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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 4 - Ninian: Scene of his Youth; Conversion; First Evalgelistic Labours


The breath of a new life was moving over the land. This new life created new men. The new men constituted a new society. Till this time hardly had there been social life in Scotland. There had been chiefs, clans, nationalities, and these nationalities had formed combinations and alliances for war; but the elements which conspire for the creation of social and civil life were lacking. Each man in his innermost being dwelt apart. Christianity, by imparting a common hope, brought men together, and summoned into being a new and powerful brotherhood. Around this new society all interests and classes, all modes of thought and of action began to group themselves. On this root grew up the Scotland of the following ages. Three great personalities—great they must have been since they are seen across the many ages that have since elapsed—lead us onward into the wide field of Scottish history.

The first Scottish individuality that stands out distinct and bold before us is NINIAN.[1] He was born in Galloway towards the middle of the fourth century; the exact year of his birth, no biographer has ventured to fix. A Briton by blood, he was a subject of the emperor by birth, seeing his native district was comprehended in the Roman province of Valentia, of which the boundaries were the Clyde on the north, and the Solway or Roman wall on the south. On the west it extended to the Irish Sea, and on the east it was co-terminous with the Roman province of Bernicia. Ninian's father was a British king. So has it been affirmed. But we have not been told where the dominions of this king lay, and in the absence of any information on the point it is not easy to conjecture. The limits of the Roman empire extended at that time to the shores of the Clyde; and it seems vain to look for the kingdom of Ninian's royal father on the south of that river. And it would seem equally vain to look for it on the north of it; for beyond the Clyde was the region of the Picts. There seems, therefore, no room for such a potentate as some have conjured up to grace the descent of the earliest of Scottish evangelists. "When you hear of Ninian being a king's son," says Alford, naively, "consider that it is the language of legendaries who are very liberal in bestowing that title. By it they understood the princes and petty chiefs of the provinces of whom Britain in every century had plenty." The statement of Camerarius, that he was the son of a small chieftain, best accords with the facts of his life as well as with what is known regarding the state of society at the time. It was evidently no common home in which Ninian grew up. His education had more than the usual care bestowed upon it. He enjoyed advantages of home training and foreign travel which would never have fallen to his lot had he been peasant-born.

The landscape on which the youthful eyes of the future evangelist rested was thinly inhabited and poorly cultivated, and apt, when the scud came up the Solway from the Irish Sea, to look a little gloomy. It was a rolling country of knolls and woodlands and grazing grounds, traversed by silvery rivulets which flowed into the Solway, beyond whose broad placid stream rose the dark hills of Westmoreland. It was dotted, moreover, by the mud huts, or dry-stone houses of the inhabitants. In the midst of these poor abodes there rose, but at wide intervals, edifices of a somewhat more pretentious character. These more imposing structures were churches; and they owed their attractiveness rather to the contrast they offered to the humble dwellings around them, than to any grace of architecture, for their construction was of the simplest and rudest kind. Their wall of wattles, plastered with clay, was surmounted by a roof of thatch. So humble were the sanctuaries of the early Britons.

The district had already been Christianised. It had now for some centuries been under the civilizing influences of the Romans, but its religious life had ebbed of late, and the sway of Rome was now becoming dubious and intermittent. As a consequence, the inhabitants passed their lives amid frequent alarms and wars. The Picts and Scots hovered on their northern border, ever on the watch for a favourable opportunity for a raid into the debatable land between the two walls. Such opportunities were of but too frequent occurrence, as the wretched inhabitants knew to their cost. The midland Britons had leaned for defence on the sword of Rome; the Roman Power was now about to withdraw; and left without protection in the presence of fierce and warlike enemies, the Britons greatly needed the invigorating power of a revived Christianity to inspirit them to withstand their invaders. It should still farther tend to the security and quiet of the Britons if they should carry the olive branch of a religious revival into the wild country on the north of them. The Christianisation of the region would moderate if it did not bridle those furious blasts that ever and anon were bursting in from Pictland, and which left traces so frightful on the unhappy country lying between the Clyde and the Solway. Such, possibly, were the views with which Ninian began his evangelization.

