New history of Whithorn revealed

The historic town of Whithorn
The historic town of Whithorn

The latest archaeological thinking about 5th Century Whithorn indicates that it may have originated not as a religious site.

Contrary to what is traditionally claimed, it may have been a high status secular settlement - probably a royal site, though showing very early evidence of Christian beliefs and practices.

A large audience of Trustees, staff and supporters heard from one of the theory’s authors, Dr Adrian Maldonado of the University of Chester, on Saturday, prior to the launch this month of a new Whithorn site guidebook produced by Historic Scotland, which encompasses the new research.

This thinking runs counter to orthodoxy about Whithorn, which, ever since Bede wrote in the early 8th Century, has envisaged the settlement being founded originally as a church and monastery by St Ninian; Whithorn is now, according to this research, thought to be a site where lavish funeral feasting occurred, where Christian graves and high status material culture are found simultaneously.

Parallels for feasting sites can be found in Ireland, though the combination found at Whithorn is unlike any other archaeological site’s.

“Whithorn is one of a kind, unlike anywhere else”, said Dr. Maldonado, commenting on the uniqueness of the archaeological evidence.

Dr Maldonado reassessed evidence from the excavations conducted by Peter Hill during the 1980s and 1990s in Whithorn, carefully mapping the early graves and the scatter of glass finds, which are the largest collection discovered in the country, and concluded that these were features which were atypical for a monastic site.

Even the famed Latinus stone, the earliest Christian monument in Scotland, mentions a secular person with a Latin name, while nearby Kirkmadrine’s stones, just a little later in date, all commemorate clergy.

All this has led to a reconsideration of the relations between the two sites, led by Katherine Forsyth of the University of Glasgow, who has been examining the Rhinns stones prior to their redisplay on site: Kirkmadrine emerges as an early Christian monastic site while Whithorn looks more complex, as if it is a ceremonial site used by high status Christian converts, or perhaps kings.

Without further evidence of royal buildings, it is not clear if it was a site which was used seasonally and ceremonially, or whether there is an undiscovered palace or fortified site at a distance from the burial ground.

The backdrop to the research is a re-examination of the mechanisms by which Christianity spread in its earliest phases in Scotland : rather than a traditional view of missionary bishops coming to evangelise from outside and found new communities, the view advocated by Dr. Maldonado sees a much more organic growth for Christianity - gaining ground in communities which were already important in the late Roman empire and which adopted and adapted Christianity to their own needs.

There is no doubt, according to Dr Maldonado, that Whithorn did come to be a monastic site, grafted on to its secular origins, and certainly by Bede’s time it was the focus of a highly successful pilgrimage trade and the cult of a saint, whom we know as Ninian. Some scholars have questioned his name, suggesting that Whithorn’s saint may in fact have been St Finian of Movilla, tutor to St Columba.

Whatever the saint’s original name, late medieval Whithorn gained in prosperity and national influence, as St Ninian’s cult grew and the monastery came to house the most important shrine in Scotland.

A spokesman for the Whithorn Trust said: “This research is just what we need to stimulate new academic interest in Whithorn.

“Dr Maldonado’s theories about Whithorn’s royal origins come at the same time as a new guidebook from Historic Scotland, and a redisplay of the stones at Kirkmadrine. The Trust opens for the season on 31st March, with the spectacular Dowalton patera as one of its special exhibits.