Saint Ninian

Saint Ninian
Saint Ninian

Saint Ninian preaching to the Picts (from the Book of the Hours of the Virgin and Saint Ninian)[1]
Apostle to the Southern Picts
Born uncertain
Died uncertain
Honored in Anglican Communion
Eastern Orthodoxy
Roman Catholicism
Major shrine Whithorn Priory
Feast 16 September
Attributes Episcopal

Saint Ninian (traditionally 4th-5th century) is a Christian saint first mentioned in the 8th century as being an early missionary among the Pictish peoples of what is now Scotland. For this reason he is known as the Apostle to the Southern Picts, and there are numerous dedications to him in those parts of Scotland with a Pictish heritage, throughout the Scottish Lowlands, and in parts of Northern England with a Northumbrian heritage. In Scotland, Ninian is also known as Ringan, and as Trynnian in Northern England.

Ninian's major shrine was at Whithorn in Galloway, where he is associated with the Candida Casa (Latin for 'White House'). Nothing is known about his teachings, and there is no unchallenged authority for information about his life.

A link between the Ninian of tradition and a person who actually appears in the historical record is not yet confirmed, though Finnian of Moville has gained traction as a leading candidate. This article discusses the particulars and origins of what has come to be known as the "traditional" stories of Saint Ninian.



The Southern Picts, for whom Ninian is held to be the apostle, are the Picts south of the mountains known as the Mounth, which cross Scotland north of the Firths of Clyde and Forth. That they had once been Christian is known from a 5th century mention of them by Saint Patrick in his Letter to Coroticus, where he refers to them as 'apostate Picts'.[2] Patrick could not have been referring to the Northern Picts who were converted by Saint Columba in the 6th century because they were not yet Christian, and thus could not be called 'apostate'. Northumbria had established a bishopric among the Southern Picts at Abercorn in 681, under Bishop Trumwine. This effort was abandoned shortly after the Picts defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Dunnichen in 685.

Christianity had flourished in Galloway in the 6th century.[3] by the time of Bede's account in 731, the Northumbrians had enjoyed an unbroken relationship with Galloway for a century or longer, beginning with the Northumbrian predecessor state of Bernicia. The full nature of the relationship is uncertain. Also at this time, Northumbria was establishing bishoprics in its sphere of influence, to be subordinate to the Northumbrian Archbishop of York. One such bishopric was established at Whithorn in 731, and Bede's account serves to support the legitimacy of the new Northumbrian bishopric. The Bernician name hwit ærn is Old English for the Latin candida casa, or 'white house' in modern English, and it has survived as the modern name of Whithorn.

There is as yet no unchallenged connection of the historical record to the person who was Bede's Ninian. However, the unlikelihood that the reputable historian Bede invented Ninian without some basis in the historical record, combined with an increased knowledge of Ireland's early saints and Whithorn's early Christian connections, has led to serious scholarly efforts to find Bede's basis. James Henthorn Todd, in his 1855 publication of the Leabhar Imuinn (The Book of Hymns of the Ancient Church of Ireland), suggested that it was Finnian of Moville,[4] and that view has gained traction among modern scholars.[5]

Traditional story

The earliest mention of Ninian of Whithorn is in a short passage of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Northumbrian monk Bede in ca. 731. The 9th-century poem Miracula Nyniae Episcopi records some of the miracles attributed to him. A Life of Saint Ninian (Vita Sancti Niniani) was written around 1160 by Ailred of Rievaulx, and in 1639 James Ussher discusses Ninian in his Brittanicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates. These are the sources of information about Ninian of Whithorn, and all provide seemingly innocuous personal details about his life. However, there is no unchallenged historical evidence to support any of their stories, and all sources had political and religious agendas that were served by their accounts of Saint Ninian (discussed below).

Tradition holds that Ninian was a Briton who had studied in Rome, that he established an episcopal see at the Candida Casa in Whithorn, that he named the see for Saint Martin of Tours, that he converted the southern Picts to Christianity, and that he is buried at Whithorn. Variations of the story add that he had actually met Saint Martin, that his father was a Christian king, and that he was buried in a stone sarcophagus near the altar of his church. Further variations assert that he left for Ireland, and died there in 432. Dates for his birth are derived from the traditional mention of Saint Martin, who died in 397.

