Listen to an Introduction:
irkmadrine Church houses the earliest inscribed Christian monuments in Scotland, dating from about 450AD.
In 312AD, the Emperor Constantine issued his edict of toleration. He then had a monogram of the two Greek letters Chi and Rho on the standards of his legions, on his coins, and even on the front of his helmet, before long it began to appear on Christian tombs. The Kirkmadrine stones bear the Chi-Rho monogram; and a very early form of a simple cross is beginning to emerge. It originated as a secret code amongst early Christians, using an X and a P, the first two letters of the Greek word for “Christ”. Each cross is surrounded by a deeply cut perfect circle which is the symbol of eternity, that which is without beginning or end. Above the monogram and circle of the first stone appear the first and the last letter of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega. This triple symbolism of the monogram, the circle, and the Alpha and Omega, make the Kirkmadrine stones unique.
Chroniclers record that St Ninian returned from Rome and made Whithorn the centre of his missionary work, building Candida Casa, his church of stone in 397AD. Kirkmadrine could have been a daughter church of Whithorn or may even have been the site of the early monastery itself. Both churches continued to live and flourish although Kirkmadrine was later eclipsed by Whithorn as a place of pilgrimage. By 450AD, when St Ninian had been in his grave at Whithorn for twenty or thirty years, St Patrick began his mission in Ireland, and a hundred years and more had to pass before St Columba came from Ireland to Iona.
hithorn is believed to be the site of the earliest Christian community in Scotland, the Latinus Stone inscribed around 450AD. It was erected to Latinus and his daughter and would have stood by an early Christian church and cemetery. There are traces of the Christian ‘chi-rho’ symbol above the lettering.
The year 431 is the traditional date ascribed to the death and burial here of St Ninian, a bishop who built a ‘shining white church’, known as Candida Casa. But was it built here? Archaeological digs have so far failed to find the site. They found evidence of a high status secular Christian settlement which was literate, knew the liturgy and had trading contacts as far as Gaul and North Africa. They unearthed a large amount of coloured, imported glass, from drinking vessels – a quantity inconsistent with Whithorn being an early monastic community. It was usual for royal settlements and Christian sites to develop together. So was Whithorn in fact a secular settlement – with the first Christian converts’ burials and lavish funeral rites? Was the great church somewhere else nearby? Several possible locations have been suggested. The favourite is Kirkmadrine, across the bay, in the nearby Rhins of Galloway. Water was then the easiest and fastest form of travel, so Kirkmadrine would have been much easier to reach from Whithorn than it is today.
However, after the Anglian occupation in the 7th century, Whithorn certainly developed into one of the most important religious sites in the land. It held St Ninian’s relics and many thousands of pilgrims came here to seek his healing powers. By 1000AD, Whithorn was a thriving commercial settlement and part of an extensive sea-trading network. At the Isle of Whithorn, lie the ruins of the 14th century St Ninian’s chapel just above the beach landing where pilgrims arrived by sea and where St Ninian is reputed to have landed.
Three miles (5 km) south-west of Whithorn, St Ninian’s Cave is a natural cleft in the sea cliffs. Rock falls may have made it smaller than it would have been when mediaeval pilgrims visited.
Crosses were carved into the cave walls and excavations revealed others on boulders and loose slabs of stone. Mostly they date to the 700s and 800s and are thought to be the work of pilgrims, or perhaps monks from Whithorn, occupying the cave as a place of retreat. These stones are now displayed in the Whithorn Priory Museum. The Visitor Centre Exhibition uses a mixture of objects, interpretation panels, models and figures to bring the complex history of occupation here to life, and is well worth a visit. There is also a replica of an early roundhouse.
How to get here
Kirkmadrine. From the Dunragit Bypass on the A75, turn south on to the B7084 which, after 6 miles, joins the A716. After passing through Sandhead turn right, heading (for about 2 miles) towards the west coast; at a fork keep right. Pass a turnoff on the right to Cairnweil Farm and about a quarter of mile further on you will come to iron gates on your right, with an avenue of trees leading up to Kirkmadrine Church (which is not easy to see from the road). Park and walk up the avenue. If you come to a T-junction and can see the sea you have gone too far!
Whithorn is on the A714 from Newton Stewart. Start in the centre of town (George St) at the Visitor Centre.
St Ninian’s Cave is located three miles (5 km) south-west of Whithorn. A car park is located to the left side of the minor road just before Kidsdale Farm, with a sign for St Ninian’s Cave. Walk through the wooded glen, then follow the burnside path to the pebbles of Port Castle Bay. Turn right at the sign for St Ninian’s Cave. The cave’s entrance sits by the seashore along to the right.
Cradle of Christianity
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Places to Visit and Things to Do
Traditionally associated with Saint Ninian himself, the cave has long been a special place for pilgrims. [Photo: Akinom]
The Visitor Centre Exhibition uses a mixture of objects, interpretation panels, models and figures to bring the complex history of occupation here to life.
Mysterious symbols carved into rocks by our prehistoric ancestors… Can you work out what they were for? [Photo: Roger W Haworth]
From the pebbled beach of St Ninian’s Cave to the substantial ruins of St Ninian’s Chapel, follow the pilgrim’s way. [Photo: Damnonii]
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