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«The Whithorn Trust 45-47 George Street Whithorn Dumfries and Galloway Scotland DG8 8NS In association with 3rd Sector Internships Scotland and The ...»

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The Whithorn Pilgrimage: A Report

The Whithorn Pilgrimage: A Report

By Catriona McMillan

The Whithorn Trust

45-47 George Street


Dumfries and Galloway



In association with 3rd Sector Internships Scotland and The

Solway Centre

October 29th 2013


Thank you to all those who supported and contributed to this project. Your kindness,

enthusiasm and knowledge made this research exciting and enjoyable.

Janet Butterworth (The Whithorn Trust) Valentina Bold (The Solway Centre, University of Glasgow, Dumfries) Third Sector Internships Scotland James Brown and Susi Cormac Brown Nick Cooke (Scottish Pilgrimage Routes Forum) Peter Yeoman (Historic Scotland) Richard Oram (Stirling University) Andrew Patterson John MacQueen Sylvia Jenks Barry Donovan Chris Cheales Angus Denham Michael Given (University of Glasgow) Ted Cowan (University of Glasgow) Staff at the Crichton Campus and Henry Duncan Building, Dumfries Special thanks to Margerie Clark for sharing her extensive knowledge and for allowing me to see her wonderful scrapbook on the Whithorn pilgrimage.

And sincere thanks to my father, John McMillan, for not only lifts to and from Whithorn but also helping me on an adventure around the Rhins and Machars, searching for pilgrim sites.

Contents List of Images p.1 Executive Summary p.2 I. Introduction p.4 II. The Medieval Story p.7 II.I St Ninian: the Medieval Period p.7 II.II Relics p.8 II.III The Journey p.8 II.IV Hospitality p.10 II.V Belief p.10 II.VI Healing p.11 II.VII Royal Pilgrims p.12 II.VIII Overview p.14 III Pilgrimage Sites and Landmarks p.16 III.I Abbeys p.16 III.II Holy Wells p.19 III.III Chapels and Churches p.25 III.IV Overview p.32 IV The Journey to Whithorn p.33 IV.I Meeting points p.33 IV.II The Ninian Way p.34 IV.III Routes p.36 IV.IV Paisley Abbey

–  –  –

List of Images

1. Cover: Beach at St Ninian’s Cave. Photographer: Michael Given. © The Solway Centre.

2. p.9: Whithorn Priory. Photographer: Michael Given. © The Solway Centre.

3. p.14: Lincluden Abbey. Photographer: Sean Johnson. © The Solway Centre.

4. p.18: Sweetheart Abbey. Photographer: Valentina Bold. © The Solway Centre.

5. p.20: Offerings at St Queran’s Well. Photographer: Valentina Bold. © The Solway Centre.

6. p.23: Holy Well at St Finian’s Chapel, Monreith. Photographer: Catriona McMillan.

© The Solway Centre.

7. p.24: St Queran’s Well, Troqueer. Photographer: Valentina Bold. © The Solway Centre.

8. p.26: Site of Kirkmaiden Church Ruins. Photographer: Catriona McMillan. © The Solway Centre.

9. p.29: St Finian’s Chapel, Monreith. Photographer: Catriona McMillan. © The Solway Centre.

10. p.32: Kirkmaiden-in-Fernes, Glasserton. Photographer: Catriona McMillan. © The Solway Centre.

11. p.34: St Ninian’s Cave and Stone Pile. Photographer: Michael Given. © The Solway Centre.

12. p.36: St Ninian’s Chapel, Isle of Whithorn. Photographer: Michael Given. © The Solway Centre.

13. p.38: Paisley Abbey Pilgrims entering Whithorn. Photographer: Catriona McMillan.

© The Solway Centre.

14. p.41: Physgill Glen, on way to St Ninian’s Cave. Photographer: Michael Given. © The Solway Centre.

15. p.43: Pasiley Pilgrims getting their Pilgrim Passports stamped. Photographer:

Catriona McMillan. © The Solway Centre.

16. p.46: Coast at high tide on the search for St Medana’s Cave. Photographer: Catriona McMillan. © The Solway Centre.


