What we know of St Ninian comes mostly from Venerable Bede’s 8th century History, who based his account on oral traditions going back to the 5th century; these stories tell of a holy man named Nynia, born among the British people, who introduced the Christian faith into Scotland more than a century before the coming of Saint Columba. Historically, we also know that from the 7th century people made a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of St Ninian in Whithorn believing in his power to cure illness and perform miracles.
St Ninian is regarded as the first major preacher of the Gospel to the people living in Britain north of the Wall–that is, living outside the territory that had been under Roman rule. He is said to have studied in Rome (note that he is contemporary with Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine), but was chiefly influenced by his friendship with Martin of Tours, with whom he spent some considerable time when he was returning from Italy to Britain. It is probable that he named his headquarters in Galloway after Martin’s foundation in Gall. Martin had a monastery known as LOCO TEIAC, roughly translatable as ‘the little white house’; perhaps not accidentally, at about the time of Martin’s death in 397, Ninian built a church at Galloway, in southwest Scotland, which he called Candida Casa (White House) or Whithorn, as it was built of stone and plastered white, an unusual construction in a land where almost all buildings were wood.
From his base at Galloway, Ninian preached throughout southern Scotland, south of the Grampian Mountains, and conducted preaching missions among the Picts of Scotland, as far north as the Moray Firth, He also preached in the Solway Plains and the Lake District of England. Like Patrick (a generation later) and Columba (a century and a half later), he was a principal agent in preserving the tradition of the old Romano-British Church and forming the character of Celtic Christianity. Archaeological research in modern times has confirmed much of the information about St Ninian contained in the writings of Bede and others. There is clear archaeological evidence of the small church – Ninian’s ‘White House’ – and the monastery he founded on the isle of Whithorn in the late fourth century. It is worth emphasizing that St Ninian’s community in Whithorn (founded around 397) is Scotland’s first Christian monastic community.
Rather that a founder of large monasteries, St Ninian was a bishop with a hermit’s calling; we know that, for many years, he used a cave on the Solway shore south of Whithorn as a retreat. We celebrate St Ninian’s Feast Day on the 16th of September, his date of departure to the Lord (in 430).
Today is the 4th anniversary of the historical State visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Scotland.