We behold Ninian at the opening of his career. What were the stages of his inner life previous to his coming forth as a public teacher? This is precisely what his biographers have not told us. We would have been well content to have been without the account of the miracles with which they have credited him, if only they had given us some of his experiences and wrestlings of soul. No one comes forth on such an errand as Ninian's, and at such a time, without having undergone a previous, and, it may be, prolonged and severe mental discipline. So was it, as we shall see in the sequel, in the case of one of the greatest of his successors, and doubtless it was also so in the case of Ninian himself. But the length and severity of his inward training we have been left to conjecture. "Our saint," says one of his biographers,[2] "was in infancy regenerated in the waters of baptism; the white garment which he then put on he preserved unsullied."The business of his conversion is here dispatched in two sentences; but the process described is too summery, and, we must take leave to say, too mechanical to satisfy us of its reality. It is light, not water, that renews the soul. We should like to know how the light entered, and by what stages Ninian passed to the full apprehension of those great truths which alone can impart to the soul a new life, and open to it a new destiny. His parents, professedly Christian, had told him, doubtless, that Christ was a Saviour. This was a fact which it was pleasant for Ninian to know, even as it is pleasant for one in health to know that there is a physician within reach, although he feels no present need to avail himself of his skill. But one day Ninian felt sick—sick at heart, sick in soul; and he saw that his sickness was unto death—eternal death. Already he felt its sting within him, and a horror of great darkness fell upon him. The morning came, brightening the waters of the Solway, and scenting the flowers that grew along its banks, but now its coming brought no joy to his spirit. What availed these delights to one who felt himself encompassed by a night on which no morning would ever rise? He hid himself from the face of companion and friend. He communed with his own heart, and wept in the silent glen or by the solitary seashore. It was now that the fact, heard before, returned to his memory, with new and infinite significance, even that there was a physician who could heal the soul. He threw himself at the feet of this Physician, and was healed. A new life had entered into Ninian. He had been born again into a new world.

Ninian now looked with new eyes upon the world of men and women around him. He saw that they too were sick unto death, even as he himself had been, though they knew it not. How could he forbear pointing these unhappy multitudes to that same physician who had wrought the "miracle of healing" upon himself? The multiform misery under which his native province groaned confirmed and intensified his resolution to make known the good news to its inhabitants.

The Christianity of the second and third centuries, which had created not a few beautiful lives, and fostered the order and prosperity of the province, was rapidly declining. There were still pastors in the church, doubtless, but they exercised a shorn influence, and they ministered to dwindling flocks. Of the population not a few had forsaken the sanctuary for the grove, and were now worshipping at the altars under the oaks. The counsels of Scripture and the maxims of experience had been alike disregarded, and the Druidic shrines which the fathers spared to cast down, had become a snare to the sons. On every side was heard the loud laugh of the scoffer and the ribald jest or profane oath of the open profligate. Meanwhile disaster was gathering round the province. The Romans were retiring beyond the southern wall; and with their retreating steps was heard the advancing tread of the Picts and Scots. No longer held in check by the legions, these fierce marauders were breaking over the northern boundary, and inflicting untold calamities on the men of Valentia. The unhappy Britons were in an evil case. The night was often made terrible by the flames of burning raths, and the morning ghastly by the hideous spectacles it disclosed, of the inhabitants slaughtered, or carried captive. Fordun says: "O vengeance of Heaven, exclaims Geoffrey, for past wickedness! O madness in the tyrant Maximus, to have brought about the absence of so many warlike soldiers! . . . The enemy plied them (the Britons of Galloway) unceasingly with hooked weapons, wherewith the wretched populace were dragged off the walls, and cruelly dashed to the ground.... Then they speedily summoned the peasantry, with whose hoes and mattocks, pickaxes, forks, and spades, they all, without distinction, set to work to dig broad clefts and frequent breaches through the wall, whereby they might everywhere readily pass backwards and forwards.[3]

It was amid scenes like these that the daily life of Ninian was passed. What could he do to lessen the weight of a misery so intolerable? Such, doubtless, was the question he asked himself as he listened to the oft-recurring tale of rapine and slaughter. He could not recall the legions, nor could he chase from the northern frontier the hordes that were crowding to it and swarming over it. But might he not do something toward restoring the manhood of the Britons, who, instead of facing courageously their foes, were sending their "groans" to Rome for help. He knew enough to understand that Christianity is by far the mightiest creative power in the world. Rome had withdrawn her ęgis; might he not replace it with the Gospel, that nurse of bravery as of virtue? Such were the aims with which Ninian entered on his work.

