Friday, 16 September 2011

Saintly Miracles, Royalty - and Leeks!

Watercolour copy of a wall painting of St Ninian found in a church
at St Congan, Scotland in 1861. 
Today is the Feast of St Ninian, about whom myths and legends abound, but firm facts are few and far between.  Like many other early saints even his name is in doubt: he is also known as Ringan or Trynnian, and may really be St Finnian of Moville, given the wrong name due to an error on the part of an ancient scribe. Anyway, he has been St Ninian for more than 1,500 years, so as far as I am concerned that’s who he is!

His plant symbol is southernwood, a type of artemesia which is also called lad’s love, and traditionally on this day country lads used to present bunches of southernwood to their sweethearts. In Scotland the leaves were pressed in Bibles to perfume them, and  it’s common name is apple-ringie, which some experts think could mean St Ringan’s (or St Ninian’s) Wood, or even ‘pray to St Ninian’.  An old strewing herb, it has antiseptic properties and keeps insects and moths away. 
Whithorn Priory, Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland 
Wikimedia Commons
St Ninian is said to have brought Christianity to Scotland in the late 4th and early 5th centuries - long before Columba arrived on the scene – and established a church at Whithorn, in Galloway, which became known as the cradle of Scottish Christianity and was a major shrine after his death. Some 300 years later the Venerable Bede briefly mentions Ninian in A History of the English Church and People, describing him as ‘a most reverend and holy man of the British race’  who had been ‘regularly instructed in the mysteries of the Christian faith in Rome’.

Stained glass in 
 the Whithorn Story 
 by Richard LeClerk, 
a copy of a Douglas Strachan 
window in 
Edinburgh Castle.
A 9th century poem, Miracula Nyniae Episcopi , describes some of the miracles attributed  to Ninian, while in the middle of the 12th century Ailred of Rievaulx wrote the Vita Sancti Niniani (A Life of St Ninian), which he claimed was based on earlier records. According to Ailred Ninian was the son of a Christian King, was consecrated a bishop in Rome, then in Tours (on his return to Britain), met St Martin who sent stone masons with him to build a church. Ninian is also said to have used a nearby cave as a retreat, where he could retire from the world when he needed peace for contemplation and prayer.

As for the miracles, he cured a blind king (allegedly) and proved a priest was not responsible for a pregnant girl pregnant by making the unborn baby speak to reveal the true father. He also brought back to life a man who had been gored by a bull, and solved a food shortage by making leeks appear in a garden – apparently, he planted seeds which ripened within hours. And there is a charming story that as the saint walked along reading Psalms God protected him (and the book) from the rain. However, one day he had an ‘unlawful thought’ and the divine protection vanished – but reappeared when he returned to his usual virtuous thoughts! 
Carved oak 14th century figure
 of a bishop found near Whithorn
 and thought to be St Ninian. 
According to Ailred, after Ninian’s death there were miraculous cures at his shrine: lepers were made well, a blind girl regained her sight, and a man found his skin disease disappeared when he prayed there. The shrine was housed in cathedral built on the site of his own church at Whithorn, and became a place of pilgrimage for rich and poor alike. In the 14th  century Robert the Bruce prayed (unsuccessfully) to be cured of leprosy, and in the 16th century Mary Queen of Scots went there, as her father James V did before her, and her grandfather James IV before that.

 The Cathedral is now a ruin but modern pilgrims still make the journey to Whithorn and St Ninian's cave, seeking peace and healing just as folk have done since St Ninian himself first decided to bring the word of God to the pagan Picts in the lawless lands north of Hadrian’s Wall.

I think we should pause for a moment and reflect on the legend of St Ninian (whether that was his true name or not). Then you could mark his day by sending flowers to a loved one, or plant southernwood in the garden, or make leek and potato soup or a leek and potato bake (soften sliced leeks in butter, parboil sliced potatoes, drain, tip into a dish, add home-made cheese sauce, grate cheese over the top, bung it in the oven until it’s golden brown and bubbling)... failing all else, cake and wine will suffice.
St Ninian's Cross


  1. we could drive along Ninian Way in Wilnecote...

  2. True... I'd forgotten about that... but it's always busy and I don't like driving. but I do like eating...


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