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Kate Gordon Moore













^t Ninian,









1. Introduction

2. St. Ninian's Early Days

3. St. Ninian's Riper Years

4. St. Ninian's Journey- to Rome .

5. St. Ninian's Life at Rome

6. St. Ninian's Return to Britain
7- St. Ninian in Galloway"

8. Conversion of the Picts
y. St. Ninian's Latter Days
10. Conclusion












It is necessary to say a few words on the sources
from which the present Life is derived. The
account of St. Aelred's parentage is taken from a
manuscript in the Bodleian Library, (Laud, 668)
in which are several works ascribed to him, and
amongst others, one " De Sanctis Ecclesise Hag-
ulstadensis et eorum miraculis." Whether this
work is by him or not, the author has not suffi-
cient critical judgment to pronounce. It is in
some places assigned to him, but one circumstance
against it is, that it is principally a Sermon,
preached in the Church of Hexham, on the trans-
lation of the relics of the old Bishops of Hexham,
apparently by the Prior of the Canons. A great
part of it, however, from fol. 67 of the manuscript,
is a written continuation of the history, and was
not preached. If one may be allowed to conjec-
ture, this part might be written by St. Aelred. It
is like his style (though it should be said that the
Sermon also is like it), and the historical know-


ledjre which it displays, also makes it likely to be
his. There is nothing in the M.S. itself to indi-
cate that the persons of whom it gives an account
were St. Aelred's ancestors ; this fact is gathered
from Richard of Hexham, De statu Hagulsta-
densis Ecclesia2, b. 2, c. 9. There is also an inci-
dental proof that St. Aelred's ancestors were per-
sons connected with the Church of Durham, in a
letter from Reginald, a monk of Durham, to St.
Aelred, in which he thanks him for some collec-
tions, taken from documents in the Church of
Durham by his ancestors, and communicated by
him. This letter is found in a Bodleian manu-
script, Fairfax, 6.

The life in Capgrave and the Bollandists has
only been partially followed, as it contains various
historical inaccuracies. St. Aelred's own works
have been on the whole the principal authority
made use of. A few notices of the Saint have
been inserted in the Life of St. Waltheof, to
whom they rather belong. The author hoped to
have brought the two lives out together, which,
however, has been found impossible.

St. Aelred was canonized by Pope Celestine
III., A. D. 1191, according to the Peterborough


^t Kinian,


CIEC. A. D. 360-432.



How many of us have never heard of St. Ninian !
How many, on hearing of him, would carelessly put
aside the thought of his history, as a matter of no
concern, as a tale of former days, of what once was,
and is no longer, in any way which connects him with
us, or us with him. But this is a thoughtless way of
viewing any subject. All things may be connected
one with another ; the works of former times may
have exercised an influence which still lives. Still
more is this the case with Saints. The world passes
away, and the works of the world, and men, so far
as they are of the world, and unite themselves with
the world, pass with it ; but they who are gifted
with divine life, and united to Christ, abide for ever ;
now more truly living than when the world saw them.
If there be one whom the Church has recognized
as a Saint, there is a work of Divine Grace at which


we should pause, and turn aside, and view with
reverend awe ; there is a child of Adam renewed
in the Divine image ; one in whom a work has been
wrought, which is begun in many and perfected
in few. His history, could we see it as it is — his
inward history — how eventful would it be ; how many
a crisis would it involve ! "What motions of Divine
grace — what watchful Providences — what a corre-
spondence on his own part to the calls of Heaven !
What a precious tale of deeds and sufferings, of watch-
fulness and self-restraint, of prayers and heavenly
aspirations ! How intense is the interest excited by
examining some work of human skill, and tracing its
beauty, or contrivance, or finished art ! How full are
the natural woi'ks of God of all that is calculated to
engage our attention, to awaken surprise, deUght, and
admiration. AVith how much more of deep feehng
then should we view tlie spiritual creation, and trace
out there the workings of providence and the effects
of grace. Beautiful as is the natural world, the fair
budding of spring, and the grass and trees, and the
clear sliining after rain, they are but faint images
indeed of holy men, and of their varied graces, whose
sweetness Scripture shadows out by the choicest ob-
jects of sense. And as we gratefully commemorate
the glory and goodness of God, as shown in these
passing works, still more should the manifold and
abiding graces of His Elect call forth our thankful-
ness and praise.

