Whithorn, pp.802-805.

[Gazetteer of Scotland Contents]

   WHITHORN, a parish in the district of Machers, Wigtonshire. It is bounded on the north by Sorbie; on the east by Sorbie and the sea; on the south by the sea; and on the west by Glasserton. Its greatest length from north to south is 8 miles; its greatest breadth is 4; its mean breadth is only about 2; and its superficial extent is about 10,000 imperial acres. In the extreme south is Burrowhead, the slowly rounded headland which separates the two gulfs or bays of Luce and Wigton, and the most southerly ground of the district of Machers. The coast of the headland and its vicinity is rocky and precipitous, occasionally perforated with deep caves, and generally rising to a height of 200 feet. The coast-line extends from Burrowhead on the west or south-west only 1½ mile, and is there an almost straight line of cliff, but a degree less bold than at the extremity; but, on the east side of the parish, it extends 5¼ miles, is still, though mitigatedly, rugged and bold, runs out into the little promontories of Port-Yarrock-head and Stun-head, and admits the little bays of Isle of Whithorn, Port-Allan, and Port-Yarrock: see ISLE OF WHITHORN and PORT-ALLAN. From Port-Yarrock round Burrowhead the tide flows close along the shore 3 hours and ebbs 9. Three streamlets have sufficient water-power to drive each a corn-mill a little before passing into the sea. The surface of the parish has the broken, knolly, tumulated appearance which characterizes so much of Wigtonshire, – an expanse of hillocks and little hollows, scratched and freckled with protruding rock, and extensively scurvied with such briefs and other coarse brushwood as form a miserable apology for the general absence of wood. Forest stretches out to some extent round the mansion of Castlewigg, and a few groups and files of trees elsewhere look up from the surface; but they are far from relieving the parish of an irksome and 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 acres and a small aggregate extent of little bogs, the whole area is in tillage. Some of the bogs produce turf-fuel, and others contain beds of shell-marl. Near Burrowhead are found what the Old Statistical Account calls “very fine variegated marble and strong slate.” Copper has been found in some large pieces, and in a small disturbed vein; but has never been searched for to an extent which could justify an opinion as to the probable results of regularly mining it. The prevailing rocks are transition or silurian. Castlewigg, the seat of Hugh Hathorn, Esq., situated 2 miles north-west of the burgh, is a venerable old castle, vividly picturing by association the state and hospitality of the old Scottish barons, and looking down to Wigton-bay, and over a low though tumulated country, extensive enough to give the best effect to an imposing chain of mountains, which are joined by woods running along their base, and washed by the river Cree. Tonderghie-house, the seat of Hugh D. Stewart, Esq., situated in the extreme south-west, is a handsome modern mansion, commanding a splendid marine view, screened in the far distance by the coast of England and the Isle of Man. 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 south-east; a third, less traceable, but seemingly about the extent of the second, occurs on a cliff still farther south-east; and a fourth, whose vestiges lie dispersed over three crowns, surmounts the bold brow of Burrowhead. All these look out to the Isle of Alan, and probably were erected to defend the country from the descents of the Scandinavians during the sea-roving period of their possessing that island. Remains of a Roman camp exist about ¾ of a mile west of the burgh; and though greatly defaced, are distinct enough to leave no doubt of its having been Roman, and a castra statira. The only village, as well as the only noticeable port, is Isle-of-Whithorn. Though the burgh is what a colloquial phrase calls “a one-eyed town,” it sends out sufficient radiations of road to the limited territory of the parish, and to places at a distance. Population, in 1801, 1,904; in 1831, 2,415. Houses 418. Population, in 1841, 2,719. Assessed property, in 1815, £11,698. – Whithorn is in the presbytery of Wigton, and synod of Galloway. Patron, the Crown. Stipend £246 15s. 9d.; glebe £15. Unappropriated teinds £47 16s. 3d. The parish-church, a neat and commodious structure, was built in 1822. In the parish, and situated in the burgh, are three places of worship belonging respectively to United Seceders, to Reformed Presbyterians, and to Roman Catholics. In 1834, two parochial schools were attended by 122 scholars; and seven private schools by 210. The ancient church belonged to the prior and canons of Whithorn, and was served by a vicar pensioner. In 1606, it was granted to the bishops of Galloway, with the other property of the priory; in 1641, it was transferred to the university of Glasgow; in 1661, it was restored to the bishops of Galloway; and, at the abolition of Episcopacy in 1689, it was vested in the Crown. Besides the ancient chapel noticed in the article Isle-of-Whithorn, one called Octoun Chapel, stood on lands of Octoun, now corrupted into Aughton, and has bequeathed to its site 1½ mile north of the burgh the name of Chapel-Aughton. 

