Monday, September 14, 2009

Port claims to be first centre of Christianity in Scotland

Published Date: 14 September 2009
By Tim Cornwell
Arts Correspondent
A VILLAGE on the south-west coast of Scotland is reasserting its claim to be the country's forgotten first centre of Christianianity in a debate in the Scottish Parliament this week.
St Columba is traditionally seen as the founding figure of Scottish Christianity with the abbey he founded at Iona.

But Whithorn, a small but scenic Wigtownshire village, is touting for the tourist trade and its place in Scottish history.

It claims recent archaeological
finds stand up the traditional story that St Ninian, dubbed the "first Scottish bishop", was active 150 years earlier.

South of Scotland MSP Alasdair Morgan's motion, up for debate on Wednesday and already backed by 18 MSPs, calls on Whithorn to be recognised as Scotland's "earliest known centre of Christianity ... largely forgotten by a modern generation".

The Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev William Hewitt, along with religious, Scottish history and archaeological experts, are expected to watch the debate. The Whithorn Trust business manager, Janet Butterworth, said the motion avoided the claim that St Ninian was Scotland's first saint.

Mr Morgan's motion says Whithorn has "produced archaeological artefacts of immense historical significance."

Supporters point to the Latinus stone, discovered there more than a century ago, and now dated to the mid-fifthth century, allegedly the earliest Scottish Christian artefact.

Mr Morgan's motion states that "while in ancient times Ninian was Scotland's premier saint... the historical significance of Whithorn and Ninian's story is largely forgotten by a modern generation".

Recognising Whithorn "as Scotland's cradle of Christianity will bring economic benefit to a depressed area... for the benefit of its present-day inhabitants" .

Historians in the past have fiercely championed Iona's role. Iona is described as the "cradle of Christianity" on the websites of Historic Scotland and Christian group the Iona Community.


THE Irish monk St Columba landed at Iona in AD563, founding the abbey that made it a place of pilgrimage and spirituality for centuries.

Tradition has it that St Ninian established his church at Whithorn in 397. It too became a pilgrims' destination.

But the story of the man known as the "apostle to the Southern picts" does not appear in the historical record until 300 years later, in the writings of the Northumbrian monk Bede, in 731. St Columba's story is far better documented, while historians say almost nothing is certain about St Ninian's life or teachings.

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