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Saint Ninian (lifetime uncertain) is a Christian saint first mentioned in the eighth century as being an early missionary among the Pictish peoples of what is now Scotlandmarker. 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 Englandmarker with a Northumbrianmarker heritage. In Scotland, Ninian is also known as Ringan, and as Trynnian in Northern England.

Ninian's major shrine was at Whithornmarker 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.

This article discusses the particulars and origins of what has come to be known as the "traditional" stories of Saint Ninian, as well as the lack of consensus on an authentic historical basis for evidence of his life.


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 Clydemarker and Forthmarker. That they had once been Christian is known from a fifth century mention of them by Saint Patrick in the course of his condemnation of the enslavement of Irish Christians by British raiders:
Soldiers whom I no longer call my fellow citizens, or citizens of the Roman saints, but fellow citizens of the devils, in consequence of their evil deeds; who live in death, after the hostile rite of the barbarians; associates of the Scots and Apostate Picts; desirous of glutting themselves with the blood of innocent Christians, multitudes of whom I have begotten in God and confirmed in Christ.

The "Apostate Picts" are the Southern Picts who had once been Christian but had left Christianity. The Northern Picts were later converted by Saint Columba in the sixth century, and as they were not yet Christian, they could not be called "apostate". Northumbria had established a bishopric among the Southern Picts, at Abercornmarker, under Bishop Trumwine in 681. 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 sixth century. 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 Whithornmarker 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 Whithornmarker.

Traditional story

The earliest mention of Ninian of Whithorn is in a short passage of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Northumbrianmarker 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.

Tradition holds that Ninian was a Briton who had studied in Romemarker, that he established an episcopal see at the Candida Casa in Whithornmarker, 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 Irelandmarker, 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.
Penrose, c.

Bede's contribution (ca. 731)

Bede says that Ninian was a Briton who had been instructed in Romemarker; 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.

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.

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 traveled with a holy person named "Plebia".

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 flavor, and to a politically ambitious audience.

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".

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".

Ussher's contribution is often disparaged, as he both invented fictitious histories and misquoted legitimate manuscripts to suit his own purposes. 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, up to the present day.

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

Dedications to St. Ninian (England, Scotland, Isle of Man).

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 Clydemarker and Forthmarker, in Orkneymarker and Shetlandmarker, and in parts of northern England.

Dedications on the Isle of Manmarker 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 Scotiamarker.

There is a noticeable lack of dedications in the Scottish Highlands and Islesmarker, and except for Butemarker and Sandamarker, there are no dedications to Saint Ninian in the territory of ancient Dál Riata (Kil Saint Ninian in Mullmarker belongs to Nennidius).

Image:St Ninian's Cave - entrance.jpg|Entrance to St. Ninian's Cave (Galloway).Image:Clog-rinny.jpg|The Clog-rinny, or Bell of St. Ninian.Image:Burgh.of.Nairn.Seal.png|Burgh of Nairnmarker Seal, depicting St. Ninian (1906).Image:Burgh.of.Whithorn.Seal.png|Burgh of Whithornmarker Seal, depicting St. Ninian (1906).


There is as yet no unchallenged connection of the historical record to the person who was Bede's Ninian.

There are numerous hypotheses suggesting a person found in the historical record might in fact be Bede's Ninian, and there are challenges to virtually all of them. These all make assumptions on connecting unspecified monasteries to Candida Casa, assumptions on connecting a plausible name to that of Bede's Ninian (and the variations are particularly numerous in this area), assumptions on possible dates for Ninian's life, or some combination of these. Different hypotheses have been in favour at different times, and some are more credible than others, but none offers anything more tangible than a theory.

Scholarly research has provided tantalising and credible possibilities, but the connections to Bede's Ninian are conjectures at best, never able to gain standing without using debatable assumptions. Modern scholarship has produced new hypotheses, rehashed old hypotheses, and challenged both new and old hypotheses, but not more.

See also



  • — many references to, and comments upon, sources of information

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