   WHITHORN, a royal burgh situated near the centre of the parish to which it gives name, stands 11 miles south of Wigton, 18 south of Newton-Stewart, 32 east-south-east of Stranraer, 40 east by south of Portpatrick, 97½ south of Glasgow, and 115¾ south-south-west of Edinburgh, It consists of a principal street, ¾ of a mile in length, and extending north and south; a. cross or transverse street, near the middle, of about 400 yards in length; a divergent street, at the south end, of about 200 yards in length; and one or two very brief and unimportant alleys. The principal street makes two considerable bends from the straight line; is very narrow for upwards of 300 yards at the north end; is split for a brief way into two thoroughfares toward the south end, and possesses needless and vacant spaciousness over several hundred yards toward the middle. The houses are slated, and, according to the notions which prevailed at the dates of their erection, were originally commodious; but they entirely want regularity of plan, and aggregately suggest – what accords with fact – the idea of an altogether stagnant and probably decaying ancient town. A beautiful little stream of water, spanned at the place by a good bridge, runs across the main street, and cuts it into nearly equal parts. On the west side of the main street, a little south of the cross street, stand the town-house and jail, adorned with a spire and turrets, and provided with a set of bells. In the churchyard, on a rising ground at the west end of the cross street, are some remains of the priory of Whithorn, afterwards to be noticed, sculptured with the arms of Scotland and those of the bishops of Galloway. These consist of a Saxon arch, some Gothic arches, and several large vaults. The Saxon arch is a pure specimen of that ancient and beautiful style of architecture, continues very nearly entire, and is greatly admired as probably the finest object of its class in the kingdom. – Whithorn, laconically say the Burgh-commissioners, “has no trade or manufactures, and there is no prospect of increase.” Yet it possesses certain marketing and trading appurtenances which indicate a state of things not quite so bad as this language might seem to announce. It has branch-offices of the bank of Scotland and the Southern bank; an office of the Aberdeen Fire and Life insurance company; a savings’ bank; five or six times more inns and public-houses than even relaxed ideas of temperance can regard as requisite for health and business; a cattle-market every month except February and March; and two annual fairs respectively at Midsummer and at Lammas. One mail-coach is daily in transit to communicate with Stranraer, and another to communicate with Newton-Stewart. The Galloway steamer occasionally touches at the Isle of Whithorn – the port of the burgh – on her trips between Stranraer and Liverpool. – Whithorn is governed by a provost, 2 bailies, and 15 councillors. The old royalty comprehended only the principal street, and a border of ground behind it on each side; but the parliamentary boundaries now include a considerable tract of adjacent ground, – all within the parish of Whithorn. In 1833, the combined property and revenue of the burgh produced an annual income of £153 8s. In 1839-40, the revenue amounted to £230 11s. The whole debt consists of a borrowed public fund which originated about 1754 in small contributions for the benefit of poor councillors and their families, and which amounts to £403, is called the Contribution Fund, and bears annual interest at 4 per cent. The expenditure of the burgh is generally equal to the free income, and in some years has exceeded it. There are no burghal taxes; no assessments for the poor; no guildry; no incorporated trades; no exactions of fee for leave to trade within the boundaries. The magistrates exercise very trifling jurisdiction; they rarely try civil causes; and they interfere with criminal matters only to the extent of breaches of the peace. Whithorn unites with Wigton, Stranraer, and New Galloway, in sending a member to parliament. Constituency, in 1837, both municipal and parliamentary, 50; in 1841, 54. Population, in 1831, 1,300; in 1841, 1,513. 

