5. The 'Ninian Triangle'

Sacred Spaces 5: THE ‘NINIAN TRIANGLE’

The ruined, stone walls of St. Ninian’s Chapel in the little village of Isle of Whithorn offered some welcome protection from the freezing, wind-driven rain which rolled in across the Solway Firth.  The heavy, grey sky only added to the chill and the open sea wasn’t the place to be on that January morning.


As I stood in the shelter of the chapel, gazing out to sea, my thoughts drifted to those early pilgrims who had travelled from the English coast and the Isle of Man, risking the journey in small boats to reach Whithorn, Scotland’s ‘Cradle of Christianity’.


Landfall was often near the southern tip of the Wigtown Peninsula, Dumfries and Galloway, at Isle of Whithorn.  The first chapel, made of wood and enclosed by its boundary wall, must have been a welcome sight and thankful prayers would have been given there for a safe sea crossing, before walking the three or so miles to Whithorn, where Ninian is said to have established a priory around the year 397.


Near the chapel is the Witness Cairn, a modern creation where visitors have written messages on beach stones, to commemorate loved ones.  I think that St. Ninian would be pleased that the message he took to the people of Scotland is still being lived-out today, as people offer their prayers to God.


Ninian is described as a ‘shadowy’ figure, as to date there is no written record about him made around the time of his missionary work in Scotland.  Tradition has it that Ninian was a  Briton prince, who gave up his royal heritage and went to Rome, where he trained as a missionary.  The earliest reference to Ninian seems to be that of Bede, who wrote about Ninian in the early 700’s, saying that he had established a stone-built, white-painted church at Whithorn …. Candida Casa …. The Shining or White House which gave Whithorn its name.  Whithorn became the centre of Ninian’s missionary work and is still associated with Ninian’s acts of healing.


Argument continues about Ninian’s existence, his missionary journeys through Scotland to ‘Thule’ in the north, the ‘end of the known Roman world’, and of his works, but I wonder if this really matters.  Something drew people to make long and dangerous journeys on pilgrimages to the sacred places attributed to St. Ninian, and many centuries on, they still keep coming.


A few miles south of Whithorn, down the wooded Physgill glen which leads to the coast, is St. Ninian’s Cave.  A scramble across a rocky foreshore leads to the cave, which looks small and rather insignificant now, but was probably much bigger, before the elements brought down part of the cave roof.  Archaeological excavations uncovered many Christian symbols, including carved headstones and crosses dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries.  These are on display in the Priory Museum at Whithorn.


There is no written evidence from the time which shows that Ninian used the cave as a place of solitude and contemplation, but again, does that matter?  Something called people there from the earliest days of Christianity in Scotland.


Today’s visitors to the cave often leave crosses made from driftwood, or crosses of twigs bound with grasses, in the cave or on the surrounding rocky outcrops.  Something has moved them to take the time to do this.


The cave isn’t big or spectacular to look at, but it draws me to it.  The ancient carvings, some still just visible on the walls, tell me that for many hundreds of years people have come to that place and spent time in the presence of God.  I like to think that they have also left a legacy of prayer, which we can perpetuate.


Pilgrims may have walked from Isle of Whithorn to seek healing and pray at St. Ninian’s shrine in Whithorn, before walking down to the cave and then returning by the clifftop path back to Isle of Whithorn.  I can only imagine how pilgrims’ hearts and spirits would have lifted as they climbed out of the cove and then turned to look back and see the cave in the distance.  A vision they would take home and share with others.


If you get the chance to visit the Wigtown Peninsula, you, too, may be drawn to spend time walking in those pilgrim footsteps.


Rob Calvert


For further information about St Ninian’s Cave and the surrounding area, visit www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/whithorn/stninianscave


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