The transition involved a great sacrifice of ease. His youth had been passed in the tranquil pursuit of knowledge, surrounded by the comforts, if not the elegancies of home. The quiet of the study, and the delights of the family, must now be forsaken, and he must brace himself for thankless labour among a rude and semi-barbarous population. The Romans were retiring, and the thin lacquering of civilization which they were leaving behind them had been purchased at the cost of the enervation of spirit which their long dominancy had engendered, and the love for Italian vices with which they had inoculated the simple natives. Moreover, Ninian's missionary labours must be performed on a field liable to the sudden incursions of war, exposing him to daily peril, and compelling him to be the frequent witness of the agonising sights which war brings in its train. Nor could he flatter himself that his mission would be welcomed by his countrymen, or that either his person or his message would receive much consideration or reverence at their hands. They were returning to the altars of the Druid, and were in no mood to receive meekly the reproofs he might find it necessary to tender to them for their apostacy. They were more likely to deride and scoff than to listen and obey. It was an evil time. The early glory of the British church had faded. When the altar of the Druid smoked in the land, the Britons were saying, it was better with us than now. There was then no ravaging Pict, no slaughtering Scot. But since the old shrines had been cast down, we have never ploughed our fields, or reaped our harvests in peace. We will return to the service of our fathers' deities. With returning superstition had come dark minds, reprobate consciences, inhuman dispositions, and violent deeds. Such were the men among whom Ninian went forth to begin his missionary labours.

At the hands of the presbyters or bishops—for these two names were then employed to designate the same men and the same office, that, to wit, of the pastor of a congregation—at the hands of the presbyters and bishops that remained in these degenerate times to the British church of Valentia, did Ninian receive ordination. A late writer, speaking of the British church of that period, tells us that "a regular hierarchy with churches, altars, the Bible, discipline, and the creeds existed," in it, "and that we know this from many sources.''[4] We are not told what these sources are, and we are unable to conjecture. But till we do know we must take the liberty to believe that this "hierarchy" in the early British church is a work of pure imagination. We possess a contemporary, or nearly contemporary description of the British church of Valentia in Ninian's day. We refer to the "Confessions of Patrick," written a few years later. There we can see only two offices, those of presbyter and deacon, in this church. If this is the "hierarchy" which this writer has in his eye, we grant that it did exist; but let it be noted that this is the simple hierarchy or order of the New Testament church: not the pompous gradation of offices and dignities which the Church of Rome instituted in the fourth century. That this was the order of the church of Valentia in Patrick's day, appears from the fact that his father was a deacon, and his grandfather a presbyter; and of higher offices he says not a word; and such, doubtless, was the order of that same church in Ninian's day.[5] The existing state of things, as revealed in the records of the time, make it undoubted that Ninian went forth to begin his evangelization among his countrymen, holding no ecclesiastical rank save that of plain presbyter, or, to use the alternative designation, bishop. Had Ninian been a monk of the twelfth century he would have gone to Rome to seek consecrations, and on his return would have perambulated his native province in miter and crosier, followed by a suitable train of ecclesiastical subordinates. Ailred of Rievaux, who wrote his life in the twelfth century, when Gratian of Bologna was embodying the forgeries of Isidore in his "Decretum" as historic facts, does indeed send Ninian all the way to Rome for authority to teach the ignorant people of his native province the Gospel. And Alford detains him not less than twenty-four years in Rome, and occupies him all that while in the study of the doctrine and discipline of the Western Church. Such are the astounding statements of his twelfth century biographers. That Ninian should deem a period of twenty-four years requisite to qualify him to preach to his simple countrymen, or that he should wait till a generation had passed away before returning with the evangelical message to Britain, is what is capable of belief only in the century in which it was first advanced—the century that accepted the Isidorean forgeries, and made them the foundations of Canon Law. We offer no refutation of these statements. Their huge improbability, indeed absurdity, place them beyond the need, we had almost said beyond the possibility of refutation.[6]

What plan did Ninian follow in his missionary labours? None of his biographers have introduced him to us as he appeared while engaged in his ordinary every-day work. Ailred invests him with a halo of miracle; and seen through this luminous haze, his figure appears of more than mortal stature. A preternatural glory, according to Ailred, now broke on the wilds of Galloway. These moorlands became the scene of the same mighty works, which were wrought in Galilee when the Messiah opened his ministry. Ninian healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, cleansed the leper, and raised the dead. These stupendous acts conquered the incredulity and disarmed the hatred of his countrymen to the Gospel. So says his biographer, with an air so simple and confiding, as to leave no doubt that he firmly believed the truth of what he wrote, and could hardly deem it possible that any one should question the miracles of the saint. There will be only one opinion, we should think, among our readers, regarding these astounding statements; and yet some of Ninian's modern biographers seem half inclined to believe that the saint did, indeed, possess miraculous powers, and that the extraordinary acts attributed to him by Ailred are not altogether fabulous.

