It seems like the end of the known world, this southern tip of Burrow Head on the Machars peninsula in Galloway. The Isle of Whithorn, as it is misleadingly known, having long since given up being an island, is not exactly an end point, however. Rather it is a starting point, or, better still, a staging post. For many a traveller who had set off from Ireland to the south west, the Isle of Whithorn was the first land fall.
Why on earth would anyone bother landing on this rocky coastline? Well, many nameless sailors have taken shelter here from storms out in the Solway Firth, though others, like the men on the Solway Harvester who in 2000, lost their lives at sea.
Smugglers used to evade the customs men here. Today sailors continue to land their catches at the harbour, these days crabs, lobsters and scallops. Film makers have used the location as the backdrop for their productions, though they probably arrived by car. Ever seen The Wicker Man?
And it was from this little harbour that you could set off for Liverpool in the north of England on the steam packet, The Countess of Galloway. Many a prospective traveller must have stood by the white tower, a two-hundred-year-old navigational aid on Isle Head, searching the sea for a sail or a puff of smoke. Once in Liverpool, you could go further still if you wanted, and catch an emigrant ship to America or Australia. And many did just that, and not just from this area, though some of the rough mounds around the shoreline are the remains of cultivated fields which fell into disuse during the Clearances.
So the Isle of Whithorn was often where new lives began.
The most famous person to land here was St Ninian, Scotland's first missionary to the Picts, who arrived in the fifth century, a good hundred years before the better known St Columba. This part of what is now Scotland, was once part of Northumbria in England. The Venerable Bede of Lindisfarne wrote about St Ninian in his Anglo Saxon Chronicle in 731. Bede said that Ninian had been educated in Rome and, unusually for the time, built his church of stone.
That church has long since disappeared. However, the pilgrims who landed here before they travelled on to pray at the famous shrine of St Ninian a few miles inland, could first stop at the little cliff top chapel which was built in the 13th century many years after Ninian died.
The original church which St Ninian founded at Whithorn in 397 was the first church to be built in Scotland. Later on, in the eighth century, a priory was built here, to house the shrine of St Ninian, part of the diocese of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Northumbria within the archdiocese of York. A collection of impressive carved stones, including the country's earliest surviving Christian memorial, the 5th-century inscribed 'Latinus Stone', bear witness to its importance. Later on, under the influence of the Lord of Galloway, the church at Whithorn became a cathedral and a bishopric in its own right: the See of Galloway.
During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pilgrims came here from all over the British Isles and even from Europe. The twelfth century church was extended to cater for the visitors and ensure they could get a good view of St Ninian's shrine at the east end.
The burgh of Whithorn did quite well out of the connection with St Ninian. Craftsmen set up workshops to provide the travellers with necessaries, shoe their horses and mend their worn out footwear. The locals put them up in hostelries and sold them food and drink.
Over the years, rulers made sure that pilgrims could reach Whithorn safely. Pilgrims didn't just come by water, of course. The main pilgrim way crossed the country from east to west. In 1427, James I passed a decree of safe conduct for those travelling from England and the Isle of Man.
As time went on famous people from Scotland and beyond visited the shrine. King Robert the Bruce came here in 1329, shortly before he died, hoping that if he prayed at the shrine he might be cured of the degenerative disease from which he suffered, perhaps leprosy, motor neurone disease, syphilis or tuberculosis. His son David I came to the shrine after the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346, with two arrow heads lodged in his body. Other Scottish kings also came as pilgrims, including James IV and V and Queen Margaret, wife of James III, all leaving valuable gifts. You can still see the royal coat of arms above the town's mediaeval archway (above). Even the son of Edward I, later crowned Edward II, visited the shrine when the English invaded Scotland.
The town continued to benefit from all this religious activity and its broad main street became lined with substantial buildings.
Some of the priors of Whithorn became quite famous, for example James Beaton, who became Archbishop of Glasgow and of St Andrews and also Lord High Treasurer to King James IV. Beaton played an important role in establishing the alliance of Scotland with France, in preference to one with England. His nephew, also Archbishop, came to a nasty end when hanged from the battlements of St Andrews Castle. (See the earlier post on St Andrews) Another famous prior was Gavin Dunbar, also Chancellor and Archbishop of Glasgow during the Reformation, who burnt heretics at the stake and famously cursed the Border Reivers (or cattle raiders). Here is an extract from his Monition of Cursing, which I have lifted from Wikipedia, a masterly creation as I think you'll agree. It is written in Scots.
I curse thair heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene [eyes], thair mouth, thair neise, thair toung, thair teith, thair crag [neck], thair schulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame [womb], thair armes, thair leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of thair heid to the soill of thair feit, befoir and behind, within and without. I curse them gangand [going], and I curse them rydand [riding], I curse thaim standand, and I curse thaim sittand; I curse them etand [eating], I curse thaim drinkand, I curse thaim walkland, I curse thaim sleepand, I curse thaim rysand, I curse thaim lyand; I curse thaim at hame, I curse thaim [..away..] fra hame, I curse them within the house, I curse thaim without the house, I curse thair wiffis, thair barnis [children], and thair servandis participand with thaim in thair deides. I wary [curse] thair cornys, thair catales, thair woll, thair scheip, thair horse, thair swyne, thair geise [geese], thair hennys, and all thair quyk gude [livestock]. I wary thair hallis, thair chalmeris [rooms], thair kechingis, thair stanillis [stables], thair barnys, thair biris [byres], thair bernyardis, thair cailyardis [vegetable-patches], thair plewis [ploughs], thair harrowis, and the gudis and housis that is necessair for their sustentatioun and weilfair.
In Dunbar's defence, he was trying to bring about peace between England and Scotland, which was not helped by the continual raids.
Whithorn Priory became very wealthy and, as a result, started running into problems. In 1516, it was handed over to secular administrators. Following the Scottish Reformation in 1560, the priory was dissolved, its shrine destroyed and its wealth confiscated. Alexander Gordon, Bishop of Galloway, himself joined the Reformers and persuaded many church members and priests to do the same. Of the 11 monks still living at Whithorn, seven became Reformed pastors. The last prior, Malcolm Fleming, was committed to prison in 1563 for continuing to say Mass. He died five years later.
The church and the priory's domestic buildings had already stated to deteriorate badly, and now became ruinous. You can still make out some of the architectural and decorative features, but they are badly worn away by the elements.
The original priory church fell into disuse and a new one was built to one side, an unremarkable building. It was locked, of course, as are almost all Church of Scotland churches.
Over time, the priory grounds were used to bury the local community and gradually filled up with some handsome tombstones.
There is as good as nothing left of the monk's dormitories and refectory now; the new reformed congregation and pastor made sure of that, probably using the stone to build their new kirk. And one cannot feel much regret for a Church which had become bloated and corrupt, living off the backs of the poor and gullible. But that was centuries after St Ninian arrived at Isle's Head. And in the intervening years, there have been many reasons why one might go to Whithorn. As there still are, today.
Why don't you do it yourself one day?