The dates of Ninian’s life, and the exact extent of his missionary work are uncertain and disputed. The earliest extant, and possibly the best, account is the brief one given by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People:
“The southern Picts, who live on this side of the mountains, are said to have abandoned the errors of idolatry long before this date [the arrival of Columba among the northern Picts in 565] and accepted the true Faith through the preaching of Bishop Ninian, a most reverend and holy man of British race, who had been regularly instructed in the mysteries of the Christian Faith in Rome. Ninian’s own episcopal see, named after Saint Martin and famous for its stately church, is now held by the English, and it is here that his body and those of many saints lie at rest. The place belongs to the province of Bernicia and is commonly known as Candida Casa, the White House, because he built the church of stone, which was unusual among the Britons.”
Ninian was a Romanized Briton, born in the latter half of the fourth century. He died about the year 430, less than a decade after the departure of the last of the Roman legions from Britain. Bede writes that he was educated in Rome, where he is supposed to have been ordained to the episcopate. But the main influence on his life was Martin of Tours, with whom he spent some time, and from whom he gained his ideals of an episcopal-monastic structure designed for missionary work.
About the time of Martin’s death in 397, Ninian established his episcopal see and missionary base at a place called Candida Casa (the White House, or Whithorn) in what is now Galloway, in southern Scotland. This region would in time become part of the northern British kingdom of Rheged, whose most famous king, Urien, figures in Arthurian tales. Ninian dedicated the church at Candida Casa to Martin. Traces of place names and church dedications suggest that his work covered the Solway Plain and the Lake District of England (regions of the later kingdom of Rheged). According to Bede, Ninian also converted many of the Picts of what is now central Scotland and by tradition may have evangelized as far north as the Moray Firth, among the northern Picts.
Ninian, together with Patrick, is one of the links of continuity between the ancient Romano-British Church and the developing Celtic Church in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980), with additions
O God, by the preaching of your blessed servant and bishop Ninian you caused the light of the Gospel to shine in the land of Britain: Grant, we pray, that having his life and labors in remembrance we may show our thankfulness by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Ninian, Bishop in Galloway, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The icon of Saint Ninian was written by and is © Aidan Hart, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.