St Ninian was Scotland’s first Saint and the man believed to have brought Christianity to Scotland. Nope, not a lot of people know that.
And Whithorn, where he based his church, is the home of the earliest recorded Christian community in Scotland. From the 7th Century, it was a site of holy pilgrimage with thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, visiting the town right up until the Reformation, making it a prosperous trading centre. Didn’t think you knew that either.
Here’s something else you probably didn’t realise. Whithorn was visited by King Robert the Bruce in the 14th Century and in the 16th Century, King James IV walked for eight days on foot to pay homage to St Ninian.
“In modern times, Whithorn’s ancient status as the original site of Christian influence in Northern Britain sadly has been forgotten by many, the memory of its greatness considerably eclipsed by the popular fame of Iona.”
So hurrah for the Papal visit to Scotland which, by putting a St Ninian’s Day parade at the heart of the celebrations, might just do something to redress this parlous state of affairs and give St Ninian his rightful place in Scottish history and contemporary society. Shame we Scots haven’t managed to do so.
With the honourable exception of Caledonian Mercury, this aspect of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit appears to have escaped the attention of the Scottish media. Shame on them, for there is a story of sorts here.
How has it come to pass that the founder of Christianity in Scotland has become such a forgotten figure? Why is it left to a small charitable trust – whose income last year amounted to less than £100,000 – to try to keep the memory alive?
The relative inaccessibility of Whithorn provides part of the answer. Yet, the neighbouring town, Wigtown, has enjoyed a renaissance courtesy of its book town status. Maybe it’s because Christianity is less of a niche market than books these days. Not so. Santiago de Compostela in Galicia welcomes over one million pilgrims every year. And while it might seem distasteful to some, with the right marketing and promotion, Whithorn and St Ninian could attract a fraction of that number bringing much needed economic and cultural sustenance to the Machars of Wigtownshire. In fact, if Visitscotland could think for a moment beyond golfers, walkers, whisky drinkers, romantic couples and rain freaks, Scotland is actually uniquely placed to attract pilgrims. Whithorn, St Andrews and Iona could all feature on a national trail.
Sadly, part of the answer can also be found in the narrow insularity of those who run the Trust. With many who hold a cause dear, there is a fine line to be walked between preservation and suffocation. The large grants attracted in the 1990s to establish a visitor centre and archaeological digs achieved what they set out to do, but with vision and creativity, the legacy could have been much more lasting. Despite its proximity in the calendar, there appears to have been little attempt to twin St Ninian’s Day with the annual Wigtown book festival. Indeed, the Trust’s website does not even deign to mention the Papal visit or the parade on Thursday.
But all is not lost. Thanks to the awareness raised this week, we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that the fortunes of St Ninian and Whithorn are well and truly turned around. All the essential ingredients are there: a true Scottish hero, fantastic archaeological ruins, a restored chapel, a warm and welcoming town, even a cave and a modern day witness cairn.
“To this day St Ninian is a saint held in common by all Scottish Christians and, indeed, by all Scots”. Way past time then, to re-establish him in his rightful place as the Scottish saint who founded Christianity in the country of his birth. And for him to be renowned and celebrated, not dismissed and forgotten.