The Story of Ninian
Scotland's Earliest Missionary
The following is from the 1860 edition of Good Words (Edited by Norman MacLeod)
Ninian was born—so the legend runs—about A.D. 360, on the Cumberland shore of the Solway—his father, a British prince—his mother, a devout Christian. His birthplace was not wholly barbarous. Lying at the west end of the Wall of Severus, but a little way from the great Roman road from York to Carlisle, and on through Annandale, the native Cumbrians had caught, no doubt, some tincture of Roman civilisation. The boy was of a pure and holy temper even from his cradle, silent, thoughtful, of sweet manners, strong in love towards his comrades, full of devotion, and much interested in churches. Even when a youth, he devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures, and soon made himself master of whatever learning, on this and other matters, his country could supply: for South Britain had early received the faith, even during the second and third centuries; and had produced saints, as St Alban and St Helena—was now producing heretics too, if, as many think, Cœlestius and Pelagius were both Britons. The heresy which took its name from the latter was at this time spreading in Britain; and it was partly to know the truth on this important subject, as well as to obtain better general learning, that St Ninian, while still a young man, made a journey to Home. [So hints Ælred, by an anachronism, as has been shewn, if by error he refers to Pelagianism, for this was not condemned till a.d. 412.] "He longed," says Ælred, "for purer and more perfect light. And where was that to be had, if not at the grave and see of the chief of the apostles?" A strange sight it must have been for that simple British youth, as, fresh from Solway side and Cumberland moors, he gazed from the descent of the Janiculum on the world's capital. True, it had ceased to be that; for the seat o£ empire ere this had been transferred to the Bosphorus. And, twenty years before Ninian came to Italy, the eastern and western empires had been finally divided; and Rome was no longer the residence even of the Emperor of the West. Still, there lay 'before the stranger's eyes its temples, palaces, Coliseum, and basilicas, the gathered magnificence of a thousand years, all waiting for Alaric and his destroying Goths. Whatever was pagan and imperial was on the eve of destruction; but the hierarchical and sacerdotal power was still fresh with youth. The two pontificates during which Ninian was at Rome, those of Damasus and Siricius, saw the last struggles and final extinction of Roman paganism. Year by year the old basilicas were being changed into Christian temples, and new churches were rising oyer the martyrs' tombs. The Roman ritual was swelling into pomp, and the higher priesthood were beginning to fatten on riches showered on them by ardent devotees, especially of the female sort. Damasus, the present Pope, had, after a fierce contest with a rival, climbed to the pontifical chair over slaughtered enemies—an ambitious and luxurious prelate, under whom, as Gibbon remarks, the Church had reached the half-way point between the humble poverty of the apostolic fishermen and the royal state of a Hildebrand or Innocent III. But bad as this was for the Church, and big with evil for the future, it probably did no harm to the simple youth from Cumberland. The pure in heart like him have a strange art—"to see, and not to see; to know, and not to know; to live in the midst of evil, and take no part in it." And there were those at Rome who might well command his reverence and kindle his heart to heroic devotion.
There, at the close of the fourth century, he probably saw, may have even conversed with the three great fathers of Latin Christianity—Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine. The fiery Jerome, translator of the Scriptures into the Latin Vulgate, the zealous advocate and guardian of young monasticism. The intrepid Ambrose of Milan, champion of sacerdotal authority, who had just humbled the proudest sovereign of the age, and made the imperial diadem bow before the episcopal mitre. The profound Augustine, in the first fervour of his conversion, he who "gave system to Latin theology; wrought Christianity into the minds and hearts of men by his impassioned autobiography; and, finally, under the name of 'the city of God,' established that new and undefined kingdom of which the bishop of Home was hereafter to be the sovereign."