But, it may be said, little is known of St. Ninian.
It is true. Yet tliis might almost enhance our interest
in lum, and our wish to know that little. How many
are there in every rank of life who pass from this
world um-ecognized, save by a few, yet high in the


Divine favour and of great attainments in sanctity.
That Saints should be distinguished in any marked
way, seems to be owing to (what we may call) the
accident of their being brought by circumstances into
positions which have elicited their hidden graces, and
manifested them to the world. But as their holiness is
independent of its visible effects, so those effects are
no measure of it. By the world, men are estimated
for their influence on its fortunes ; and in proportion
as they have influenced it, is the degree of honour
assigned them. But sanctity is independent of such
outward manifestations or visible fruits. Though, in
St. Ninian's case, if we believe those who in olden
time so greatly venerated this holy man, there were
not wanting abundant sensible tokens of his power
and prevailing intercession. Even Protestant writers^
allow that he had the gift of miracles, and the nu-
merous worshippers at his shrine, three or four hun-
dred years ago, believed, and would allege facts in
proof, that they received blessings, even miraculous
ones, through his prayers availing with God.

Among ourselves, there has been a long suspension
of that everlasting remembrance in which the righteous
ought to be held, that affectionate interest with which
we ought to cherish those who in their day have
laboured for the Church, and been marked by special
gifts of grace. But it is not many centuries since the
name of St. Ninian was one of the most honoured in
the Calendar, and people flocked from every part of
the island to visit his shrine. His memory, has, in-
deed, had singular reverses. From the fifth to the
twelfth century, it was scarcely known beyond the

^ The Madgeburg Centuriators, torn. 4, 1429.


limits of the wUd district where he had laboured and
died. Tlie only records of him were in the memory of
his people, or written in a barbarous and unknown
language. The succession of his See was inter-
rupted. Successive tribes of uncivilized Celts occu-
pied his country, and seemed to have obliterated almost
every vestige of his earthly labours. But seven centu-
ries passed, and his memory rose from its obscurity ;
his power was recognized, his shrine was frequented,
and his intercessions sought. Amid the wild wars of
Scotland and the Border, a safe conduct was provided
for pilgrims who were visitmg his Church, and kings
sought his prayers. Their piety was mixed, doubtless,
according to the character of individuals, with even
the grossest superstition ; stUl it implied a general
recognition of his sanctity ; and the reason they
would themselves have given of this devotion was,
that they had experienced blessings through it ; and
that such was, in some instances, at least, the case, is
the most natural and obvious account of the matter.

That little should have been known of his history
need not svurprise us. He lived in a dark period of
British history, and laboured among a rude people.
In the centuries following his death, Galloway was
the scene of frequent wars, and changed its masters
and its inhabitants. The Southern Picts whom he
had converted were in time merged among the other
races who inhabited the east of Scotland, and it was,
as to the world's history, as if he had never lived.
But this is not different from what we might expect.
Of how many other distinguished Saints have few
traces been left in history ! Of how many of the
holy Apostles is it merely recorded that they preached
the gospel in certain remote districts, and were mar-


tyred ! Of the fruits of their preaching, of the
Churches they founded, no certain vestiges remain.
Yet their names are written in heaven ; their works
are recorded there ; and the souls who, through their
means, though of distant ages and of barbarous lan-
guages, were brought into that Communion, where all
learn one language, and are formed after one model,
and are brethren and feUow-countrymen in Christ,
are blessing and praising God for the mercy he showed
in their conversion. It may be to the increase of
their blessedness to be thus humbled ; to have their
works hidden from the world ; that having no reward
of human praise here, they may enjoy a more ample
recompense in heaven.

