21st Century Pilgrims Re-ignite the Light of St Ninian in Whithorn

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The third National Youth Pilgrimage of recent times brought young Catholics to the shores of Whithorn in honour of St Ninian. 120 pilgrims from most of the dioceses of Scotland learned about St Ninian, the early Church of Candida Casa – an ancient name for the Diocese of Galloway – and celebrated Mass near St Ninian’s Cave on Luce Bay.

The pilgrimage, co-ordinated by Fr Stephen McGrattan on behalf of the Catholic Youth Service Scotland, benefitted from the expertise of guides from the Whithorn Trust. The Visitor’s Centre, managed by the Whithorn Trust, seeks to bring alive the historical and archaeological evidence which tells the story of the Church founded by Ninian around the year AD 397.

St Ninian did not have a biographer who remembered him personally. Generations passed before his “Life” was written down. The Venerable Bede provides information about Ninian’s Christian foundation at Whithorn in his “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a “Vita Sancti Niniani”. Only in the 19th and 20th centuries has archaeological (not historical) evidence corroborated the devotion to Ninian which has survived from the early Church.

The Georgian architecture of Whithorn today adorns a town which numbers among its pilgrims Kings and Queens of Scotland, England and Britain. The Royal Burgh of Whithorn has been traditionally a capital for the Southern Machars.

It is said that Saint Ninian, son of a Roman Chieftain, travelled to Rome and returned from there to Scotland as an ordained bishop to evangelise the Southern Picts. His return to Scotland is traditionally dated in the year 397. Aelred of Rievaulx documents that on his journey home, he visited St Martin of Tours. Martin allowed a number of monks with stonemasonry skills to travel with Ninian to what is now southern Scotland and build a church. The name of the church building at Whithorn was Candida Casa. Made of stone, painted white, with a name which translated as “shining white house”, Ninian’s church stood apart from the other local buildings made of wood and natural materials.

In the very centre of Whithorn you can visit the archaeological site of the ancient Candida Casa church. The ruins of the medieval Cathedral and shrine of St Ninian may also be visited. His relics are, sadly, no longer there.

The Latinus stone, housed in an exhibition managed by the Whithorn Trust, is the most ancient Christian monument in Scotland. It is a tombstone of a Roman convert which indicates the burial place of both him and his daughter. It was excavated in the late 19th century under the benefaction of the Third Marquis of Bute. The inscription on the stone indicates an already established Christian community around the year 450.

At the end of a pebble beach accessed by walking through Physgill Glen, can be found a cave. St Ninian is said to have come here for quiet prayer and reflection. Especially on a clear day, the cave is a very special location with views of the entire beach and across to the Northumbrian coast and the Isle of Man. Also, in the crevices within the cave, pilgrims leave pebbles inscribed with a cross or a prayer intention.

It was near this cave that an altar was erected for the celebration of Mass.

The young pilgrims discovered that the city of Whithorn, a place of learning, trade, wealth and pilgrimage, existed long before Glasgow. Among the historical artefacts on display are standing stones, some of which were used to mark the graves of early bishops and priests of the historic diocese. A number of these stones have been preserved because they were incorporated into other buildings from which they were later recovered and put on display. The museum of stones exhibits the oldest Christian artefacts in the United Kingdom and impress visitors with their intricate patterns and inscriptions.

As well as the ancient stones, the young pilgrims visited the ruins of the medieval Cathedral, the Shrine of St Ninian, and the Whithorn Dig which, in the last century, uncovered the remains of the earliest stone church constructed by St Ninian and stonemason monks from the Monastery in Tours, France where St Martin was Abbot.

The climax of the pilgrimage was the celebration of Mass on the pebble beach near the Cave where Ninian is said to have retired for quiet prayer. Mass was celebrated by a present day successor of St Ninian, Bishop Maurice Taylor. In his homily he challenged the young pilgrims to measure their closeness to Christ by recognising in their lives the fruits of the Holy Spirit listed in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Thanks are due to the 91st Ayrshire Scouts and people of Whithorn for arranging the Mass.