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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 6 - Ninian returns to Britain; Visits Martin of Tours; Builds a Church at Whithorn


Ninian returned to Britain before the storm burst. He stands once more amid the scenes of his youth. It is the silver tides of the Solway, not the yellow waves of the Tiber that flow past him: and over him is spread the hazy canopy which encircles the brown moorlands of his native land, not the vault of sapphire light which is hung above the vine-terraced hills and marble cities of Italy. This brilliance of earth and air he left behind him when he crossed the Alps. But Ninian knows that there is a better light than that which kindles the landscapes of southern countries into glory; and the supreme wish of his heart is to diffuse that light over his native Britain, and carry it into every mud hut and wattle-built dwelling of his beloved Galloway; and if he shall succeed in this he will not envy Italy those natural splendours in which it basks, and in which it so far transcends the dusky plains of the land of his birth.

The statement may be accepted as true, that on his way back to Britain, Ninian visited Martin of Tours. This doctor was beyond doubt a man of capacious intellect, of large and bold conceptions, of resolute will, and, we may add, of fervent piety. His genius stamped itself not only upon his own age, but also upon the ages that came after him. He aimed at elevating society by exhibiting to it a new, a grand, and a striking model of self-denial. We must be permitted, however, to caution our readers when we speak of these great fathers, by asking them to bear in mind that their greatness was relative rather than absolute. The general level of knowledge and piety in those ages was lose, and men like Martin towered, therefore, all the more conspicuously above their fellows. Their contemporaries were somewhat prone to worship what seemed so far above themselves. It behooves us at this day, in taking the real measure of these giants, as they seemed to the men of their own age, and still more to the chroniclers of succeeding centuries, to reflect that we view them through the mythical and magnifying clouds of the Middle Ages; and the effect of being seen through such a medium may be fairly judged of when we say that the biographer of Martin, Sulpicius Severus, relates of him, that he was made bishop of Tours (A.D. 371) for the benevolent act of raising two men from the dead. Christianity was then young, and it breathed its spirit of youthful enthusiasm into some of its disciples. We, at this day, walk by precedents; we inquire for the "old paths" There was room in that day for bold, original, and untried experiments; and it was in this way that Martin of Tours put forth his great powers, and sought to benefit his age.

After Jerome, Martin of Tours was the great patron and promoter of monachism in the West. It seemed to him, the one only cure for the great evil of his age. He could not help contrasting the self-indulgent, easy-going lives of the Christians of the West with the austerities practiced by the anchorites, amid the sands of Nubia, or the rocks of Arabia PetrŠa; and he sought, by transplanting the monastic system into Gaul, to restore the moral tone of society. Martin would have better succeeded had he restored the purity of the church's worship, and the vigour of her early discipline, the decline of which had occasioned the universal laxity and corruption he bewailed. Instead, he grafted on the church an order unknown to primitive times. He did not, however, transplant the monachism of the Thebaid into the West without very materially modifying it. In the East eremitism had been an utterly idle thing. The hermit could not have benefited the world less, if instead of retiring to his cell he had gone to his grave. Eastern eremitism was even a more idle thing than the idleness Martin sought to cure by it. The monachism of Gaul was not recluse and solitary, but social and operative. The members of the new brotherhoods worked together in the way of diffusing Christianity, or of reviving it in the particular localities in which their branches or houses were placed. The days of monastic greed and dissoluteness were yet remote; and, meanwhile, these religious confraternities were in a measure "the hearth of a near national life" In a society becoming every day more demoralized' they were, in some cases, missionary institutes; in others, schools of letters and philosophy; and in others, examples and models of agricultural industry,—and not infrequently, all three in one.[1]

Martin, as a matter of course, could communicate his views to Ninian; and Ninian would as naturally defer to the great doctor then in the zenith of his fame. The missionary of Galloway became a convert to monachism as an agency for combating the corruption and dispelling the ignorance of the age. On these lines he would henceforward work on returning to his native land. Accordingly, before leaving Tours he arranged with Martin that masons should follow him into Scotland and build him a sanctuary in which he might celebrate worship with more solemnity than aforetime. Were there no workers in stone in Scotland? Doubtless there were, but they were unskilled in the architecture of such edifices as Ninian now wanted for the worship of the Britons. A church of wattles had contented him aforetime, but now he had been to Rome, and he must needs frame his worship somewhat more on an Italian model. He had sat at the feet of Pope Damasus; and though he had not changed the substance of his Christianity, he had changed somewhat the outward forms of its expression. His piety bore about it henceforeward a Roman flavour. The experts arrived from Tours in due time, and the building was commenced. It rose at Whithorn, on the north shore of the Solway, on a rocky promontory jutting boldly out into the Irish Sea.[2] It was constructed of white stone; hence its name, Candida Casa, the white house. Martin of Tours died while it was in course of erection, and this fixes its date at the year A.D. 397.[3] It was dedicated to Martin, and is believed to be the first edifice of stone which was built for the worship of God in Scotland.

