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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 7 - Eastern Monachism; Scotch Monachism; Ninian's Last Labours and Death


Ninian's visit to the metropolis of the Christian world had, doubtless, enlarged his knowledge of men, and made him more exactly informed as regards the actual condition of the churches of Italy and France. It gave him an opportunity of judging for himself how the current was setting at the centre of ecclesiastical affairs, and afforded him, moreover, a near view of the men, the fame of whose names was then filling the Christian world. He could not but feel how little successful he was in his search for the simplicity and humility of early days; and he must have noted the contrast, sufficiently striking, between the lowliness in which Paul had preached the Gospel in this same city, and the pomp in which Damasus, who claimed to be the apostle's successor, filled the chair and performed the duties of the Roman pastorale. Nor could he fail to observe what an affluence of music and painting, of festival and ceremony, was required to keep alive the piety of the age, and how successful the Christians of Rome were in combining pleasure with devotion. But what mainly drew his eye, doubtless, was the striking phase which was passing upon the Christian world. This was the rage for monachism. Speaking of the number of the monks of Egypt, Gibbon sarcastically remarks, that "posterity might repeat the saying, which had formerly been applied to the sacred animals of the same country, that in Egypt, it was less difficult to find a god than a man.''[1] A colony of the disciples of Antony, the patriarch and leader of the Egyptian hermits, made their appearance at Rome a little before Ninian's visit. Their savage appearance excited at first astonishment and horror, which, however, speedily passed into applause, and finally, into imitation. Senators and matrons of rank, seized with the new enthusiasm, converted their palaces and villas into religious houses; and frequent monasteries were seated on the ruins of ancient temples, and in places still more unlikely. A monastery arose in the midst of the Roman forum. Its inmates were here environed by no desert, unless it were a moral and spiritual one

The first preachers of the gospel were sent forth into lands teeming with inhabitants, and cities crowded with population. They were the salt of the world; and how else could they perform their function but by mingling with the mass of mankind? The new champions of Christianity and propagators of the Gospel retired to the desert and burying themselves in its solitudes, held converse with only the wild beasts of the wilderness. The good this accomplished for Christianity is at least not obvious. He who would disperse the darkness must hold aloft the light, not hide it under a bushel or bury it in the caves of the earth. He who would subdue the wickedness around him must grapple with it, not surrender the field to the enemy, by abandoning the combat. It is contact and conflict with evil that gives the finishing touch to the nobility and purity of human character. It is a low and selfish Christianity which has no higher aim than one's own perfection and happiness. No higher aim had the thousands of eremites who peopled the deserts of the East. Monachism at the best was an intensely selfish and self righteous thing. It exacted, moreover, from its votaries, but little real self-denial. To sleep on a bed of stone, to make one's daily meal on herbs, and to drink only the water of the spring, is no extraordinary stretch of self-mortification. We are not sure that the hermits that swarmed in the deserts of Syria and Egypt in Ninian's day did not find a hazy pleasure in this sort of life. But to toil among the wretched and fallen; to put up with the thanklessness or the hatred of those whom one seeks to turn from the paths of ruin; or to endure the reproach and loss which fall to the lot of the man who stands up against the evil though fashionable courses of the world,—that is real mortification, and it is also the highest style of Christianity. The Christianity that began to be popular in Ninian's day was not of this sort. It lacked bone and muscle; and instead of seeking to stem the tide of evil, it retired to sleep and dream in the sunny air and quiet solitudes of Egypt and Palestine, and left the great world to go its own way. It was said of old, "a living dog is better than a dead lion." We may repeat the saying with reference to monachism. One single man girded for Christian service would have been worth more than all this multitude of somnolent monks.