   Whithorn boasts a very high antiquity, and early and prolonged importance. As a royal burgh, indeed, it seems to have had its earliest charter from King Robert Bruce, and it rests its appeal upon a confirmatory charter given in 1571 by James IV.; but as simply a seat of population, and as the scene of stir and of highly modelling influences among early and successive races of Scotland’s colonists, it figures among the few places which were prominent many centuries before most of our present great towns had even an embryo existence. It was the capital of the British tribe of Novantes, who possessed all Galloway west of the river Dee; and, on the influx and ascendency of the Romans, it was adopted by that people as a station. Ptolemy mentions it under the name of Leucophibia, supposed to be a corruption of the Greek Λευκ’ oικιδια, ‘the White-house.’ Ninian, a simple Christian missionary, and not improbably the earliest who made any marked impression upon Scotland, but a man whose character was transmuted by the monkish romancing of a subsequent age into that of a popish or papisticated saint, and the events of whose life were all but utterly enveloped in a dense mist of thaumaturgical fable, – Ninian was born in the vicinity of Leucophibia, about the year 365; and obtaining a knowledge of the gospel where or how we know not, though probably among the un-Arianised and non-Catholic sects of the continent, of Europe, he spent the vigour of his life in successful efforts to plant Christianity in the region of his natal soil. He commenced his labours in the islet, whence the modern village of the Isle of Whithorn has its name, and probably founded there what tradition asserts to have been the first place of Christian worship in North Britain; and, then removing to Leucophibia, he founded there an edifice which seems to have been speedily occupied by a Christian congregation, and which became, in 432, the burial-place of his own mortal remains. This simple building, as much perhaps as any one known to record, is usually exhibited to posterity boldly, and with all multiplicity, through the kaleidoscope of such historiography as was proper to the cell of cowled dreamers. Ninian, we are told, was ordained at Rome the bishop of the Britons, and erected the edifice at Leucophibia as the cathedral of Caledonia; yet having taken lessons in monkery from Martin of Tours, he assumed his preceptor to be already canonized, and dedicated the cathedral to him as its tutelary saint! This – as every person knows, who has looked soberly into the ecclesiastical history of the 4th and 5th centuries – stands self-convicted as outrageous fiction. While popery reigned, however, the fable, like many a clumsier one, was not only believed but venerated, and occasioned the place to be regarded as the oldest prelatic seat, and one of the chief retreats of physical sacredness in Scotland. Bede emphatically notices the humble edifice of Ninian as the first church which was built of stone, and says that, on that account, it was called Candida Casa. But the name Candida Casa means, in the Roman language, the same thing which the previously-known designation of the town means in the Greek, and probably was a Roman translation of Λευκ’ oικιδια, applied, not to the new Christian edifice, but to the Roman station, or station of the Romanized Britons, at which it stood. Even Candida Casa was, in its turn, translated into the Saxon Hwit-œrn, which has been corrupted successively into Whithern and Whithorn, and which, in that form, has transmitted to the present day the originally used designation, the ‘White House,’ of the aboriginal Novantes. Keith asserts that Ninian appointed a person to succeed him in his alleged bishopric, and refers us for his authority to words or passages in Bede which have no existence. Ninian, even in his true character of a plain missionary and Christian pastor, appears to have had no local successor for several generations. The weakness of the civil power, the irruptions of barbarous tribes, and the infantile condition of the congregation whom the missionary had formed, prevented, so far can be ascertained, any second Christian labourer from settling at Candida Casa till the year 723, – nearly three centuries after Ninian’s death. The Saxons, on pushing their conquests hither, adopted the place as a seat of population, and, of course, as the scene of a Christian minister’s labours. Yet ingenuity will be at a premium to prove either that the house of worship used was the edifice founded by Ninian, or that the ‘bishops’ who officiated were more than the slightly prelatised offshoot of the Culdees who took root in the kingdoms of Northumbria and Strathclyde. A succession of Saxon bishops, proximately though corruptedly Culdee in character, seem to have officiated in Candida Casa about three-fourths of a century; but seem to have been dislodged by the anarchy which swept across the Northumbrian territories after the assassination of Ethelred in 794. The Scoto-Irish, who now obtained ascendency in Galloway, appear to have known, or at least recognised, nothing respecting a bishopric of Candida Casa; yet they professed Christianity, and, had the place been a see in any sense even remotely akin to that contended for in the usual monkish style of ecclesiastical history, they could scarcely have failed to set up their series of bishops as formally and distinctly as the Saxons. But about the year 1124, or from that to 1130, nearly 3½ centuries after the disappearance of the Saxon ‘bishops’ of Candida Casa, forth came David I. warm in the blush of championship for the pomp and prelacy and papacy of Romanism, and set up at Whithorn an undoubted episcopal see, which, under the wide name of the bishopric of Galloway, held coeval sway with that of popery and of Stuart prelacy till the final triumph of presbyterianism in 1689. This bishopric comprehended the whole of Wigtonshire, and by far the greater part of Kirkcudbrightshire, or all of it lying west 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, Wigton, and Kirkcudbright. Gilla Aldan or Gilaldan, the first bishop, was consecrated by the archbishop of York; and his successors looked to that arch-prelate 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 Argyle, 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 Galloway see, their prior standing next in rank to the bishop; but they appear to have been sometimes thwarted in their elections, and counter-worked in their power, by the secular clergy and the people of the country. The revenues of the bishopric, which had previously been small, were, in the beginning of the 16th century, 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 £1,357 4s. 2d. Though the revenues were in a great measure dispersed between the Reformation and James VI.’s revival of episcopacy, and though they again suffered diminution in 1619 by the disseverment of the deanery of the chapel-royal, in order to its being conferred on the see of Dunblane; 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 Dumfries-shire, which had belonged to the monks of Kelso. At the epoch of the Revolution, the nett rent amounted to £5,634 15s. Scottish; and exceeded that of any other see in Scotland, except the archbishoprics of St. Andrews and Glasgow. 