Do not think slightingly then of St. Ninian because he
is little known ; but rather let us trace out with reveren-
tial love what may be learnt of him. We know more
of him, and on better authority, than we do of many
more exalted Saints ; and if in searching out what
may be known of him, we seem to be led into dry and
antiquarian matter, let it not be an ungrateful labour.
It may be repaid by the contemplation of his graces.

And there are circumstances which give a peculiar
interest to St. Ninian. Besides his being one of our own
Saints, and the earliest Missionary, and first Bishop in
Scotland of whom we have any authentic record ; he
lived at a time when there was a change taking place in
the mode in which conversions to the faith were made.
The barbarous nations were now pouring in vipon the
Christians, and threatening the destruction of the em-
pire of the Church, as though it were not Christ's.
St. Ninian was one of the first of those who turned
back the arms of the invaders, and reduced them by
meekness and truth, under the gentle and happy sway


of the gospel. Again, conversions had hitherto been
of individuals, now they became national ; that of the
Picts was one of the first. And the system on which
missions were conducted in the coimtries of Europe,
found one of theii' earliest tj\^es in him.

It may, indeed, very naturally be asked, what do we
really know of this ancient Saint, and, considering his
age, country, and circumstances, what authentic re-
cords can there be of the events of liis life ?

Of the history of Britain at that time, (the close of
the fourth and early part of the fifth century) the
notices, whether civil or ecclesiastical, are very few,
scanty, and unsatisfactory. It was St. Ninian's lot
to live at that critical period, when the Roman power
was breaking, and the empire was giving way under
internal divisions, and the inroads of the Northern
tribes. And Britain, which had been raised from a
wild and savage condition to considerable civilization,
was again to be thrown back into a more miserable
barbarism by the inundations of the Caledonians, and
the occupation of the Saxons. They were too much
engaged in fighting to write narratives of what they
did ; and any memorials they had were lost in the
troubles which followed. Of its ecclesiastical liistory
we are still more ignorant. The age of St. Ninian
may be looked on as one of which almost nothing is
recorded in the annals of the British Church ; so that
we must form our ideas of this particular period by
what we know of the times preceding and following
it. It would come in to fill the blank between the
third and fourth chapters of the account of the British
Church, which is prefixed to the life of St. Augustine.^

' No. iii. of this Series.


Of one then wlio lived in such an age, what records
can we have ? May not the history be given up as
entirely uncertain ? I conceive not ; and for these rea-
sons. Personal history is preserved when public
events are unrecorded and forgotten. Nay, in all his-
tory it is often through the narratives of the lives of
individuals alone, that many circumstances of public
importance have been preserved to us ; it is round
the individual that interest centres, and his doings
which are remembered. "We know how children are
impressed by the words and deeds of individual wor-
thies, when of the general course of the history they
have no clear ideas, so that the best histories for them
consist of a series of personal tales. And it is so with
men generally, and particularly in a simple state of
society. Among Christians this is still more the case ;
since with them the affectionate remembrance of those
who are gone, is heightened by religious reverence, and
sanctioned and sustained by the commemoration of the
departed. It is to the individual Saint that Christians
look, rather than to the events of general history ; for
they view him as the work of Divine grace ; whilst
the course of the world, though in its progress and
issue, the effect of His providence, is in detail but the
manifestation of man's wilfulness and misery.

We cannot suppose but that the Picts, among whom
vSt, Ninian had introduced the Gospel, would retain the
memory of one to whom they were indebted for aU
they held dear. And in Galloway he had left a stand-
ing memorial in the church of stone, which was
looked on with no little interest by the admiring
Britons, and was thought to give a name to the place
where it stood. He left a monastery too, and that


would be the means of preserving some records of him.
That such records were preserved we know, on the
authority of the earliest witnesses we could have — ^the
most learned and accomplished scholars, and the most
holy men of their age — Bede and Alcuin.