It is creditable to Ninian, coming from Rome, where this folly was beginning to be held in repute as the perfection of the Christian life; and coming too from the feet of Martin of Tours, who was introducing this type of religious life into France, thought as we have already said, in a modified form; that he instituted in Galloway, not a monachism that would retire to its cell, and shut itself up from the people whose conversion it professed to seek, but a monachism that would walk abroad, traversing the length and breadth of Galloway, would mingle with the peasantry, visit them in their huts, and join itself to them as they pursued their labours, and by patient instruction and loving admonition, reclaim them to the "old paths" in which their fathers walked, but from which the sons had turned aside. The task before Ninian was not that of a first-planting of Christianity in Galloway. Earlier, if humbler, missionaries had kindled the light in this region two centuries before Candida Casa rose on the promontory of Whithorn. But much had gone and come since. The unsettling influences of war, the corrupting example of the Roman soldiery, and the difficulty attending access to the fountains of knowledge,—all worked together to the effect of well-nigh obliterating the traces of the early evangelization of the region, and left it nearly as dark as before the first missionary had set foot in it. The roots of Druidic paganism were still in the soil; the unsettled times favoured an aftergrowth of this branch of heathenism, and the altars in the groves were being rebuilt; and with the old worship returned the old impieties. There followed a dismal train of evils—war, robbery, massacre, and famine. These occurrence sharply castigated but did not reform this degenerate race.

The work was too great for Ninian alone. It must be his first care to create a staff of fellow-labourers. The monastic institutions of the age suggested perhaps the first idea of the method by which he must proceed in gathering round him a fitting agency for his contemplated evangelisation. His institution must not be exactly of the sort of those now rapidly rising all over the East: for what good would a colony of drowsy monks, entrenched on the promontory of Whithorn, do the ignorant natives of Galloway? The monasteries of Martin in Gaul came nearer Ninian's idea of the community he wished to found. But history presented him with a still better model. He knew that there had flourished in ancient Israel schools of the prophets, and that the youth trained in these seminaries did not waste their energies in the desert, or shirk the duties of manhood and citizenship under the mantle of the prophet. Nothing that appertained to the good of their nation was foreign to them. They mingled with their countrymen, courted hard service, studied the law this hour, and cultivated their plot of ground the next. They taught in the synagogue and in the school. They went their circuit, instructed, reproved, and warned, as occasion required, and thus kept alive the spirit of the nation, and delayed, though they could not avert, its ultimate degeneracy. It was to these ancient and sacred models that Ninian turned back in search of a pattern to work by. He would revive the " schools of the prophets" on British soil, only borrowing from the monasteries of Gaul such alterations and improvements as the country and the age made necessary, and grafting the new appliances on the ancient Hebrew institution.

We are able thus to picture the interior of Candida Casa. It is at once a church and a school; a house of prayer on Sabbath, a scene of catechetical instruction on week day. The youth that here assemble to Ninian belong probably to all three nations—the Britons, the Picts, and the Irish Scots. They forget their nationality at the feet of their teacher. Their Christianity makes them one. They are fettered by no vow of obedience. They are voluntary recruits in the evangelical army; and the same devotion that led them to enroll in the corps makes them submissive to the commands of its general. Nevertheless there must needs be a prescribed order in the little community, and that rule all must walk by; otherwise the household will get into confusion, and the school of Candida Casa be broken up. Each portion of the day has its allotted task: there are hours for sleep, hours for devotion, hours for study, and hours for recreation or manual labour. Care is taken that there shall be no lost time. Horologes had not yet been invented, nevertheless the inmates of Candida Casa could measure the march of the hours with wonderful precision. They could read the movements of time on the great clock of nature. The first gleam of light on the summit of the mountains of the Isle of Man was the signal for quitting their dormitories, and commencing the labours of the day. The slow march of the western shadows up the sides of the Kirkcudbright hills announced in like manner the approach of the hour for retiring to rest. So did they pass the summer months. In winter they rose before the sun, and waited, in devotion or in meditation, the slow coming of the day. When its brief hours had sped, and evening had dropped her veil on the face of the Irish Sea, and wrapped in darkness the tops of the Cumberland and Dumfriesshire hills, they would prolong their labours far into the evening.

The main business of the monastery was study. Its inmates were there to prepare for public work, and all the arrangements of the institution were with a view to that great practical end. They had bidden adieu to the world, not, like the eastern anchorites, for ever, but only for a while, that they night come back to it better fitted for doing it service. They could serve it only by knowledge; and they made haste to learn, that they might the sooner begin their work of teaching. The hours were precious, for every day their countrymen were straying farther from the path of true knowledge and heavenly virtue.