The youth from Cumberland may have seen these worthies, even heard them preach, and no doubt heard much talk of their doings. In time he found access to Pope Damasus, now aged eighty years. The old man, ambitious and luxurious though he had been, received the youth kindly, even embraced him, it is said; and, entering warmly into the object for which Ninian had come, placed him under teachers who taught him the true faith and right meaning of Scripture. From these he discovered that it was many ways faulty, even seriously erroneous, what he had learnt in his own country. This means, perhaps, that it was Pelagian error, perhaps that it was only some way behind the latest developments of Lome's theology. During all this time, Ninian lodged, like enough, in one of the monasteries, springing up everywhere in Lome during these days, thanks to the vehement proselytism of Jerome.
After fifteen years, they say, spent in study and preparation, the time was come when he must quit Rome. Pope Siricius, successor of Damasus, had heard with concern that of the Britons some had fallen into error, others were still pagans. To reclaim the former, to convert the latter, he sent for this Cumberland stranger, whom he had heard of, consecrated him, with his own hands, a missionary bishop, and, blessing him, sent him forth to be the apostle of his countrymen. This fell in 397, A.D. On his way through France, Ninian stopped at Tours, to see Martin, the saint of that place, famous in his day for his asceticism and reputed miracles, whom we still commemorate unconsciously in our word Martinmas—the mass of St Martin. After much converse on divine things, says our biographer, Ninian, ere he departed, asked St Martin for masons who could build churches of stone, that as he was bearing to Britain the Romish doctrine, so he might bear with him the Romish manner of churches and church services. Stone-masons he brought from Tours, doctrines and discipline from Rome. Three latest characteristics of Rome, we may be sure he brought,—the adoption of the monastic life, stern enforcement of celibacy on the clergy, and the Vulgate or Latin version of the Scriptures, which, but lately completed by Jerome, put out the Greek and Hebrew original, and became, till the Reformation, the only Bible of Western Europe.
It was a dark time when Ninian returned to his country. The Romans were beginning to fall back from the northern province of Clydesdale and Lothian, within the Northumbrian wall. As fast as they withdrew, savage Picts rushed in behind them, to slaughter and burn. A time when the poor distracted Britons much needed consolation, yet were perhaps little likely to listen to it. Annandale and Clydesdale, the high road of contending armies, full of battle and bloodshed, would be no fit abode for this messenger of peace. It may have been for this reason that he turned aside to fix his own dwelling and Scotland's first church in remote Galloway. It may be that Criffel and the blue hills beyond Solway had dwelt bright in his memory ever since the time when, as a child, he had watched across the Frith the sun go down among the Galloway mountains. The sunset land of childhood, it has a strange interest for all;, perhaps even St Ninian may not have been indifferent to it. However this may have been, on a bleak promontory, one of the westmost of Galloway, nearly the most southern point in Scotland, he fixed his abode, and built a stone church with the masons he had brought from Tours. The spot, three miles from the end of the headland, and surrounded by sea on all but its northern side, was called by the Saxons, Whithern, (or White House,) a name it still bears. And the church, as far as we know, was the earliest Christian church in Scotland, and perhaps the first in Britain—built of stone, not of wattles, as the. British churches were for many years afterwards. Ninian dedicated it to St Martin of Tours, the news of whose death reached him while it was a-building. This must have been about A.D. 400. Beside his church, it would seem that he raised a monastery, ordered, no doubt, after the example he had seen at Tours and Rome, in which the clergy might dwell, where they might be trained for their missionary work, whence they might go forth to preach to the people of Galloway and Strathclyde, whither they might return when they needed repose.
In this monastery the monks lived in the simplest way, on vegetables chiefly—leeks are mentioned—and other produce of their own garden. For these monks he would lay down a rule, stated hours for prayer, for study, for labour in the garden and fields. Himself he opened a Christian school, in which he taught many children of the chiefs and richer sort. The good man loved the children, and was loved by them. But one day he was about to punish a young barbarian who had been unruly, with what weapon, 'taws' or stick, tradition notes not. Naturally enough, the wild lad, for fear of taws, as boys will do, is off to the shore, bearing with him the bishop's best staff', a memorial of the old man he loved. So says simple Ælred,—perhaps rather a truant boy's trick to spite his intending scourger. However this may be, the young Galwegian takes a boat, puts to sea, and is like to sink; but using the bishop's staff for sail, helm, and anchor, he is miraculously brought safe to land. The boy planted it on the shore, and in time the staff became a wide-spreading tree, and at that tree's roots they say there burst forth a spring whose waters long afterwards healed the sick.