No better site could Ninian have selected as a basis from which to carry on his missionary labours. His field of service lay within the two walls. This was the territory, of all others in Britain, the most exposed to the tempests of invasion and war. Now it was the Picts and Scots who descended upon it from the North to spoil the fair fields of the provincials; and now it was the Romans who hurried up from the South to drive back the plundering hordes and rescue the lives and properties of the helpless natives. It is hard to say whether the spiritless people suffered more from the ravaging Pict, or from their ally the Roman. When battle raged, Ninian could retire to his promontory, and there find sanctuary; and when the storm had passed, he would again come forth and resume his labours. For though the promontory of Galloway formed part of the debatable land, it was really outside of it, so far as concerned the incursions of plundering armies. It ran off to the south-west, stretching far into the tides of the Irish Channel, and was surrounded on all sides by the sea, save on the north where it joins the mainland. Its southern and western sides present a wall of precipitous cliffs, inaccessible to the invader, though they open in creeks in which a boat, pressed by the tempest, may find shelter. The remote and difficult character of the locality gave it exemption from the inroads of war, though the echoes of battle sounded almost continually in its solitudes. The Romans in their progress northward passed it by, seeing nothing in the lonely wood-clad projection to make them diverge from their line of march; and when the mountaineers descended to rob the harvests and barnyards of its neighbours, they concluded, doubtless, that there was nothing in the barren promontory to reward a predatory visit, and so they too left it untouched. It was lying in its native ruggedness when Ninian took possession of it. It was covered with thick forests, amid which dwelt a tribe of native Britons, to which Ptolemy gives the name of Novantes, and which he tells us had built two towns, clearing, doubtless, a space in the forest, and constructing their houses with the timber which had grown on the site. The names of the two towns were Rerigonium and Leucopibia.[4]

Let us recall the scene as it presented itself to the eyes of the apostle of Galloway as he went and returned on his missionary tours. From the highest point of the promontory the view is extensive and imposing. At our feet are the waters of the Irish Channel laying the headland all round, save on the north where it expands into the mainland. Across a narrow reach of sea, looking distinct and near, are seen the mountains of the Isle of Man, rising before us out of the ocean. Turning to the north the eye falls on the successive headlands of Galloway, ranged in line along the coast, and running onwards to near Portpatrick. Following their rugged tops, the eye rests on the hills of Wigtown, Kirkcudbright, and Dumfries shires, which are seen, ridge behind ridge, swelling up from the shores of the Solway. The view to the east completes the picture. Spread out before us is the coast of Cumberland, with its nestling bays, and its white houses gleaming on the beach; and behind is the waving and picturesque line of its blue hills. Such was the chosen retreat of Ninian. Its clothing was not so rich as in our day. It wore its natural wildness and ruggedness, but its varied panoramic beauty of ocean and bay, of headland and mountain, was the same then as now.

Here, then, we behold Ninian establishing his headquarters, and founding a college or school of missionaries, or monks, as they now began to be called, though we must be careful not to confound them with the class that bore this name in after ages. That Ninian continued to labour in the cause of his country's Christianity we cannot doubt, but the change his views had undergone was followed, doubtless, by some change in his modes of working. His methods were now more histrionic. He made less use of oral instruction, and relied for results more on the celebration of church services, after the pattern he had seen abroad. He had gone to Rome to be better instructed in Holy Scripture. Was its meaning clearer to him now? Did it open, as never before, and disclose hidden treasures of grace and wisdom? Or, rather, was there not now a shadow on the page of the Bible which dimmed its light, and made Ninian imagine that he was gazing into profounder depths when he was only looking through an obscurer medium ? We much fear that so it was, in part, with the apostle of Galloway, after his return from Rome; for when popes and synods are accepted as the interpreter of the Bible, the Spirit, who is the divine interpreter, withdraws.


Footnotes

I. Guizot, Hist. de la Civilization en France, t. i., p. 110.

2. Bede, Eccl. Hist., lib. iii. cap. 4.

3. The precise year is disputed; but all, or nearly all authorities, place the death between A.D. 397 and 401. The Church of St. Martin in Tours was destroyed at the first French Revolution. His tomb was behind the grand altar, a plain erection, rising three feet from the ground, and without figures—Tillemont, Memoires; Le Brun des Marettes, Voyage Liturgigues de France, Paris, 1757.

4. All three, Leucopibia, or Leucoikidia, Candida Casa, and Whithern, are identical in meaning, signifying Whitehouse. The first is of Greek derivation, the second Latin, and the third Saxon, from Šrn, house.