The real Ninian, however, was simply a home missionary. In the circumstances of his time and country, he could be nothing else. Had we met him in his daily round of labour, we should, most probably, have seen nothing at all remarkable about him; nothing materially different from the same functionary whom we see, in our own day, prosecuting his labours in our city lanes and amid our rural hamlets. Had we understood his ancient tongue, we should have found Ninian telling to his countrymen the same message which the colporteur and the missionary carry to the outcasts of our own age. Truth acts upon the mind in essentially the same manner in every age—the same in the fourth as in the nineteenth century; and the teacher who would combat vice and ignorance must adopt radically the same methods, whatever his era; or if there be aught of difference, it must be on the side of greater simplicity and directness in early ages than in later times. The men of Ninian's day were rude, the times were calamitous, and, if the missionary really aimed at grappling to purpose with the gross ignorance and daring wickedness that surrounded him, the more simple his methods, and the less he burdened and fettered his message with forms and conventionalities, the greater would his success be. We credit Ninian simply with earnest piety and ordinary sense when we say that he resembled much more the home missionary of our own day than the stoled, tonsured, and girdled functionary of the twelfth century. Ninian went forth among his countrymen not to enlighten them touching the prerogatives of him who assumes to keep the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to tell them that the "Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins." That such a message, delivered in a loving, earnest spirit, was followed by conversions, we cannot doubt. The fruits and monuments of his ministry remain even to this day.


Footnotes

1. His name is variously written. In the Roman martyrology his name is Ninian. In Bede it is Nynias. In William of Malmesbury, Ninas. In Scotland he is popularly called Ringan. The authorities consulted for the life of Ninian are Bede and Ailred, abbot of Rievaux. These are the two primary authorities. The secondary and minor ones are the author of the Lives of the English Saints, a work attributed to the Rev. John Barrow, D.D., late Principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford; Dr. Forbes, bishop of Brechin; Dr. Skene, Historiographer Royal for Scotland; and others. Ailred's Life of Ninian was first printed by John Pinkerton (London, 1789), from a fine manuscript in the Bodleian library at Oxford. Pinkerton's Life has been inserted in the Historians of Scotland, after having been carefully collated with the Bodleian MS., and amended in some places, by Bishop Forbes. Ailred tells us that he derived his materials for the biography of Ninian from an earlier Life of the Saint, Barbario Scriptus. But neither the abbot of Rievaux, nor the barbarous writer who preceded him, tell us much more about Ninian than had been previously communicated by Bede. Both are indebted for their facts to the monk of Jarrow. The Life by Ailred, is meagre in its facts, but rich in miracles arid prodigies. In this respect it is a picture of the twelfth century in which it was written, not of the Apostle of Galloway in the fourth. We have not followed slavishly any of Ninian's biographers. We have taken the liberty to form our own judgment as to what manner of man he was. Discarding legend we have looked at Ninian in the light of his age, the work he did, and the records that remain of it; and from this complex view we have arrived at our own conclusion, touching his character and his aims.

2. Lives of the English Saints, St. Ninian, chap. ii. 21. London, 1845.

3. John of Fordlun's Chronicle of the Scottish Nation, lib. iii. cap. 10.

4. Bishop Forbes, Life of St. Ninian, p. 28; Hist. of Scotland, vol v.

5. Even two centuries later there was but one ecclesiastic, and he a Roman pervert (see vol. i. 329) who was reckoned a bishop in all the region of the Picts, Scots, and Britons. Prior Richard, writing of the year 689, says, "At that time he (S. Wilfrid) was the sole bishop in all the territories of King Oswi, that is, in all the nations of the Bernecians, the Britons, the Scots of Lindisfarne, the Picts, for Candida Casa had not yet had a proper bishop."—Hist. Ch. of Hexham, p. 22, Surtees ed.

6. His biographer, Ailred, says, "He ordained priests, consecrated bishops, arranged the ecclesiastical orders, and divided the whole country into parishes." This is probably the chief authority on which the Bishop of Brechin rests the statement given above. Ailred's statement refutes itself. To facilitate the working of this imaginary hierarchy, Ailred makes Ninian divide the whole country into parishes. But it is agreed on all hands that parishes were unknown in Scotland for about 600 years after Ninian.