Wigtown and St Ninian

The peninsula of Galloway has a long history and for centuries was a natural stopping off point for traders, raiders and missionaries who found the climate mild and fertile land for settlement. Lying so close to Ireland there has been a regular two way traffic of both people and trade goods, including livestock. In the troubled seventeenth century it was quite common for Scots in Ulster to travel across to Stranraer to attend the Sabbath Kirk service and return home in the evening. They would also travel the other way to Donaghadee and Bangor for markets and prayer meetings.

Sitting on top of a hill, Wigtown commands a view over the bay  and the surrounding countryside. It is this dominant position as a stronghold that caused it to be delivered to into the hands of Edward I in 1291. The castle, now long since demolished, was an important centre from which the Earl of Wigtown (created in 1342) held  jurisdiction over the area. However, the earldom failed and the rights and possessions passed to Archibald Douglas, the Grim, in 1371.

Windy Hill, WigtownOn top of the aptly named Windy Hill stands a tall obelisk, a memorial to the martyrs of religious persecution in the seventeenth century. Central to the Wigtown martyrs are two women, an 18 year old Margaret Wilson and a 63 year old widow Margaret ( Mc)Lachlan. The younger woman was  probably a follower of James Renwick and the widow Margaret was taken while reading her bible. They were executed byWindy Hill,first dedication drowning for refusing to take the Abjuration Oath. There was a third woman, also Margaret - Maxwell who was subsequently released (presumably she took the oath offered her). 

Margaret Wilson her 16 year old brother and 13 year old sister were the children of reasonably well off farmer but they refused to accept their parents episcopalian beliefs. After some weeks on the moors and hills as fugitives the two girls crept into Wigtown seeking food and shelter but were discovered and thrown into gaol. The younger daughter was released after her father went to Edinburgh to post a 100 bond but the elder girl was kept in prison. On 11 May 1685 the two women were led to the waters edge and according to the sentence passed on them

"...ty`d to palisados fixed in the sand, within the flood mark, and there to stand till the flood overflowed them and drowned them."

bk.60.jpg (50843 bytes)Many tales are told of the incident including how the Town Officer pushed the younger Margaret`s head under with the words ` Tak anither drink hinny`. Another recounts that afterwards the officer suddenly became obsessively thirsty and had to carry a large flagon of water with him for the rest of his days  to quench his thirst . Another tale is of the children born to the Town Officer who were `clepped` - with webbed fingers and feet. So the traditional tales go on. But the facts are clear, the execution by drowning was a method specifically prescribed for women by order of the Scottish Privy Council.

Memorials to the women occur in several places with a stone pillar on the shore symbolic of their deaths. The graves themselves areWilson grave grouped and enclosed with three other martyrs - William Johnston, John Milroy and George Walker in the old church yard; and the tall obelisk looks down on them. The steadfast adherence to their beliefs have been commemorated in later years with Millais painting a superb portrait of Margaret Wilson entitled The Solway Martyr which hangs in the  Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.  In the Knox Presbyterian College, of Toronto a statue of Margaret greets the visitor in the entrance. This statue was subject of a `politically correct` complaint by a visitor who winged that it showed harassment of women. You would Margaret Knox think these people would have something better to do, but such people are both blinded by their own prejudice and act in ignorance of the facts. Of course she was being harassed - she was being executed by vile cruel men who were obeying the orders of the Court and the Privy Council. It was all legal and the bigoted interpretations of the modern day should not be made of events over three hundred years ago. The Margarets laid down their lives for their beliefs and are to be held in the highest regard for that. 

In modern times Wigtown has become the  `book town` of Scotland and was recognised as such by the Scottish Parliament on 15 September 1999.There are many second hand and antiquarian book shops to visit with a wide selection of books for sale. There are several shops who specialise in Scottish history and many an hour might be spent browsing - especially if the weather interrupts outdoor activities.

Long before the persecution of the Covenanters, however, St Ninian came to the Galloway peninsula. The Venerable Bede in the eighth century wrote of a holy man called Nynia who was born among the British , a son of a tribal chief somewhere in the Solway region. Whithorn seems the possible location. Ninian was baptised at a time when the Romans were quitting Britain and tradition has it that he was a contemporary in Rome of St Jerome. He was consecrated by Pope Siricius and sent to be a missionary amongst the Picts and was therefore responsible for introducing the Christian faith into Scotland many years before St Columba.

Ninian ChapelSt Ninian built a stone sanctuary around 397AD. His Candida Casa or `shining white house` (from the lime plaster that was used for the walls) was dedicated to his mentor St Martin of Tours. From the Saxon  equivalent `Hwit erne` came Whithorn. St Ninian went out to convert the barbarian throughout much of Scotland with a trail that seems to have followed the east coast when over the Forth Estuary, right up to the Orkney and Shetland Isles. At Candid Casa he founded a religious school for his followers which continued as the university of its day after his death in 432 AD. The first settlement of wattle and daub  buildings dates back to about 500 AD with Whithorn becoming a thriving community with a monastery from the mid sixth century. It was made a Burgh in the fourteenth century. St Ninian`s grave became a shrine for pilgrims who were still coming to the area in the sixteenth century but this was brought to a grinding halt by the Reformation and the prohibition on pilgrimages. An act of parliament in 1581  made them penal and was a great loss to the burgh of Whithorn.

Ninian WitnessThe Whithorn Trust has excavated the sites and has an outstanding display of artifacts including 5th and 6th century crosses in its Visitor Centre. Nearby is the ancient priory which was founded by Fergus, Lord of Galloway in the twelfth century. Down on the shoreline beside the harbour on the Isle of Whithorn is the ruin of a 13th century chapel and beside it a  modern `Witness Cairn` created by visitors placingNinian Cairn and or dedicating a stone to the memory of St Ninian. While there take a look at the ragged rocks that make up the shore, and wonder how a frail boat could land its passengers on such a place. If feeling adventurous there is the Cave of St Ninian on the shore line in Glasserton parish which was found to have  incised crosses on the rocks.

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