The chief opposer of Ninian's work was a king or chief of Galloway, Tudoval. After long resisting and thwarting him, this man fell blind and miserable. Conscience-stricken, he sent for the saint, and asked his forgiveness. The saint not only forgave him, but came to him and comforted him, and, the legend says, laying his hands on him, prayed and healed his blindness.
But not in Galloway only did he labour. He had all Scotland this side the Forth to preach in and convert; the other side of it, too, if he chose to essay it. Of his wanderings in Strathclyde, Ælred gives us nothing; and tradition is equally silent. One only footprint of his is visible—the old cemetery which he consecrated near the Clyde, which Kentigern, a century and a half afterwards, found still held in reverence there, with its circle of old trees, the spot on which Glasgow Cathedral now stands, is the only record of his doings in Strathclyde. But he had work to do beyond the Friths. Bede calls him the Apostle of the Southern Picts, and distinctly asserts that he was the first messenger of Christ who ever visited them.
Ælred, in his rhetorical way—the kind of rhetoric which was the common stock in trade of all those monkish biographers—speaks of his going forth against this stronghold of Satan, (South Pict-land,) begirt with his army of holy men, preaching the Word of God, and working many miracles. "They rush," says he, "to the font of baptism, rich and poor, young men and maidens, old men and boys, mothers and children, and denouncing Satan and his works, are united to the company of the faithful." Then he ordained pastors and clergy among them, consecrated bishops, and portioned out Pictland into districts for their ministrations. Having confirmed them in the faith, and arranged all things as seemed best for God's honour and the good of men, he bids them farewell, and returns to Whithern. In his seclusion there, when not engaged in preaching near his monastery, or teaching within it, he wrote commentaries on parts of Scripture, meditations on the Psalms, a collection of sentences from the fathers for the youth and clergy of Whithern. His old age was spent in the quiet monastery, and he died in September, 432. His monks laid him in the church of St Martin, which himself had built, in a stone coffin hard by the altar, the clergy and people standing by, and lifting up their hymns with heart and voice, mingled with sighs and tears. "There," as one writes, "in that white house, which from its bold promontory looks upon the shores of Cumberland and the distant peaks of Man, St Ninian had his rest with the bodies of many other saints. For ages the place continued to be famous, not only in Scotland, but throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and among the races of Ireland. Even from Gaul came letters in the ninth century to the Brethren of St Ninian at Whithern, written by the most accomplished scholar and divine of his age, Alcuin, the counsellor and confidant of Charlemagne." The ancient shrine in time fell to decay; but in the twelfth century was renewed by King David, and became renowned through all the Middle Ages as "a pilgrimage, whither kings and princes, churchmen and warriors, with people from many realms, came by sea and land to make their devotions." Of these once-honoured buildings, all that now remains is a roofless and ruined chancel, grass upon its pavement, ivy on its walls. [One interesting relic of the saint is still preserved in Ireland—the Clogrinny bell of St Ninian, a primitive square bell, said to be the identical one which summoned the first converts of the wild Galwegian tribes to the preaching of the first missionary bishop in his church at Whithern.—Wilson, Pre-Hist. Arm. 600.]
But Ninian has, whether remembered or forgotten, a better than any outward memorial. It was not to win man's praise that he lived and laboured. He attained all he sought. The truths he spoke laid some hold of men's hearts, and through innumerable changes have never died out. To some, through every generation since, we may believe the seed he sowed has been a seed of heavenly life. To all it was the first power of order out of barbaric chaos, the first faint dawn of that pure social life, which has been growing and expanding amongst us ever since.