[St. Pachomius Library]



Monastery in the Machars of southwest Scotland, founded by St. Ninian in the late IV or early V Century.

Built in an apparently Mediterranean style, Casa Candida was a place of ascetical struggle. Latin accounts of desert sketes and the example of St. Martin in Gaul had produced an Egyptian-style monastic movement across Western Europe, and Whithorn was perhaps the northwesternmost of the first-wave Latin monastic communities. It was also a centre of evangelism, and its monks (probably including St. Ninian himself) were responsible for the astonishingly rapid spread of Orthodoxy among the Picts.

The many changes of political rule in Galloway during the so-called "Dark Ages" left Whithorn largely unscathed, and it seems to have eventually become a crucial linkage joining the various hostile ethno-linguistic groups which fought for the region. The monastery's famous school, one of the first Orthodox universities in the British Isles, attracted students from England, Ireland, and elsewhere; it offered a spiritually-grounded education not only to monks and clergy but to lay people as well. The great majority of male Irish saints are said to have "studied at Futerna": so many, in fact, that modern scholars are doubtful, and suggest that hagiographers used the phrase as a stock synonym for "was highly educated". (The university is also said to have admitted female students; unfortunately, information about this policy comes only from ancient writers interested in spreading scandalous ecclesiastical gossip.) According to some accounts, the relics of St. Andrew the Apostle later enshrined at St. Andrews were originally brought to Whithorn by St. Acca of Hexham.

In the IX Century, probably as a result of Alpin's invasion of Galloway, the monastery and university were abandoned and burned; in 882, refugees from the Viking sack of Lindisfarne found the peninsula virtually uninhabited and passed on after losing and miraculously retrieving the famous Lindisfarne Gospels there. The local place-name Bysbie, Norse for Bishop's Farm, suggests that some form of the episcopate survived nonetheless, and in the XII Century, during Galloway's bloody struggle to maintain its independence from England, a certain "Bishop Gilla-Aldan of Casa Candida" complied with a papal order to be consecrated or re-consecrated canonically in York. This suggests that either a remnant of the old Orthodox church still existed at Whithorn or that the nationalist Lords of Galloway were attempting to create such a jurisdiction for their own reasons.

Gilla-Aldan's successor, Christian, was a Romanising reformer (though apparently more loyal to the Metropolitan of York than to the Pope). During his episcopate (1152-86), the Premonstratensian Order arrived and rebuilt the ancient monastery. St. Ninian's tomb under the Order's management became one of Scotland's three main pilgrimage destinations. The pilgrimage was not finally suppressed by the Calvinist regime until 1581, and probably continued secretly after that. St. Ninian's Cave on the beach at Physgill, more isolated than the shrine in downtown Whithorn and never changed from its natural state, has an apparently uninterrupted tradition of pilgrimage from pre-Schism times until the present.

--- Norman Hugh Redington


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