–  –  –


- To give a comprehensive account of the tradition of pilgrimage to Whithorn and to provide a summary of available information on the historical pilgrimage to Whithorn

- To provide an historical overview, establishing the experience of the medieval pilgrim To locate Whithorn’s relevance and meaning in the context of modern, international pilgrimage and faith tourism

- To identify what makes the current routes to Whithorn attractive, and suggest ways in which its potential appeal to pilgrims and visitors can be maximised.


- A desk and library-based survey of research on Whithorn and its archaeology

- Recorded interviews with people within Whithorn, participants in its pilgrimage traditions and those with a knowledge of active pilgrimage traditions

- Collating results from both into a coherent narrative of pilgrimage and pilgrimage traditions relating to Whithorn.

Key findings

- The literature about St Ninian and the legends surrounding him contributed to the height of his popularity during the middle ages. Royal pilgrims Robert the Bruce and James IV visited the shrine during this time, adding to fervour surrounding Whithorn

- It is possible to trace pilgrim routes and related sites from the middle ages onwards, by noting which abbeys and chapels offered hospitality and opportunities for worship, and by identifying the holy wells and sites pilgrims visited en route to Whithorn

- Pilgrimage to Whithorn, as elsewhere, fulfilled key functions in the past. These include providing opportunities for worship, cures and to exercise faith; the modern pilgrim seeks parallel, but different, qualities of experience 3

- Potential modern routes offer key challenges to pilgrims, but there is potential, as seen through the Paisley Abbey 850 pilgrimage, to create new routes incorporating the old Shifts in experience can be identified, from the routes’ peak in the middle ages, through a nadir post Reformation, to revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

- Modern revived interest in Whithorn, its archaeological and historical significance, offers opportunities to expand the appeal of the town, and its environs, as a pilgrimage destination: a location for worship, reflection and experiencing peace.


I. Introduction

Situated at the southernmost part of Scotland, Whithorn has a long and rich history as a pilgrimage centre. This peaceful town in the Machars is home to the legend and shrine of St Ninian, once one of Scotland’s most eminent saints. While his legacy made Whithorn thrive during the middle ages, his life is shrouded in mystery. He dates back to the fifth century (Dictionary of Saints, 325-326), and our first literary source of his life comes from Bede’s account that Ninian converted the ‘southern Picts’, making him the first person to bring Christianity to Scotland. After studying in Rome, Ninian established a church known as Candida Casa in Whithorn. It was dedicated to his friend St Martin of Tours, another celebrated French saint of the Middle Ages.

After his death, Ninian was buried at Whithorn and his shrine became a pilgrimage centre. Its popularity increased in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as it received royal attention from Robert the Bruce and Margaret of Denmark (the wife of James III and mother of James IV). During his reign, James IV made pilgrimage to Whithorn frequently. The town thrived on the industry of pilgrimage until the Reformation in Scotland in 1560; soon after that, pilgrimage became a punishable offence.

In recent times there has been a renewed enthusiasm for pilgrimage. Lourdes is a relatively late addition to pilgrimage centres. Its pilgrim following came after sightings of the Virgin Mary by a girl in the mid-nineteenth century, and is strongly linked to the reputation of its waters for healing. It receives nearly six million pilgrims each year1, with around 400,000 pilgrims, mainly women, bathing in the grotto waters (Bradley, 179). The shrine to St James at Santiago de Compostella, while it began as a medieval European pilgrimage site, has seen a recent and sizeable revival. Since 1993, when it became a UNESCO world heritage site, it has seen staggering numbers of visitors. A steady rise sees figures in recent years entering hundreds of thousands, with 2010 (a holy year--when St James’s Day fell on a Sunday) receiving over 270,000 pilgrims2.

1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-229821692 http://www.csj.org.uk/present.htm 5

Revival of pilgrimage in Scotland is still in the early stages, but is attracting attention after the success of sites like Santiago de Compostella. Pilgrimage shrines in Scotland include Iona, where St Columba brought Christianity to the north, and St Andrew’s, where the apostle’s relics were housed. St Cuthbert’s Way to Lindisfarne has been attracting attention in recent years. Luss in Loch Lomond, associated with St Kessog, is a member of the Green Pilgrimage Network, a multi-faith organisation promoting environmentally-friendly pilgrimage. The newly-established Scottish Pilgrimage Routes Forum is also dedicated to the development of pilgrimage routes throughout Scotland.