What were the branches that occupied the attention of the youth in Ninian's college, and what was the length of their curriculum? These are two points of great interest, but, unhappily, no history, and no tradition even, have transmitted to us any information respecting either of them. It is probable that the subjects studied were few, and that the curriculum was short. It was then "the day of small things" as regards philosophical and theological studies in Britain, and the two great universities of England might not be flattered were we to assign to Candida Casa the honour of being their pioneer. It is probable that the Scriptures, either in British Celtic or in Latin, were the text book in this humble seminary. Jerome's translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, was already in existence; and the familiarity of the British youth with the Latin tongue, through their intercourse with the Romans, would enable them to peruse it. If the scholars of Ninian drew their theology from this fountain alone, that theology would be of crystalline purity. What other source than the Scriptures had the first evangelists who planted the Gospel on the ruins of Paganism? The works of Augustine, too, were finding their way into Britain, and it is possible that copies of some of the writings of this father may have enriched the monastery of Candida Casa. Numerous other commentaries were beginning about this time to make their appearance, and were being circulated throughout the Christian world. Whether these expositions traveled so far as Britain we cannot say. If they failed to reach our shores, their absence could be no cause of regret. They only made dark what the Bible had made clear. They contained a large admixture of the Platonic philosophy. Their authors, not content with the natural and obvious meaning of Holy Writ, searched beneath its letter for allegorical and philosophic mysteries; and instead of discovering the "deep things" of revelation, brought to light only the follies of past ages. They created a kind of twilight which was neither the Pagan night nor the Christian day. The Platonic philosophy was the upas tree of the Church of the fourth century.

After the Scriptures the oral instructions of Ninian were doubtless the staple of the educational means of the young evangelists who gathered round him. If to have trodden the path is one's best qualification for being the guide of others, Ninian was well fitted to preside over the youth of Candida Casa. He had himself gone every step of the way along which he was to conduct them. He had sat in darkness, and knew how to lead them out of night. He had served on the mission-field on which their lines were to be passed. He had stood in the midst of the ignorance, the misery, and the vice of his countrymen, and he knew the patience needed to bear, and the courage needed to grapple with this host of evils. He knew how to equip those young soldiers for the battle into which he was about to send them forth. They must put on the armour of light; they must grasp more ethereal weapons than those with which earthly warriors fight. Moreover, he would fortify them beforehand with suitable counsels, so that they might not be taken by surprise when they encountered unexpected obstacles, nor grow faint-hearted when they saw that victory was not to be so easily or so speedily won as they had hoped. Having clothed them in armour suited to their warfare, that even of both dogmatic and pastoral theology, as then known, he gave them their staff, their water bottle, their woolen robe, along with his benediction, and sent them forth.

But what of the theology of Candida Casa? Was it a well of knowledge undefiled, or was it slightly tinctured with the Platonic philosophy? And what of the president of the institution? Was Ninian still the humble missionary, or was there now about him just a little affectation of prelatic arrogance and rule? It is possible that these things Ninian might have unconsciously brought with him from Rome. Ecclesiastical history presents us with not a few melancholy examples of men who have passed from light—into darkness, and from a first into a second and deeper darkness, believing all the while that they were advancing into clearer light. Many have thus fallen who have been altogether unconscious of declension. The change begins, not in the understanding, but in the heart—that fountain of life and death. The heart, beginning to disrelish the light, says, "It is not good." The understanding hastens to support the choice of the heart, and says, "The light is not sufficient." At this stage the man turns inward in search of a clearer light in himself than the light which has been stored up in the Sacred Volume. He finds it, as he believes, in his own consciousness or inward judgment concerning things. "This," he says, "is a clearer and a surer light than any without me. I feel it; it is within me; I am sure of it. It cannot mislead, and I will guide myself by it." By this light within him, he tests the light without him. He inverts the true order; he puts the human above the divine; he makes his reason or the reason of other men, the church for instance, the judge and test of the light of revelation. From the moment that the exterior light, the one infallible guide is forsaken, the man rushes onward, with the full consent of heart and understanding, from error to error, never doubting that he is advancing from truth to truth. Each successive error is held to be a fresh discovery of truth; and each successive shade, as the darkness deepens around him, is welcomed as a new and brighter illumination. The delusion becomes at last complete, and the unhappy man, having wandered out of the way of understanding, "remains in the congregation of the dead." These are the mementos and monuments—very solemn and terrible they are—that meet one's gaze, at every short distance, on the highway of ecclesiastical history.

