Sacred Places Journal
3 October, 2001: Whithorn: Homage Springs Eternal
We ask our bed-and-breakfast hostess about foot-and-mouth disease. "Oh, yes, we had it here on this farm," she says.
"Did you lose many?"
"Oh, too many to tell you. Aye, we were wiped out."
We gasp at the awfulness.
"But we're starting up again next Wednesday," she says, brightening. "One hundred forty head of holstein cows."
"Holstein-that's what I grew up with!" We share an affectionate smile.
Following the Whithorn Pilgrim Way, we turn into the approach to Ninian's Cave and are stopped by "Foot and Mouth" warning signs, even though our hostess had told us the ban was lifted three weeks ago.
School children studying Early Christians add rocks to the Cairn
We go instead to the Witness Cairn on the other side of the peninsula, where we meet a party of forty-one 9- and 10-year-old school children studying early Christians. One little girl approaches the cairn quietly and folds her hands in prayer. Their teacher introduces us to the class, "These ladies are from America. They are writing a book about the blessed Saint Ninian. So you've met someone famous today." They all smile and say, "Hullo." We wave. The teacher advises us to call MAF-the Ministry of Agriculture and Farming-for permission to go to the cave. The children place stones on the cairn and run off. "Ian, don't run! This is a holy place. Remember St. Ninian, he wouldn't have run." (I rather suspect he would have.)
The sign at the Witness Cairn, established by Glasgow Churches Together and Churches Together in Scotland, reads:
The Witness Cairn - a symbol of enduring heritage and hope for the future
Celebrating St. Ninian 397-1997
Dear visitor/pilgrim, you are invited to add your own stone to this cairn as a symbol of an act of witness which you have completed or which you now pledge.
I place a stone and go on to St. Ninian's Chapel up the hill. This ruined chapel was probably built around 1300 and replaced an earlier one. It provided for the community at the port and for pilgrims travelling to the shrine of St. Ninian. The pilgrims landed in the harbour below and walked the three miles to Whithorn, stopping here to give thanks for their safe arrival. "The great hardships suffered by those pilgrims are an example of an intensely God-fearing people," the sign says.
This is an amazing spot, on a green windy bluff over the harbour and with the blue waters of the Solway crashing in sprays of white foam on the dark rocks below. I can't imagine what it must have been like arriving from distant lands in a tiny sailing ship.
We continue our quest for permission to approach the cave, which requires crossing a farm where there was a case of foot and mouth. We ask at the information office. Permission must be obtained from the farmer, it seems. They give us the number. "It was awful here," the information officer says. "There was only one herd in the whole area that wasn't wiped out. They burned them just out here behind us-great black clouds of smoke. There was nowhere you could go that you couldn't smell it."
St. Ninian's Chapel where pilgrims from the sea gave thanks for a safe journey.
It would be best to have our bed-and-breakfast hostess call, we are advised. She isn't at home, so we set out through beautiful farmland, in search of the Torhouse stone circle. Here and there a gold leaf drifts down on us.
Beside the road we find the ring or recumbent stones, unusual in this part of Scotland, and one of the best-preserved in Britain. The circle of 19 dumpy, granite boulders was built in the Bronze Age, some 4,000 years ago, for religious ceremonial purposes. Probably laid out in relation to the midwinter sunrise.
From the perspective of the Torhouse stones, St. Ninian is a newcomer, and the Wigtown martyrs are our contemporaries. This is an area where people have cared passionately about matters of faith from time immemorial.
After several enquiries and a series of phone calls, we are told that permission is not given to visit the cave. Nor is it denied. With that left-handed pass from a person in authority who asks not to be identified, we set out down the 1-1/2 mile deeply wooded path: Stands of tall, slim aspens, banks of fern and a rhubarb-like plant with leaves ten feet wide border the path.
We meet our school children again, beaming in their red shirts. We envy their sensible wellies. They have also brought their own foot disinfectant.
The cave by tradition served as Ninian's retreat. He traveled here frequently from Whithorn to be alone with his thoughts and prayers, as so many of the holy men of the early church sought rugged solitude.
Medieval pilgrims to the shrine of Ninian as early as the eighth century left stone crosses, some carved on loose stones, others cut onto the walls of the cave.
In spite of some concern about the rising tide I sink onto a shelf of rock wall and eat my bacon butty saved from breakfast. The school children have adorned the cave with crosses fashioned from sticks, feathers and stones. I find two pieces of wood and make one of my own.
Back across the shingle, we note that, incredibly, wildflowers and blackberries grow out of the barren rock piles. Here, too, people have built cairns on the beach. The urge within humanity to pay homage, to express deep religious feelings, springs eternal.