The identity of the modern pilgrim is broader than that of the medieval pilgrim moving piously towards the shrine of a saint. The term ‘modern’ has been applied to any pilgrimage which is post-medieval (Turner, 18-19)3, and this is broad enough to account for the kind of pilgrim seen today. I would argue that the modern Whithorn pilgrim originates, more precisely, from a late nineteenth, early twentieth century revival. Between the Reformation and this revival there is a significant gap in pilgrimage to Whithorn. The medieval pilgrim made the journey out of religious devotion, and while this motivation can certainly still be applied to pilgrims today, the identity of the pilgrim is evolving. An organisation like the Green Pilgrimage Network exemplifies that pilgrimage is encouraged for those of all faiths and none. Today’s pilgrim may also simply seek a challenge, or a refuge from the modern world and the hum of technology that dominates everyday life. He may wish to reflect, but not with a spiritual emphasis. He also may seek a new social situation, as pilgrimage offers the opportunity to meet individuals from all different backgrounds, united under the identity of ‘pilgrim’. Pilgrimage today can offer all of this, and the experience is deeply personal, despite being shared by millions of individuals around the world.

It is difficult to assert exactly why pilgrimage is still important today, to multi-faith, multi-cultural societies, representative of a wide range of beliefs and practices. This is very different from medieval Scottish and English society when thousands of Christian pilgrims flocked to shrines around Europe and to the Holy Land. Penitence and 3 However, the type of pilgrimage Turner describes differs from the St Ninian pilgrimage. He ascribes modern pilgrimage to sites with high devotional fervour dating from the nineteenth century onwards, such as Lourdes, associated with apparitions. I would say Whithorn falls into another category of his, being a pilgrimage originating from a literary source (Bede, Aelred).

6 devotion were the motivations then, now the reasons behind pilgrimage are diverse and multi-layered. A website advertising the Camino de Santiago suggests that ‘Modern Pilgrimages seems to be a lot less about religion and more about peace, finding something in life, a time to think, and for some a challenge’4. This is a thoughtprovoking advertisement, as it does not exclude any group from making the pilgrimage.

Any individual can be a pilgrim. Examining the transformations that occur for an individual during pilgrimage produces the same result with or without a spiritual motivation being present. Pilgrimage is a liminal and transitional act, a betwixt-andbetween stage of life. Both the religious and non-religious pilgrim is separating her or himself from the structure of everyday life by emarking on a journey, and then returns to everyday life renewed through having gone through the state of ‘pilgrim’ (Turner, 2It differs from a holiday in that there is a process occurring during the pilgrimage: a holiday is separation from the everyday before return into it, whereas pilgrimage is separation, transition and then return. The journey is at the centre of pilgrimage, rather than the destination, which is usually the focal point of the holiday. The significance of the moment the pilgrim reaches their destination holds so much power because of the build-up; the test and experience has led them to the pilgrimage centre.

–  –  –

In the medieval period, Whithorn was in its element, and a combination of factors contributed to the pilgrim story at this time. Two of the most famous royal pilgrims, Robert the Bruce and James IV, visited the shrine through spiritual devotion, and sought absolution of their sins. In the case of Bruce, he was also seeking a miraculous cure for his malady. The records we have of James IV’s journey offer a fascinating insight into his obsession with the Whithorn pilgrimage. The ‘cult’ of St Ninian developed through literature, legend and royal patronage.

The excitement this generated had a major impact on the experience of the pilgrim, perceptions around the journey itself and the commercialisation of Whithorn’s popularity II.I. St Ninian: the Late Medieval Period After Ninian’s death in 431, his grave at Whithorn became a pilgrim shrine. Early visitors included Kenneth III, and Alcuin, who made an offering on behalf of Charlemagne at Ninian’s Shrine (PSG 69-70). The attention on these high-profile historical figures indicates that prior to David I there was a substantial amount of pilgrim traffic to the shrine. Peter Yeoman attributes the fixture of the saint’s grave to the development of Whithorn as the spectacular pilgrim magnet. His argument, in brief, is that relics are easily moved, they can go on show wherever necessary, but a grave is a resting place, to attempt to reposition it would ‘devalue its sanctity’(Yeoman, 35). This sanctity is imperative to Whithorn’s growth.

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