The Venerable Bede translates John, by J. D. Penrose, c. 1902.

Bede's contribution (ca. 731)

Bede says that Ninian was a Briton who had been instructed in Rome; that he made his church of stone, which was unusual among the Britons; that his episcopal see was named after Saint Martin of Tours; that he preached to and converted the southern Picts; that his base was at "hwit ærn", which was in the province of the Bernicians; and that he was buried there, along with many other saints.[6]

Bede's information is minimal and he does not claim it as fact, asserting only that he is passing on "traditional" information. He provides the first historical reference to Saint Ninian, in a passing reference contained in the final part of a single paragraph.

Saint Ailred (or Aelred), from an 1845 book.[7]

Ailred's contribution (ca. 1160)

Leaving aside the tales regarding miracles, in the Vita Sancti Niniani Ailred includes the following incidental information regarding Saint Ninian: that his father was a Christian king; that he was consecrated a bishop in Rome and that he met Saint Martin in Tours; that Saint Martin sent masons with him on his homeward journey, at his request; that these masons built a church of stone, situated on the shore, and on learning of Saint Martin's death, Ninian dedicated the church to him; that a certain rich and powerful "King Tuduvallus" was converted by him; that he died after having converted the Picts and returned home, being buried in a stone sarcophagus near the altar of his church; and that he had once travelled with a holy person named "Plebia".[8]

Ailred claimed that much of his information for his Life of S. Ninian was taken from a source written in a "barbarous language", but there is no knowledge of it other than his own claim. It is also noted that Ailred wrote his Life of S. Ninian at a time when he was living under Scottish rule and had close connections both to Fergus of Galloway (who would resurrect the Bishopric of Galloway), and to the Scottish royal family, all of whom would have been pleased to have a manuscript with such a glowing description of a Galwegian and Scottish saint. There is no implication anywhere that Ailred intended to deceive. He was simply telling a story in the manner of his time, with a hagiographic flavour, and to a politically ambitious audience.[9]

James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland.

Ussher's contribution (1639)

Ussher says that Ninian left Candida Casa for Cluayn-coner in Ireland, and eventually died in Ireland; that his mother was a Spanish princess; that his father wished to regain him after having assented to his training for an ecclesiastical state; that a bell comes from heaven to call together his disciples; that a wooden church was raised by him, with beams delivered by stags; and that a harper with no experience at architecture was the builder of the church. He adds that a smith and his son, named respectively "Terna" and "Wyn", witnessed a miracle by Ninian and that the saint was granted lands to be called "Wytterna".[10][11]

In addition, Skene attributes the "traditional" date of Ninian's death (16 September 432) ultimately to Ussher's Life of Ninian, noting that the date is "without authority".[12]

Ussher's contribution is often disparaged,[13][14] as he both invented fictitious histories and misquoted legitimate manuscripts to suit his own purposes.[15][16] Still, he had access to legitimate manuscripts, and he has contributed to some versions of the traditional stories.

Other sources

Others who wrote of Saint Ninian used the accounts of Bede, Ailred, or Ussher, or used derivatives of them in combination with information from various manuscripts. This includes John Capgrave (1393 – 1464), John of Tinmouth (fl. ca. 1366), John Colgan (d. ca. 1657), and many others,[17] up to the present day.

The anonymously written 8th century hagiographic Miracula Nynie Episcopi (Miracles of Bishop Ninian) is discounted as a non-historical account, and copies are not widely extant.[18]

Dedications to St. Ninian (England, Scotland, Isle of Man).[19][20][21][22]

Dedications to St Ninian

Dedications to Saint Ninian are expressions of respect for the good works that are attributed to him, and the authenticity of the stories about him are not relevant to that point. Almost all of the dedications have their origins in the medieval era, after the account of Ailred was written.

