Saint Ninian

The Scottish journal Innes Review is a rich treasure-trove of information on early medieval studies. Many of its articles feature research at the cutting edge of scholarship, written by authors who are not afraid of upsetting some long-established applecarts.

One article that springs to mind is a detailed study of Ninian by Thomas Owen Clancy, who proposes that this controversial saint should be identified as the sixth-century cleric Finnian of Movilla. Clancy constructs a picture of Finnian as a Briton who founded churches and monasteries in Ireland and Scotland, the most famous of these being at Whithorn in Galloway. The original British form of the saint’s name was Uinniau which became Finnian among speakers of Irish Gaelic. Clancy suggests that the name was further amended by English clerics at Whithorn in the eighth century, who devised the “literary” form Ninian in order to promote the site as a cult centre through the medium of hagiography.

The traditional or conventional view of Ninian is that he founded Whithorn in the fifth century and undertook missionary work further north in Pictland. Clancy exposes the flaws in this view and pushes Ninian/Uinniau into the mid-500s, to a time that provides a better fit with Whithorn’s archaeology. Mysterious old tales of Irish monks studying there during the sixth century thus find a plausible context, as too does the reference to the British king Tudwal who might have been the Tudwal who ruled at Dumbarton in c.570. In fact, even a brief perusal of Clancy’s argument is likely to make anyone question the notion of a fifth-century Ninian. Having read John MacQueen’s seminal study Saint Nynia and having noted the more recent work of Alan Macquarrie and Dauvit Broun I now believe that the matter of Ninian is finally settled. Clancy’s article offers a “best fit” for this enigmatic figure’s place in history.

Thomas Owen Clancy, ‘The real Saint Ninian’. Innes Review 52 (2001), pp.1-28.

John MacQueen, St Nynia. Revised edition (Edinburgh: 1990).

Dauvit Broun, ‘The literary record of St Nynia: fact and fiction?’ Innes Review 42 (1991), pp.143-50.

Alan Macquarrie, ‘The date of St Ninian’s mission: a reappraisal’. Records of the Scottish Church History Society 23 (1987), pp.1-25.

Alan Macquarrie, The saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish church history, AD 450-1093 (Edinburgh: 1997).

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One comment on “Saint Ninian

  1. […] of later territory inadequate to replace the simpler understanding of the text on this occasion), we do not believe in St Ninian at all any more and we have moved a substantial part of Pictland to the north of the Mounth rather than south of […]

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