Discovering St Ninian’s Cave

St Ninian’s Cave in Port Castle Bay is now so visited and revered as a place of pilgrimage it is difficult to imagine that before the excavation of Herbert Maxwell in 1884, almost nothing was known of it.  Mentioned in the Life of St. Ninian and traditionally thought to be his retreat, rock falls and tides of washed up shingle had blocked the entrance and virtually hidden it from view. The cave was rarely visited. Following the path of a Saint such as Ninian, was ended when pilgrimages were banned by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1581.

It was Mrs Mary Maxwell of Carruchan House, near Dumfries who made the first discovery. “By a curious and appropriate fortune, what may possibly be the oldest relic of that church. This was a small Latin cross, deeply punched out of the rock wall of the cave and thickly overgrown with lichen.” Mary Maxwell was in a party of guests of Herbert Maxwell who visited the site of the cave in 1871. That group included the English churchman and academic Dean Stanley of Westminster who went on to include this find in his ‘Lectures on the Church of Scotland’ which he gave the following year.

“We can explore the cave called by his name, which opens from beneath the samphire  covered cliff, undermined by the waves of Glenluce Bay; and on which a rudely carved  cross  still marks the original sanctity of the spot, where, following the practice of  his master, St  Martin of Tours, he may well have retired for his devotions”

Sir Hebert records that “no further traces of Christian work were observed until last year (1883)  when some members of Mr Nicholson in Kidsdale’s family discovered, in or near the  ruined wall which at some period had been built across the mouth of the cave, a stone  bearing two incised crosses. This fresh discovery led to further desultory search by various persons.”   

One of those ‘persons’ was the gamekeeper Andrew Kerr who dug away some of the debris below where Mrs Maxwell had discovered the first cross and exposed two others. Then two carved stone slabs with incised crosses were found. One of these gifted by Mr Johnston Stewart to the Museum of Scottish Antiquities in Edinburgh.

It is possible to read the growing excitement in his “Notice of the Excavations of St Ninian’s Cave” as Maxwell began to explore the cave. “On Monday, 2nd June 1884, in company with  Mr Nicholson and Dr Douglas of Whithorn, I visited the cave, having with me also three working men. At that time the floor of the interior, though perfectly dry, was covered with   rubbish, shingle, ashes of kelp-burning and picnic fires, pigeon and rat droppings, &c. The  wall at the mouth was partly exposed, but much dilapidated. Between the group of incised  crosses and the wall at the mouth of the cave, a distance of 27 feet, lay a huge mass of debris,  earth and rocks, fallen from the cliffs above.“ The mass of debris rising to near the top of the cave entrance can be seen in photographs taken at the time.

Maxwell carefully recorded their progress as they dug their way in along the outer wall leading into the cave. 

In a trench, at times up to 7 feet deep, they found “traces of fires, with wood cinders, bones,  and limpet and whelk shells; showing that this part of the former cave had been occupied before and after successive falls of earth and rocks from the roof.” They finally found the base of a wall built across the cave mouth and to one side a short stone stair leading to a paved floor. Maxwell also uncovered what may have been a stoop for holy water.

While Herbert Maxwell left on a short visit to London, other crosses continued to be discovered and a skeleton was found buried in the outer part of the cave. This has later been suggested as the possible burial of a hermit, who had once lived in the cave.* “Next  day, June 6th, Mr Cochran-Patrick having left, Dr Douglas superintended the removal of the wall. Two stones were found built into it as material, showing that, at all events, the wall was a more modern structure than the date of the original use of the cave as a place of Christian retreat.”

The site was owned by Herbert Maxwell’s brother-in-law, Robert Johnston Stewart and once the excavation was complete, to protect the contents, “Mr Johnston Stewart caused an iron railing with locked gate to be placed across the mouth of the cave.  The carved stones are all deposited inside, and the place now forms an interesting object to  visitors, the key of the gate being kept by Mr Nicholson at Kidsdale.” 

In October 1887, Augustus Pitt-Rivers, Government Inspector of Ancient Monuments, visited the cave with Herbert Maxwell and made sketches of it. Pitt-Rivers added the site to his ‘Schedule of Ancient Monuments’, and the property passed into state care. The gates closing off the cave were in place until the 1960s when the stones were removed to Whithorn Museum.

This building was refurbished 50 years later when 17 stones from St. Ninian’s Cave were displayed in a separate alcove.

In addition to the stone gifted by Johnston Stewart to the Museum of Scottish Antiquities, now the National Museum of Scotland, there are two other crosses from the cave gifted by Herbert Maxwell now in its collection. A recent laser scan has identified a total of 20 crosses on the cave’s south wall although only two are in the section still roofed. Most date from around the ninth century, including the cross first found by Mary Maxwell. Three crosses on the cave wall probably date to the period of the early Celtic church.

The quotations are taken from ‘Notice of the Excavation of St Ninian’s Cave, Parish of Glasserton, Wigtownshire, by Sir Herbert Eustance Maxwell, BART., MP., F.A.S. SCOT.’ The illustrations for it were by the architect William Galloway.

* A later excavation of the cave in 1950, C A Ralegh Radford found the disturbed and undated burials of an elderly adult and two children.

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