But we have no reason to think that the change Ninian's views had undergone was of this sweeping character. What must have helped to retain him within the old landmarks was his devotion to the cause of his country's evangelisation. While sojourning at Rome, he could hardly avoid being somewhat influenced by the two rising forces of the time, the Platonic philosophy and the old pagan ritual, but once back again in his own country, and face to face with its ignorance and vice, Ninian must have felt how short a way philosophic fancies and ritualistic ceremonies could go as a cure of these evils. If his understanding was somewhat dimmed, the fervour of his spirit was not extinguished. The fire within him continued to burn to the close of his life. We have no contemporary record of the reformation which Ninian accomplished, but there is enough of traditional and monumental proof to satisfy us that the change he effected was great, and that the school of prophets which he established at Whithorn continued, after he had gone to his grave, to be a centre of evangelical Christianity which diffused its light all round over a very wide area.

Bede has credited Ninian with the conversion of the southern Picts, and says that the glory is his of spreading the light of Christianity over that whole region of Scotland, which extends from the Clyde to the foot of the Grampian mountains,[2]and in this the monk of Jarrow has been followed by all who have written on the life and labours of the apostle of Galloway. But we know that the venerable chronicler is mistaken when he makes Ninian the first apostle of the Picts. There were earlier missionaries in those parts than the men of Ninian's school and time, though possibly Bede, in an unhistoric age, knew nothing of them, and was not unwilling to have it thought that the first light that shone on our country came front that city from which Ninian had just returned. There is undoubted historic evidence for the fact that the southern Picts were Christianized two centuries before Ninian flourished. The Gospel outran the arms of Rome, and won victories where Rome reaped only defeats. The terrible persecutions that broke out, first, under Domitian, and finally, under Dioclesian, forced many of the Christians to flee beyond the Roman wall into Pictland, carrying with them the light of Christianity. Irenĉus of Lyons, Tertullian [3] of Carthage, and Origen, the men of the widest information and highest character of their day, in clear and unmistakable words affirm the same thing. Our own Buchanan, who is better informed on these matters, and whose judgment is more reliable than many of our late writers on early Scottish affairs, tells us that Donald I. (about 204) not only himself professed the Christian religion with his family, but used his influence to extirpate the superstition of the Druids and plant Christian teachers throughout his dominions; though his efforts were greatly hindered by his wars with the Romans. In these good labours he was followed by King Crathilinth in the end of the same century, and by his successor Fincormachus (A.D. 312-350), in whose reign "the Gospel did flourish in purity and in peace." These facts violently conflict with the assertion that Ninian was the first planter of Christianity among the southern Picts. [4]

But though we refuse to Ninian the honour of being the first to open the door of the evangelical kingdom to the Picts we willingly concede the probability of his having effected a much needed revival of religion in that nation. Matters had recently changed greatly for the worse in Pictland. The Romans contrived to sow dissension between the Picts and their allies the Scots. The latter were forced to leave the country for a time and pass over into Ireland. The Romans seeing the Picts weakened by the departure of their companions in arms, fell upon then and exacted bloody satisfaction for the many raids they had made into the region beyond the wall. There followed confusion in both Church and State in Pictland. These were the sorrowful scenes that were passing before the eyes of Ninian. He knew well the miserable estate of his neighbors, and if he did not go in person, he would not fail to send missionaries from Candida Casa to reanimate the spirits of the people, borne down by so many calamities, and to restore the churches fallen into ruins mid the factions and wars which had overwhelmed the State. It is true that hardly could one bring with him a worse recommendation to the Picts than that he came from Rome, and bore a commission from thence. Rome they regarded as their mortal enemy; they were contending daily in battle against her as the invader of their country and the destroyer of their liberties, but affliction lay heavy upon them, and they listened to the missionaries of Ninian despite that their teaching mayhap bore about it a savour of Rome. So far we are able to concur in the statement of Bede, but not farther. Ninian revived but did not plant Christianity among the Picts.