In Bede's time the Southern Picts were still exist-
ing as a separate race, and testified to having derived
their Christianity from St. Ninian ; and "VNTiithem,
with his church and tomb, was a visible memorial. A
Saxon succession of Bishops and a Saxon monastery
had been established here, on the conquest of Galloway
by that people. So that in Bede we have the testimony
of one who had full means of informing himself on
the subject, as to the main incidents of St. Ninian's
life ; as also had Alcuin, of whom there is a letter stiU
extant, written to the Brethren of the Saxon Monas-
tery of Whithern, recognizing the miracles and holiness
of the Saint. And after this we find incidental men-
tion of St. Ninian in different writers, all treating the
chief facts of his life as matter of authentic history.

These are however only portions of information inci-
dentally given, indications of a larger store existing
among the people whom he had converted, and where
his Church and monastery were. Among them we
might expect that records would exist, (as among
the other Celtic tribes in Wales and Ireland,) written
in their own language, and from that very circum-
stance little known to the rest of tlie world. Galloway
had been over-run by different tribes, but (with the ex-
ception of the brief occupation by the Saxons) they
were all of the Celtic race, and their languages, though
different dialects, were mutually intelligible. And we
know that in the twelfth century lives of the Saint
were extant in their language.


This we learn from the testimony of St. Aelred of
Rievaux, who was requested by the brethren of the
convent of Whithern to compose a life of their Patron
Saint in Latin. In an Introduction addressed to them,
he speaks of the disadvantage arising from the life of
the Saint only existing in a barbarous language, (or
being written in a barbarous style) which obscured his
history, and interfered with the pleasure and edification
of the readers. It seems to be implied that more than
one life was extant in Celtic, and perhaps in Latin, but
that very rude and barbarous, and that St. Aelred
selected as the groundwork of his Hfe the one which
seemed to him the most authentic. And it is possible
that a life referred to by Archbishop Usher, as existing
among the Irish, may be the representative of some of
the others.

We regard this life then, as representing what St.
Aelred considered the most authentic account then
existing of St. Ninian, an account not improbably, in
tradition at least, almost contemporaneous with the
Saint, and supplying the information which Bede
and Alcuin possessed respecting him.

Of the authority of St. Aelred as a biographer, little
need be said. He, whom even Bale caUs a second St.
Bernard, was endued with that kindred sanctity wliich
fitted him to be the biographer of a Saint ; and his edu-
cation in the Scottish court and long friendship with the
king, and in particular liis connexion with Fergus, the
lord of Galloway, and his labours for the restoration of
religion in that country, as it led him to tread in the
footsteps of St. Ninian, would enable him to ascer-
tain all that could be learnt of authority respecting him.

The work was written towards the close of his own
life, between 1153 and 1166. It agrees in style with


liis Other works, and is every way worthy of him.
Being intended for spiritual reading and edifica-
tion, it contains much that is inserted for that end,
and throws the sentiments which might be supposed to
influence the Saint into the dramatic form of a solilo-
quy or speech. Perhaps in one or two points it is
liable to the charge of anachronism, from the writer's
imagining the existence of the customs of his own
time, in the days of which he is writing. It is a singular
gift in a writer to be able to strip himself of the habits
of thought to which he has ever been famiHarized, or
even constantly to keep in mind that practices existing
in his own day are of recent origin. It ought to be
added, that St. Aelred's Life bears internal marks of
truth, from its correspondence with other history in
minute points of chronology, with the circumstances
and habits of the age, and with the distinctions of
the tribes who occupied the country, as the re-
searches of the latest writers have determined them.
Indeed from St. Aelred to the present century, almost all
who have written about St. Ninian have fallen into
some error or other from which he seems to be free.
This life soon became a popular work in our monas-
teries, if we may argue from the numerous copies which
seem to have been made.

It was abridged by John of Tinmouth, and from
him was inserted by Capgrave in his collection. It
has receiven the highest sanction from the Scottish
Church, as selections from it were read as Lessons for
St. Ninian's day, in the Aberdeen Breviary. There
are copies made within a few years after St. Aelred's
death, in the Bodleian and the British Museum ;
and it has been printed, though without the Intro-

ST. ninian's early days. 1 1

duction, by Pinkerton, in a collection of old Lives of
Scottish Saints.

