March 17 – Ninian

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Ninian, Christian Pioneer

We know very little about Ninian and even then the ‘facts’ are disputed. He was reputedly the son of a chieftain who had converted to Christianity and he came from either Cumbria, or the South-West of Scotland.  Christianity had spread during the time of Roman occupation and three Bishops from Britain had travelled to the Council of Arles in 314AD. Ninian, who would have been a Roman citizen, is said to have travelled to Rome to study. In Rome he was ordained and consecrated as a bishop, being sent back to his native Britain around 397AD, in order to evangelize his fellow Britons and take the Gospel to the Southern Picts, in what became, much later, Scotland.

Some historians believe that this work of conversion was done by Columba some 150 years later and not by Ninian. It is believed that Ninian was active from 397 to 431AD.

On arrival he is said to have had a monastery built on the north shore of the Solway Firth by masons from St. Martin’s Monastery in Tours, Gaul. This became known as the Great Monastery and it was from here that he, and those he gathered around him, set out on their missionary tours. It is possible that this building was known as Ad Candidam Casam, from the Latin meaning “At the White House”.  It would appear to have been painted with a whitewash. It is possible that it was built with white stone, although this would have been unusual to that time. His monastery probably gave the name to the town now known, as Whithorn.

The earliest reference to Ninian and to the White House is from Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, writing around 731AD, almost four hundred years later. In this he says that he is just passing on the knowledge that was traditional at the time of his writing. He does not claim that what he writes is factual. He tells us that Ninian called his monastery after St. Martin of Tours and it is possible that he had met Martin on his way back from Rome. Martin died in the same year that Ninian travelled back to Britain.

Part of Bede’s agenda was to say that Ninian had not been part of the Celtic Church, but loyal to the Roman way of being church.

The first history of Ninian was not written till the 12th Century when Aelred, who was Abbot of the monastery at Rievaulx in Yorkshire, wrote his “Life of Saint Ninian”. By this time many monasteries and places associated with saints from the past had histories written in order to promote their Centre, in order to encourage the pilgrimage trade. It is thought that Aelred was asked by the Bishop of Galloway to write the history to promote his Bishopric.

In his history, Aelred says that Ninian performed a number of miracles both before and after his death. So it is possible that the history was to help secure his sainthood.

After the history was written, Whithorn and Ninian’s tomb, became a very important Centre of pilgrimage.

Written by Rev Peter Welsh