient Christianity, without being deeply affected. We can image the saint, after days of toil and weariness and disappointment, retiring to this secluded spot, within the roar of the sea, which casts shingle up to the cave's mouth, for prayer and meditation, to refresh his soul communing with his Heavenly Father, and to plan fresh conquests for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

At length, worn out with toil and hardship in the Master's service, and ripe for glory, he died in 432, in his 72nd year, and was buried in the church he founded at Whithorn.

From that centre the saint and his disciples preached the Gospel and evangelised the pagans over a wide area, chiefly over the east and north of Scotland. Some historians think that St. Ninian changed his residence from the Isle to the site where the town of Whithorn now stands, and there built a larger church and seminary, which developed into a monastery.

I have already suggested that Ninian may have crossed the narrow sea separating Galloway from Man, and instructed our rude forefathers in the arts of civilisation and in the truths of Christianity Being a man of apostolic zeal, we can scarce believe less than this. Are there any traces left of this probable evangelistic campaign? I have referred to Ballakillingan, near Ramsey. A keeil dedicated to the saint was cerfainly there. Every trace of it has disappeared, but Mr. Kermode, some 12 years ago, took the members of this Society to the spot where he thought it stood. Then we have Ballakilmartin, in Onchan parish, named after St. Martin, Ninian's friend and teacher. The remains of that keeil are quite visible, and have been visited by the Society

The Priory of Whithorn, doubtless built on the site of the ancient church and seminary reared by St. Ninian, was built about 1143, the ruins of which are still to be seen in the churchyard. The most important feature is a richly carved Norman doorway of the 12th century.

Fergus, Lord of Galloway, was founder of the Priory. Olave I was then King of Man. He married Affrica, daughter of Fergus, and in 1134 founded Rushen Abbey. His grandson, Clave II, gifted the lands of Ballacquiba, and also the church of St. Ninian of Ballacquiba, in Marown parish, to the Prior of Whithorn. How long that church had been in existence we have no means of knowing. We have all seen the ruins.

We are grateful that the name of St. Ninian is still preserved in the latest addition to the Douglas churches. Another gift was made to Whithorn Priory by Alexander of Scotland, who ruled over this Island in 1284. This was the right of a.dvowson of the Church of Holy Trinity in the Aire, i.e., Lezayre. This was followed, in 1332, by a similar gift of the Church of St. Bridget in the Ayre-our Bride church. It was made by Randolph Earl of Moray, to whom the Island was given by King Robert Bruce in 1313. But this gift does not seem to have materialised.

In 1422, at the famous Tynwald held by Sir John Stanley, at Renurling, in Michael, the Prior of Whithorn was one of the four ecclesiastical dignatories who were summoned to do fealty to the King of Man and the Isles, as Sir John Stanley described himself. They did not appear. Two or three further futile attempts were made by the Earls of Derby to assert authority over the Priors of Whithorn. Then came the dissolution of the. monasteries.

To the shrine of St. Ninian, at Whithorn, right down to the Reformation. thousands of pilgrims flocked from all quarters in search of physical health and spiritual good. In that superstitious age, the relics of this holy man were supposed to possess the same miraculous power as the living saint. James IV visited Whithorn four times. amid scenes of feasting and merry-making. So did Queen ie7ary and many of her nobles The following extract from the Privy Seal Register of Scotland, dated 14th December, 15o6, is interesting to us

The Regent Albany granted a general safe conduct to all persons of England, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, to come by land or water into Scotland to the Church of Candida Casa, in honour of St. Ninian Confessor. So we see that in those far-off days, Manxmen swelled the ranks of the pilgrims. Why should that pilgrimage not be resumed from somewhat different and more intelligent motives. Last July I spent a few delightful hours, along with my friend Mr. Anderson, in pressing the soil made sacred by the feet of Scotland's earliest and one of her greatest saints.

The ruined Priory at Whithorn, with the Archaeological Museum adjoining, the walls of the church at Rosnat-the Isle of Whithorn-where Ninian began his wonderful life work, and, chief of all, the small cave above and just beyond reach of the tumbling waves, are crammed with interest to all who possess imagination.

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