We return to Candida Casa. On the promontory of Whithorn, looking forth upon the Irish Sea, the waters of the Solway at its feet, rises the fair white temple which the orthodox masons of Martin of Tours had reared as the first stone-shrine of the evangelical faith in our land. It attracts the eye of the mariner as he pursues his voyage up the Irish Channel. "What building is this," he asks, "so unlike all else in this land? " and he is told that "it is the church and school of the Apostle of Galloway." He carries tidings of it to Ireland. From across the sea come the young Scots of Ulster to take their place with the British youth at the feet of Ninian; and from this Missionary Institute, as it would now be called, go forth trained evangelists to spread the light of the Gospel on both sides of the Irish Sea. There is a doubtful tradition that Ninian's last years were passed in Ireland, and the 16th of September is sacred to his memory in the Irish calendar. We incline, notwithstanding, to think that the life and labours of Ninian closed where they had been begun. He died, it is said, in the year 432; but this too is only conjecture.

Ninian left behind him a name which continued to grow in brightness during the succeeding centuries. Other doctors arose to fill his place, now vacant, at the head of Candida Casa, and this establishment, under the name of the " Monastery of Rosnat," continued for a considerable time in great repute as a school of Christian doctrine and a nursery of religious teachers.[5] When we reflect how few are the recorded facts of Ninian's life, it is truly marvelous to think with what a fullness and vividness of personality he has stood these fifteen centuries before the Scottish people. He owes this distinct and life-like individuality, in part at least, to this immediate background. Behind him hangs the prehistoric darkness, and this sable curtain makes him stand out bold and full in the eyes of posterity. But there must have been in the man himself elements of power to make an impression so profound that it has never been effaced from that day to this. His name is still a household word in his native Galloway. The tourist stumbles on churches and memorials bearing his name, north and south—in short, in almost every part of the country. His biographers of the Middle Ages have thrown around him the glory of miracle. Ninian had no need of this legendary apotheosis. His true miracle was his work accomplished in so dark an age and amongst so rude a people.

Of the last hours of Ninian we have no record, not even a tradition. That his end was peace we cannot doubt. Let us hope that as he neared his setting the dimness of Rome departed and that the clear unclouded light of the Bible returned and once more shone around him. When the rumour spread that the missionary of Candida Casa was no more, we can well imagine there was mourning over all the land. From north and south devout disciples, who in former days had sat at his feet, assembled to carry their revered master to the tomb, sorrowing that they should hear his voice no more. Pict and Scot met with Briton around his grave, and the solemn act in which all three took part of committing his mortal remains to their last resting-place enabled them to realize their essential unity, and the oneness of their faith. He was buried probably on the scene of his labours, but no man knoweth of his sepulchre to this day.

We have seen in Ninian a missionary, but a great missionary; a little swayed, it may be, by the rising fashions of his age—monachism and ceremonialism—but his heart notwithstanding in the right place, and ardently set on the enlightenment of his countrymen and the redemption of his native land from the twin powers of ignorance and superstition—in short, one of the three mighties in Scotland that preceded the Reformation as Reformers of the church and champions of Christianity. These three were Ninian, Patrick, and Columba.


Footnotes

1. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. vi., chap. 37.

2. Bede, lib, iii., c. 4.

3. Britannorum, inaccessa loca, Christo vero subdita—contra Judĉos,

4. Buchan. Hist., lib. iv. See also David Buchanan's Preface to Knox's History, pp. xxxviii. xxxix. Edin., 1790.

Patrick in his letter to Coroticus, speaks of the Picts as having apostatised, which clearly implies a previous conversion.

Bishop Forbes, of Brechin, admits that "the circumstances of his (Ninian's) life, as well as other testimonies, make it evident that before his time the light of the Gospel had shone upon these remote shores.''— Life of Saint Ninian, General Introduction, p. xxvi.; Historians of Scotland, vol. v.; Haddan & Stubs, Councils and Eccl. Documents, vol. i., p. 1-14.

5 Life of Ninian, Introduction XLII, Historians of Scotland, vol. v.