The venerated bones of St Ninian were entombed in Whithorn Cathedral and over the centuries countless pilgrims travelled to see and touch them. In the early 1500’s, James IV ensured the safekeeping of the Saints’s arm bone by paying for a silver reliquary to be made for it. Following the Reformation this reliquary was taken to the Scots Seminary at Douai in France where it remained until the Revolution in 1789. From that date to the present day, all trace of the Saint’s historic arn relic appears to have been lost.
But another reliquary, which almost certainly is from Whithorn, survives.
This gold reliquary was purchased by the British Museum in 1946. Its lettering and design date it from the last quarter of the 12th Century. It is only 5cm in diameter and is 3cm deep. The front has three small fragments from the True Cross surrounded by sea pearls and covered with a domed block of crystal, acting as a magnifying glass. The reverse was covered by a gold disc with small settings intended to hold relics. On the edging band is an inscription listing the Saints whose fragments of bone are carried in the settings.
SE XPSTI – NINIANI – ANDRE EX MAURIS – GEORGII – MERG’ – D’NOR’ – FERG
– BO NEF – SE MARIE
The list begins with the True Cross and ends with the Virgin Mary, giving Christ and His Mother the place of honour. The second place on the list is held by St Ninian indicating that the reliquary was made for a church connected with the Saint. This is reinforced by the inclusion of Saint Norbet (D’NOR), the founder of the Order of Premonstratension canons. Whithorn was the most important centre in Scotland of this Order. St Fergus was a Pictish Bishop of the 8th century and this would point to the rebuilding of Whithorn Cathedral by Fergus, Lord of Galloway, who may have commissioned the reliquary and would have wished to see a relic of the Saint, whose name he bore, included. The other saints listed are St George, St Margaret and St Boniface.
The reliquary has recently gone on show in the new Medieval Room in the British Museum.
The magnificent reliquary was returned, briefly to its home and loaned to the Whithorn Trust for exhibition.
First Published October 2009