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Whithorn

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Whithorn, a town and a parish of SE Wigtownshire. A royal, parliamentary, and police burgh, the town stands nearly in the centre of the parish, 2 miles inland, and 220 feet above sea-level. By road it is 3¼ miles NW of Isle of Whithorn, 32 ESE of Stranraer, and 11 S by E of Wigtown; and its station, the terminus of the Wigtownshire railway (1875-77), is 12¼ miles from the county town. The main street, extending 5¼ furlongs north-by-eastward, is narrow at the foot or northern extremity, but very broad towards the middle, where a rivulet-now covered over-crosses it, and where it sends off two transverse streets-the Pend. leading to the parish church, and the Free Church (or Rotten) Row. At the upper end it narrows again into the ` Port Mouth, ' and then forks into Glasserton Row and Isle Row, running W and SE respectively. Great improvements have been effected since the beginning of the present century. The old thatched hovels have made way for good slated houses; the `wee dunghills at every door ' are departed; and the streets are no longer grass-grown. There are a post office, with money order, savings' bank, and telegraph departments, branches of the Clydesdale and National Banks, 17 insurance agencies, 2 hotels, a gas company, a town-hall (1814), a bowling green, and a cattle market on the Thursday after the first Friday of every month except January, February, and March. The plain parish church, built in 1822, contains 800 sittings, and has a later square tower; the Free church was built soon after the Disruption. Other places of worship are a U.P. church, a Reformed Presbyterian church, and the Roman Catholic iron church of SS. Ninian, Martin, and John (1882; 120 sittings). The burgh is governed by a provost, 2 bailies, a treasurer, a town clerk, and 5 councillors; and prior to the Redistribution Act of 1885 it united with Wigtown, New Galloway, and Stranraer in returning a member to parliament. As a royal burgh, it claims to have got its earliest charter from Robert Bruce; and it rests its appeal on a confirmatory charter granted by James IV. in 1511. Corporation revenue (1833) £153, 8s., (1840) £230, 11s., (1874) £228, (1884) £80. Municipal constituency (1885) 253. Valuation (1866) £2779, (1885) £3817, plus £150 for railway. Pop. (1831) 1305, (1851) 1652, (1861) 1623, (1871) 1577, (1881) 1653, of whom 904 were females, and 1643 were in the royal burgh. Houses (1885) 308 inhabited.

Whithorn is mentioned by Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer, in the first half of the second century, A.D., as ` Leukopibia, ' a town of the Novantæ Leukopibia is probably a corruption of the Greek Leuk' oikidia, and so synonymous with the Latin Candida Casa, and the old English Hwit-aern all of them signifying the ` White house.' It thus is a place of hoar antiquity, and moreover is memorable as the home-perhaps, too, the birthplace-of St Ninian, the first known apostle of Scotland. The ` St Ringan ' of Lowland Scotch, he was born of royal parentage on the shores of the Solway Firth about the middle of the 4th century. Of studious and ascetic habits, he was fired by the Holy Spirit to make a pilgrimage to Rome, which he reached by way of the Gallican Alps, and where he was consecrated bishop by the Supreme Pontiff. On his homeward journey he paid a visit to St Martin at Tours, and after his arrival in Scotland founded the ` Candida Casa, ' or church of Whithorn, dedicating it to St Martin, who had just died (397). Later, he laboured successfully for the evangelisation of the Southern Picts, and in 432 (according to the Bollandists) died, ` perfect in life and full of years,' and was buried in his cathedral church at Whithorn. His festival falls on 16 Sept. Though the facts of his life, as well as independent testimonies, show that Christianity existed in Scotland prior to St Ninian, yet his apostolate is the first distinct fact in the history of the Scottish Church. Even of Ninian himself we can gather little that is definite from the Latin life by St Ailred (b. 1109; d. 1166), which, while good in style, is almost worthless as an historical record. (See Bishop Forbes' ` Life of St Ninian ' in vol. v. of The Historians of Scotland, Edinb. 1874.) Under the name of the ` great monastery of Rosnat,' St Ninian's church became known as a great seminary of religious and secular instruction; and to Cairnech, one of its bishops and abbots, is ascribed the introduction of monachism to Ireland. A bishopric of Whithorn was founded by the Angles in 727, but came to an end about 796, the see having been filled by five bishops; nor was it till the reign of David I. (1124-53) that Fergus, lord of Galloway, re-established the see of Galloway, and founded here a Premonstratensian priory, whose church became the cathedral, and contained the shrine of St Ninian.