   During the reign of David I., Fergus, Lord of Galloway, founded, at Whithorn, a priory for canons of the Premonstratensian order. The church belonging to it – and neither the original nor a renovation of the edifice founded by St. Ninian – seems, from its size, to have been used as the cathedral-church of the bishopric, set up by David I. Adjoining the cathedral stood another church, called the Outer-kirk, or the Cross-kirk; and at some distance on the hill stood the chapel. In the cathedral and in the Outer-kirk were various altars, the offerings made at which, during ages of intense superstition and ceremonious formalism, formed the principal revenue of the priory. Excepting that of Morice, who swore fealty to Edward I. in 1296, the names of none of the early priors of Whithorn have survived. James Beaton or Bethune, who was prior during some time before the year 1504, and uncle of the infamous Cardinal Beaton, whom he acquired influence to place in his chair of ignominious tyranny at St. Andrews, 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. Though he had the honour, such as it was, of making elegant alterations on the cathedral of Glasgow, and of founding St. Mary’s college in St. Andrews, he must be ever infamous in Scotland as the murderer of Patrick Hamilton, and other early Scottish martyrs, and for setting the bold example of truculent oppression, which was so fearfully copied by his sanguinary though ill-fated nephew. Gavin Dunbar, who succeeded Beaton as 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. The last prior, Mancolalyne, was present at the trial of Sir John Borthwick in St. Andrew’s for alleged heresy. At the epoch of the Reformation the rental of the priory, as reported to Government, amounted to £1,016 3s. 4d. Scottish, besides upwards of 15 chalders of bear, 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. 

   The canons of Whithorn, however individually shrouded from the knowledge of posterity, collectively loom largely in fame as adepts in the art of monkish chicanery. Pilgrimages, at all times and by all classes of persons, from a short period after the founding of the priory onward, 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 additional retinue; he made offerings in the churches, at the altars, and at the reputed saintly relics of Whithorn; he gave donations to priests, to minstrels, and to pilgrims, and, through his almoner, to the poor; and, 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 processed in a style of regal pomp. In 1513, the Old Earl of Angus, Bell-the-Cat, made a pilgrimage to Whithorn; engaging before he set out, to reform all disorders on his way. In 1532 and 1533, James V. appears from the treasurer’s accounts to have made several pilgrimages. So infatuatedly popular, in fact, was the practice of travelling to the reputed bones of St, Ninian’s in quest of both physical and spiritual good, that, in spite of all which the preachers could inculcate 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 overthrow of the traffic of monkery, and the extinction of the factitious attractions of St. Ninian ‘s shrine, terminated the social importance of Whithorn, and permanently consigned it to comparative obscurity. 

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