Later writers mention further circumstances re-
specting St. Ninian, but we have little evidence of their
truth. They may in some cases be regarded as tradi-
tional stories, and have credit given to them as not
being intrinsically improbable, in others the silence of
St. Aelred respecting them may be taken as a fair
proof that he did not know, or did not believe them.
The Irish life referred to by Archbishop Usher does not
appear entitled to much consideration.


St. JVinian's early Days.

The date of St. Ninian's birth must be placed about
the middle of the fourth century. Alford has given
360. We may rather conceive it to have been a few
years earlier, as in 357, so as to make him forty years
of age at his consecration as a Bishop, in 397.

His name has been variously written and pronoun-
ced. We now uniformly call him Ninian, as he has
usually been called in England, and so his name is given
in the Roman Martyrology and by St. Aelred. In
Bede, however, the name is Nynias, in William of
Malmesbury Ninas, in other writers Ninus. In Scot-
land he is popularly called Ringan, the word being
pronounced Rin'nan, or Rinnian, or, (as in the Shetland
Isles) Ronyan. In L'eland, both Ringan and Ninian.
How the difference in the first letter arose (for the


rest is much the same in pronunciation) we have no
means of conjectui-ing.

The father of the Saint, as his biographer ex-
plicitly states, was a British Prince. To appreciate
however the condition of such a person in the age of
St. Ninian, we must forget the associations which we
usually connect with the Ancient Britons. This was
no longer a country occupied by wild savages, with
half naked and painted bodies, who lived in assem-
blages of miserable huts, buried in woods and pro-
tected by morasses. This state of things might ex-
ist in those parts of the Island which were unsubdued
or unoccupied by the Romans ; but those in which they
had now for tlu-ee centuries been predominant, had,
like their other provinces, become assimilated to the
habits of the conquerors.

Under this transforming system, a complete change
had been made in the appearance of the country and
the habits of the people. Forests had been cleared,
marshes drained, bridges thrown over the rivers, and
roads formed, intersecting the whole island, and af-
fording speedy and secure communication. Towns
sprung up, which imitated the cities of the conti-
nent. They had their temples, basiUcas, and the-
atres adorned with painting and sculpture ; their
shows and exhibitions. So that in a period of three
hundred years, Britain advanced in wealth and pros-
perity, and her artisans rivalled in activity and skill
those of the continent ; " every production of art and
nature, every object of convenience or luxm-y, was
accumulated in this rich and fruitful province." The
remains wliich are still left among us, bespeak the
advance of luxury and civilization. The tesselated
pavement, the marble bath, the elegant vase, tell what


Roman taste had produced in England ; while we still
use, after a lapse of sixteen hundred years, the roads
which her labour formed.

With these changes there rose up a corresponding
alteration in the native population. They became
Romans ; filled the ranks of the legions ; acquired the
rights of citizens, and naturally imitated, as the model
of refinement and civilization, the dress, language,
and manners of the Italian. The British language
still continued as the mother tongue of the great body
of the people, but even that was in a measure Latin-
ized, and among the higher classes, Latin was gene-
rally spoken. The pleadings of the courts were con-
ducted in it, and the British youth were taught to
speak it by their grammarians and rhetoricians, whose
instructions formed the chief part of Roman educa-
tion. Even in the days of Agricola Latin was culti-
vated, and the natives excelled in eloquence ; the
sons of the British chieftains received a Roman edu-
cation, and began to adopt the Roman dress ; and in
the fourth century, these beginnings had issued in
the complete assimilation of the Provincial to the
Roman habits ; and the son of a British prince
may be conceived not to have difi'ered much, in point
of manners and civilization, from the inhabitants of
any other part of the empire.

Alford, indeed, smiles at the flattery of his bio-
grapher, in exalting the Saint to the v.orldly distinction
of the son of a king. St. Aelred, however, or his
Galwegian authority, was quite aware of the meaning

Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanLives of the English saints (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 33)