This bishopric comprehended the whole of Wigtownshire, and by far the greater part of Kirkcudbrightshire, or all of it lying W of the river Urr; and it was divided into the three deaneries of the Rhinns, Farines, and Desnes, lying westward respectively of Luce Bay, of the Cree, and of the Urr, and corresponding proximately, though not quite, to the limits of the respective existing presbyteries of Stranraer, Wigtown, and Kirkcudbright. Gilla Aldan, the first bishop, was consecrated by the Archbishop of York; and his successors looked to that archprelate as their proper metropolitan till at least the 14th century. The bishops of Galloway afterwards, like all their Scottish brethren, became suffragans of St Andrews; but on the erection of Glasgow, in 1491, into an archbishopric, they, along with the bishops of Argyll, Dunkeld, and Dunblane, passed under the surveillance of that arch see, and on account of their being the chief suffragans, they were appointed vicars-general of it during vacancies. The canons of Whithorn priory formed the chapter of the see of Galloway, their prior ranking next to the bishop; but they appear to have been sometimes thwarted in their elections, and counterworked in their power, by the secular clergy and the people of the country. The revenues of the bishopric, which had previously been small, in the beginning of the 16th century, were greatly augmented by the annexation to them of the deanery of the chapel-royal of Stirling, and some years later, by that of the abbey of Tongland. In a rental of the bishopric, reported in 1566 to Sir William Murray, the Queen's comptroller, the annual value, including both the temporality and the spirituality, was stated to be £1357, 4s. 2d. Though the revenues were in a great measure dispersed between the date of the Reformation and that of James VI. 's revival of Episcopacy, and though they again suffered diminution in 1619 by the disseverment of the deanery of the chapel-royal; yet they were augmented in 1606 by the annexation of the priory of Whithorn, and afterwards by that of the abbey of Glenluce; and, in 1637, by the accession of the patronage and tithes of five parishes in Dumfriesshire, which had belonged to the monks of Kelso. At the Revolution, the net rental amounted to £5634, 15s. Scots; and exceeded that of any other see in Scotland, except the archbishoprics of St Andrews and Glasgow.

Excepting that of Maurice, who swore fealty to Edward I. in 1296, the names of none of the early priors of Whithorn have survived. James Beaton, who was prior in 1503, and uncle of Cardinal Beaton, acted a conspicuous, and, in some particulars, an inglorious part in the history of his country, and rose to the highest offices in both Church and State-becoming successively, in the one, bishop of Galloway, archbishop of Glasgow, and archbishop of St Andrews; and in the other, Lord Treasurer and Lord Chancellor of the kingdom. Gavin Dunbar, the next prior of Whithorn, was tutor to James V., and rose to be archbishop of Glasgow, Lord Chancellor of the kingdom, and, during one period of the King's absence in France, one of the Lords of the Regency. At the Reformation the rental of the priory, as reported to Government, amounted to £1016, 3s. 4d. Scots, besides upwards of 15 chalders of bere and 51 chalders of meal. The property, as we have seen, was given by James VI. to the bishops of Galloway, and it afterwards followed the same fates as that of the parish church of Whithorn.