The dedications are found throughout the lands of the ancient Picts of Scotland, throughout Scotland south of the Firths of Clyde and Forth, in Orkney and Shetland, and in parts of northern England.

Dedications on the Isle of Man date from the time of medieval Scottish dominance, and are not natively inspired.

There are also dedications elsewhere in the world where there is a Scottish heritage, such as Nova Scotia. St. Ninian's Cathedral is located in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

There is a noticeable lack of dedications in the Scottish Highlands and Isles, and except for Bute and Sanda, there are no dedications to Saint Ninian in the territory of ancient Dál Riata (Kil Saint Ninian in Mull belongs to Nennidius).[23]

See also

Gloriole blur.svg Saints portal
  • Vita Sancti Niniani ("Life of Saint Ninian")
  • Isle of Whithorn


  1. ^ "Saint Ninian preaching to the Picts", Book of the Hours of the Virgin and Saint Ninian, Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh School of History, Classics and Archaeology,, retrieved 2006-06-06 
  2. ^ Todd, James Henthorn (1863), "The Epistle on Coroticus", St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, Dublin: Hodges, Smith, & Co. (published 1864), p. 384, 
  3. ^ Maxwell, Herbert Eustace (1887), Studies in the Topography of Galloway, Edinburgh: David Douglas, p. 21,  – Excavations at the predecessor building of Whithorn Priory, and at Saint Ninian's Cave, had discovered Celtic crosses from this period. Old English runes found on them are later additions.
  4. ^ Todd, James Henthorn, ed. (1855), "Note B: St. Finnian of Maghbile", Leabhar Imuinn (The Book of Hymns of the Ancient Church of Ireland), Dublin: The Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, pp. 98 – 108, 
  5. ^ Yorke, Barbara (2007), The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain, 600–800, Religion, Politics and Society in Britain (ed. Keith Robbins), Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, p. 113, ISBN 0-582-77292-3 
  6. ^ Bede 731:271, 273 In Chapter IV, When the nation of the Picts received the faith
  7. ^ Forbes 1874:frontispiece The Historians of Scotland: The Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern
  8. ^ Forbes 1874:1–26 The Life of S. Ninian by Ailred
  9. ^ Dowden 1894:23–32 In The Life of St. Ninian
  10. ^ Forbes 1874:iv-v Introduction to the Life of S. Ninian
  11. ^ Ussher 1639:199–209, 228, 251 — claims regarding Ninian in his Life of Ninian, in Latin
  12. ^ Skene 1887:3–4 In The Churches in the West
  13. ^ Newman 1845:11 "The Irish life referred to by Archbishop Usher does not appear entitled to much consideration" in St. Ninian's early days, for example; and elsewhere in the book.
  14. ^ Hardy 1862:44 "The Irish Life was written long after Ninian's death, by an author of little discretion, who wished to adjust the conduct of the Saint to the usages of his own time." in the footnote, for example.
  15. ^ for example, see Bridgett, Thomas Edward (1881), "Catholicity of North-Britons", History of the holy eucharist in Great Britain, I, London: C. Kegan Paul & Co, p. 55 (footnote),  — Ussher printed a manuscript of the letters of Alcuin, which contained a request for the intercession of Saint Ninian; however, Ussher edited the manuscript to change parts of it, and among his changes was the omission of Alcuin's request, but leaving other parts of it intact.
  16. ^ Lawrie, Archibald Campbell (1905), "Letter of Alcuin to the Monks of Candid Casa, A.D. 782-804", Early Scottish Charters Prior to A.D. 1153, Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, pp. 226–27,,M1 
  17. ^ Hardy 1862 throughout the book
  18. ^ Koch, John T. (2005), "Ninian, St.", Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, p. 1358, ISBN 9781851094400 
  19. ^ Scott 1905:378–388 Nynia in Northern Pictland
  20. ^ Forbes 1874:xiii-xvii List of dedications to Saint Ninian, The Historians of Scotland: The Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern
  21. ^ Moore 1890:214–15, 306 In Distinctive Affixes
  22. ^ Mackinlay 1904 mentions are throughout the book.
  23. ^ Forbes 1874:280 Notes — S. Ninian


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