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Scottish Cathedrals and Abbeys

The following is from Scottish Cathedrals and Abbeys by Rev. D. Butler, M.A.:

Chapter III - Cathedrals

Diocese of Galloway

The name of Whithorn is a venerable one in Scottish Church history. It is mentioned by Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer, in the second century as Leukopibia, a town of the Novantae. The Greek name is synonymous with the Latin Candida Casa or "White House," under which designation it was latterly known. It is associated with the first known apostle of Christianity in Scotland, St. Ninian, who was probably born here about the middle of the fourth century. Of studious and ascetic habits, he visited Rome, and on his homeward journey visited St. Martin of Tours, who died in 397. After his arrival in Scotland, he founded the Candida Casa or Church of Whithorn, dedicated it to St. Martin, and, although Christianity was probably known in Scotland before his time, his work is the first distinct fact in the history of the Scottish Church. After preaching the Gospel among the Southern Picts, he died in 432, and was buried within his church at Whithorn. It is a matter of dispute, whether this first Christian oratory was built, after the custom of the early Scottish Church, on a small island or peninsula at the point of the promontory which lies between the bays of Luce and Wigtown, about three miles south from Whithorn, or on the spot where the monastery afterwards arose. There are the ruins of a small chapel on "The Isle," and although belonging to a later date, it is more than probable that it was the successor of St. Ninian's first church. Whithorn was famous also for its early schools and monastery, and exercised no small influence in Christianising both the surrounding district and Northumbria, or what is now known as the northerly parts of England. A bishopric of Whithorn was founded by the Angles in 727, was held by five successive bishops, and came to an end about 796, when the disorganisation of the Northumbrian kingdom enabled the native population to eject the strangers and assert their own independence.

During the reign of David I. (1124-1153), Fergus, Lord of Galloway, re-established the see of Galloway, and founded at Whithorn a Premonstratensian priory, whose church became the cathedral, and contained the shrine of St. Ninian. The see included the whole of Wigtownshire and the greater part of Kirkcudbrightshire; the bishop remained under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York till at least the fourteenth century, and in 1472 became suffragan of St. Andrews. In 1491, when Glasgow became a metropolitan see, the Bishop of Galloway became a Vicar-General of it during vacancies. The canons of Whithorn Priory formed the chapter of the see of Galloway, and the prior ranked next to the bishop; the diocese was divided into three rural deaneries. The shrine of St. Ninian became a place of pilgrimage for people from all parts of Scotland, and was visited by Scottish queens and kings--James IV visited it generally once and frequently twice a year throughout his whole reign. The priory became wealthy, and the church and other buildings were of great extent. Among its priors may be mentioned Gavin Dunbar (1514), who was tutor to James V and afterwards Archbishop of Glasgow; and James Beaton, who was prior and afterwards Bishop of Galloway, was advanced to the archbishopric of Glasgow in 1509, and of St. Andrews in 1522.

The buildings of the priory are now reduced to the nave--an aisleless structure--and to some underground vaulted buildings, which no doubt formerly supported the choir and other erections above.[183] The west tower fell in the beginning of last century; the cloister lay to the north of the nave; the chapter-house, slype, and site of domestic buildings extended to the north of the transept. The north wall of the nave interior contains two pointed recesses for monuments, which are of excellent design. At the south-west angle of the nave is a doorway which is undoubtedly Norman,[184] and the sculptures on the right and left of the projecting wall point to a close affinity between the sculptured figures on the ancient stones and the architecture of the twelfth century in Scotland.[185] The ancient font, probably of Norman date, bowl-shaped, and of simple design, has been preserved in the church, and St. Ninian's Cave--probably a place of religious retirement--about three miles south-east of the village, contains some very old stone crosses, and on its east wall some very old inscriptions, a number of which are partly unintelligible by being covered with more recent ones.

The neighbourhood will always be associated with St. Ninian, the apostle of the Britons and of the Southern Picts, and may be called the historical fountain-head of the Scottish Church.

[183] Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 482.
[184] Ibid. p. 485.
[185] Ibid. p. 486.

Diocese of Lismore


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