As a young boy, in 372 AD, Ninian was a familiar figure to the sentries at the main gate of the Roman camp at Leuchopibia near Whithorn. Ninian or Nennius, as the Romans called him, was the son of the chief of a Novantes tribe
. By the age of ten he was the dux if the little school, and was fluent in two languages, Gaelic and Latin. He was naturally clever and learned his lessons so quickly that already his teacher was prophesying a great future for him.
For many years Roman soldiers posted to Whithorn after service in Italy or the continent had brought with them stories of strange happenings in the province of Judea during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. They told how a carpenter called Jesus of Nazareth had set the whole of Judea alight with his preaching and his miracles. How this man had been arrested and executed on the orders of Jewish leaders who feared losing their hold on the people. As more soldiers arrived over the intervening years, the stories of Jesus' teaching and the formation of Christian churches grew. Soon many of these soldiers were themselves Christians and their new religious beliefs were being discussed by the educated Romans and tribesmen. Finally not long before Ninian's birth the first consecrated missionaries arrived at Whithorn and his father was one of the first tribesmen to be converted.
As Ninian grew to manhood he continued his studies until there was nothing more he could learn at Whithorn. As he helped in the fields and with tribal duties his dreams resolved themselves into one desire, to be a missionary of Christ among his own people of Galloway. In 385 AD when he was about twenty-three years old Ninian walked the 1,500 odd miles to Rome, a journey that took six months. Ninian would have had letters of introduction to help him on his way but there would nevertheless have be been constant danger of attack from thieving tribesmen.
For the next ten years Ninian remained in Rome at first studying, and then serving as a priest. In 395AD he was consecrated by the Pope as the first bishop to be appointed to Scotland. On the return journey Ninian spent approximately a year at the monastery at Tours in France, where St Martin, once an officer in the Roman army, and now the most progressive churchman of his time, was the abbot. In early days monasteries were often regarded as retreats, where monks could spend their time in meditation, prayer, or study. St Martin, however, looked on monasteries as centres where monks could be trained as missionaries, and would then go out as evangelists among the heathen.
Ninian arrived home in Whithorn in 397 AD accompanied with a number of monks, some of whom were masons and craftsmen. On this rocky peninsula he built his first tiny chapel, the Candida Casa, which he dedicated to St Martin. Ninian also wanted to build a monastery to train the monks he recruited; however, the bleak, wind-swept peninsula was too exposed for this purpose. The perfect spot lay not far away, close to the Roman camp; it was here that Ninian built the first monastery in the British Isles.
Anxious to begin his work Ninian began the first of his missionary journeys while the masons were still building the simple Abbey Church and the cells for the monks. At that time anywhere North of the Galloway border was hostile country where life was of no account. Initially Ninian journeyed within these bounds but before long he was travelling further afield, preaching and establishing communities as he went, he pressed steadily on reaching as far as the coastal regions of eastern Scotland.
The fame of his monastic school had spread rapidly among the Celtic peoples, and Christians from far and wide, some even from Ireland, made their way to Whithorn for training and inspiration. Among the students who attended Whithorn were many that were later to become great fathers of the Celtic Church in Ireland. These included St Finnbarr, the teacher of St Columba, and Caranoc who baptised St Patrick. Pupils who had trained at Whithorn carried the message of Christ to the Picts of the far North, and even to the Shetlands, where there were already churches dedicated to St Ninian before St Columba arrived in Scotland.
At the church at Kirkmadrine, in the parish of Stoneykirk near Stranraer, gravestones were discovered which tell that three Roman priests, who possibly accompanied St Ninian to Galloway, were buried there early in the fifth century. It is a great pity that the glory of Whithorn should have become overshadowed in later ages by that of Iona. Historians far too frequently applaud the work of St Columba and neglect to even mention the great saint of the Solway. To put their values in proper perspective, it is only necessary to remember that had it not been for St Ninian there might well have been no St Columba; had it not been for Whithorn there might have been no Iona.
St Ninian died at his birthplace on the 16th of September, 432 AD, aged about seventy years. His body was laid to rest in the Candida Casa, but his memory and work lived on. Despite invasions by successive waves of heathen races, the monastery at Whithorn continued to keep alight the lamp of the Christian faith in a land that was for long almost completely shrouded in the darkness of paganism.