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Whithorn Priory lies just to the west of Whithorn's main street. It is a remarkable place, and a confusing one. It has been home to an active church for the better part of sixteen centuries. But the vast length of this history means that at least three completely different eras of Christianity are reflected either in the stonework on the ground or in the stories surrounding the site. Disentangling the different strands and making sense of what you see is not easy.
The first church here (or anywhere in Scotland) was dedicated to St Martin of Tours and commonly known as the Candida Casa or "White House", traditionally thought to reflect its stone construction.
The Candida Casa was established by St Ninian, who was British in origin but had studied in Rome. Very little is really known about St Ninian. All we have is a short passage in Bede's Ecclesiastical History written some three centuries or 15 generations later. It is not even certain when St Ninian established his church: some time in the 390s seems a fair working assumption.
Under St Ninian, Whithorn developed into a cathedral church (a title probably reflecting its status rather than its size) accompanied by a monastery. It became renowned as a centre of learning, and was the origin of many of the missionaries who later converted Scotland to Christianity. On his death, St Ninian was buried in his church, and over the following centuries Whithorn became the focus for pilgrimage from across the British Isles and beyond.
In the 700s Whithorn was a Northumbrian possession, while by the 900s it had been settled by the Norse, who continued to use the area around the church as a burial ground. The Norse had been ousted by 1100 and the Bishopric of Whithorn was re-established in 1128.
This marked the start of the second era of Christianity at Whithorn, for work began almost immediately on a much grander cathedral to replace St Ninian's original church. The cathedral of the Bishop of Whithorn was probably complete by the time Whithorn also became a Priory of the Premonstratensian Order of White Canons in 1177.
The cathedral and priory were extended in the 1200s and later modified on a number of occasions. The result when viewed from the south east by 1500 would have been much as seen in the header image: a large church of fairly traditional design with a cloister surrounded by ranges of domestic buildings beyond it.
After the Reformation in 1560 parts of the cathedral fell rapidly into disrepair. Remedial work on the cathedral itself was undertaken by the last Bishop of Galloway in the years after his consecration in 1610. But with the demise of the bishops later in the 1600s the nave of the cathedral became the Parish Church and the remainder slowly crumbled. The main tower collapsed early in the 1700s.
In 1822 the third era of Christianity began at Whithorn with the building of a new Parish Church on the site of the east range of the cloister. Most of the rest of the ruined cathedral and priory was removed and the land used as a burial ground. In the late 1800s the 3rd Marquess of Bute restored the remains of what was left, the nave and the crypt of the cathedral, and excavated the traces of St Ninian's earlier church.
It is this complex story that produces what you see on the ground today. The 1822 Parish Church of St Ninian is the most obvious element, closely followed by the large roofless rectangular structure in its graveyard, the nave of the cathedral.
Less obvious are the other remains. These are best accessed via the Visitor Centre and Museum, in a converted house on your right as you approach the gates of the churchyard. While here, it is worth viewing the remarkable collection of cross slabs and other stonework. These act as a prelude to what lies beyond: the surviving crypt that originally formed the lowest level of the south east end of the 1100s cathedral.
And while you are exploring the crypt, keep a look out for the low stone walling extending to the south east of it. This was placed here by the 3rd Marquess of Bute at the end of the 1800s to mark the location of the original stone walls found here during excavation. These walls carried traces of an external coat of light-coloured plaster, suggesting strongly that this is indeed the site of St Ninian's famed Candida Casa.