Pilgrimages, at all times and by all classes of persons, were made from every part of Scotland to the shrine of St Ninian at Whithorn. In 1425 James I. granted a protection to all strangers coming into Scotland as pilgrims to the shrine; and in 1506 the Regent Albany granted a general safe-conduct to all pilgrims hither from England, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Many of the most distinguished personages of the kingdom, including kings, queens, and the highest nobles, visited Whithorn on pilgrimage. In 1473, Margaret, the queen of James III.-, made a pilgrimage hither, accompanied by six ladies of her chamber, who were furnished on the nonce with new livery gowns. Among other charges- in the treasurer s account, for articles preparatory to her journey, are 8 shillings for ` panzell crelis, ' or panniers, 10 shillings for ` a pair of Bulgis, ' and 12 shillings for ` a cover to the queen's cop.' James IV. made pilgrimages to Whithorn, generally once and frequently twice a year, through the whole period of his reign. He appears to have been accompanied by his minstrels and a numerous retinue; he gave donations to priests, to minstrels, and to pilgrims, and, through his almoner, to the poor; an d, in his journey both hither and back, he, in addition, made offerings at various churches on his way. In 1507, after his queen had recovered from a menacing illness, he and she made a joint pilgrimage, and occupied 31 days from leaving Stirling till they returned. They were accompanied by a large retinue, and progressed in a style of regal pomp. In 1513, the old Earl of Angus, ` Bell-the-Cat,' retired to the priory, where he died in the following year. In 1532 and 1533 James V. appears from the treasurer's accounts to have made several-pilgrimages. So popular, in fact, was the practice of travelling to the shrine of St Ninian in quest of both physical and spiritual good, that, for all that the preachers could preach or Sir David Lyndsay could write, it continued for some time after the Reformation, and was not effectually put down till an act of parliament, passed in 1581, rendered it illegal. The ruinous, roofless cathedral, now overgrown with ivy, and measuring 74 by 24 feet, is in the Romanesque, First Pointed, and Second Pointed styles of architecture, and exhibits some sculptured armorial bearings. It has lost the fine SW steeple, which was standing when Symson wrote in 1680; and the chief vestige of its former magnificence is a beautiful round-headed archway, with remains of vaults and other buildings in connection with the ancient priory. A good specimen of a Runic stone and several other ancient stones have been lately set up within the old church; and on the road to Isle of Whithorn, ¼ mile S of the burgh, stands a greywacke pillar, 31/6 feet high, with an encircled cross sculptured on it, and a mutilated Latin inscription, in which only the words, `of Peter the Apostle, ' are now clearly decipherable. It probably marked the site of a pre-Reformation chapel.

The parish of Whithorn is bounded N and NE by Sorbie, E and S by the sea, and SW and W by Glasserton. Its utmost length, from N to S, is 75/8 miles; its utmost breadth is 51/8 miles; and its area is 12, 061½ acres, of which 167¼ are foreshore and 3 water. The bold rocky coast, 7 miles in extent, rises rapidly in several places to over 100 feet above sea-level, and is pierced with some deep caves. (See Borough Head.) The interior nowhere much exceeds 300 feet of altitude, but has the broken, knolly, tumulated aspect which characterises so much of Wigtownshire-an assemblage of hillocks and little hollows. Wood stretches out to some extent round the mansion of Castlewigg, and elsewhere a few plantations adorn the surface; but they are far from relieving the parish from a comparatively naked aspect. Yet much of the ground, which at a small distance seems barren or moorish, is carpeted with fertile soil, and produces excellent herbage or crops of grain. Excepting the summits and occasionally the sides of a considerable number of the knolls, and excepting the planted area and a small aggregate extent of little bogs, the entire parish is in tillage. Some of the bogs produce turf-fuel, and others contain beds of shell- marl. Copper has been found in some large pieces, and in a small disturbed vein; but competent opinion is against the likelihood of its existing in such quantity as to repay the cost of regular mining operations. The predominant rocks are transition or Silurian; and large granite boulders lie on some parts of the surface. Much of the soil is a vegetable mould, of great depth and high fertility. An ancient fortification, called Carghidoun, and enclosing about half an acre, crowns a precipice on the coast of the estate of Tonderghie; another, called Castle Feather, and enclosing nearly an acre, crowns another precipice some distance to the SE; a third, less traceable, but seemingly about the same size as the second, occurs on a cliff still further SE; and a fourth, whose vestiges lie dispersed over three crowns, surmounts the bold brow of Borough Head. All these look out to the Isle of Man, and probably were erected to defend the country from the descents of the Scandinavian vikings who possessed that island. Remains of a camp existed ¾ mile W by S of the town; and, though greatly defaced, are distinct enough to leave no doubt of its having been Roman. Mansions, noticed separately, are Castlewigg and Tonderghie; and 6 proprietors hold each an annual value of £500 and upwards. Whithorn is in the presbytery of Wigtown and the synod of Galloway; the living is worth £350. Three public schools-Glasserton Road, Isle, and Principal-with respective accommodation for 200, 85, and 178 children, had (1885) an average attendance of 161, 50, and 131, and grants of £130, £32, 2s., and £115, 15s. 3d. Valuation (1860) £14, 422, (1885) £15, 553, 5s. 9d. Pop. (1801) 1904, (1831) 2415, (1861) 2934, (1871) 2906, (1881) 2929.—Ord. Sur., shs. 2, 4, 1856-57.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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