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Revealing the past of Whithorn Priory

16 September 2009


The Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, Michael Russell, has welcomed a new book from Historic Scotland which offers fascinating insights into the later medieval history of Scotland’s Cradle of Christianity.

Clothing For The Soul Divine – Excavations at Whithorn Priory details the results of historical and scientific analysis of the remains discovered in high-status graves at Whithorn Priory, following recent rediscovery of the original excavation records.

MSP Michael Russell said: “This latest research has been tremendously important in revealing more about the importance of Whithorn as a centre of Christianity during the later middle ages.  I hope it will further our efforts to raise awareness of the area’s role in Scotland’s history, and encourage yet more people to visit a region which has so much to offer.

“Whithorn is celebrated as the Cradle of Christianity, thanks to a religious tradition that dates back to the 5th century.  But its later role as a centre of pilgrimage and worship in the later medieval period is equally fascinating, and thanks to this book, is better understood than ever before.”

Superbly researched and beautifully illustrated, the book is the result of detailed work by some of Scotland’s leading experts in late medieval history and archaeology.

The discoveries it discusses were made in the 1950s and 60s during excavations by the predecessor body to Historic Scotland of an area near the high altar.

Since then there have been important advances in research techniques which meant that further post-excavation analysis could be carried out – and this was done in 2006, fully funded by Historic Scotland.

The research revealed a great deal of new information – allowing the identification of some of those whose remains had been found.
Among them were several medieval bishops of Whithorn from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Bone isotope analysis has made it possible to discover where some of the people had come from, learn about their diets and even health problems.

The results from the high status burials of bishops, priests and patrons, are in stark contrast of those from an earlier group of burials of ordinary folk.

Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland head of cultural resources, said: “The excavations at Whithorn Priory were incredibly important as they are the only modern excavations to have discovered the remains of high-ranking churchmen the analysis of which has provided fascinating insights into their lives and deaths.”

“This is the largest group of such individuals ever investigated in the UK.  Thanks to the quality of the work carried out at the time and the care taken to ensure that all the materials from the excavation were kept safe by the National Museums of Scotland we were able to subject the artefacts and skeletons to new analysis using more advanced technology and techniques.   The results have been fabulous and mean that the complete story of one of Scotland’s great lost excavations can now be told.”

Much of the research was undertaken by Christopher Lowe and Kirsty Dingwall of Headland Archaeology.  The new book presents for the first time the full collection of finds and artefacts discovered at the priory.  Some of the graves which were excavated were richly furnished with silver gilt altar plate and the discoveries included the famous Whithorn Crozier.

The priory and its surrounds have been a major focus for Christian settlement and worship for over 1,500 years. The cathedral priory, in the care of Historic Scotland and its predecessors for just over 100 years, was built in the 12th century and its church became the cathedral of the bishops of Galloway.  

A remarkable collection of early carved stones, displayed in the Historic Scotland museum at the site, shows that Christians lived and worshipped in the area as far back as the 5th century.  Whithorn is traditionally held to be the site of the country’s first church, which many believe to have been founded by St Ninian in the 5th century.   

As Christianity at Whithorn predates the appearance of the faith at Iona by a century, Whithorn is correctly styled as the ‘Cradle of Christianity’.

Visitors can still follow the route taken by medieval pilgrims to visit the site of the tomb of St Ninian located in the crypt of the Priory.

Notes for editors

  • Priced £24.95, Clothing For The Soul Divine – Excavations at Whithorn Priory is 196 pages, hardback and fully illustrated, and can be bought online through Historic Scotland’s website at

  • The official launch of the book takes place at the annual Whithorn Lecture at 6pm on Saturday 19th September at Whithorn Primary School, where Peter Yeoman from Historic Scotland will talk on the Archaeology of the Bishops of Whithorn.

  • A reception to promote awareness of Whithorn is being hosted at the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday 16th September by The Whithorn Trust which runs a visitor centre next to the priory.

  • Historic Scotland will be represented at the event and copies of the book will be on show.

  • The reception will follow a debate on a  parliamentary motion designed to gain greater recognition to the historical importance of Whithorn.

  • Whithorn Priory is at Whithorn, in Dumfries and Galloway, on the A746. Call 01988 500700. Admission: adult £3.70, child £1.85, concessions £2.70.

  • There is also the ‘Whithorn Story’ Visitor Centre.

  • Whithorn Priory is one of 345 heritage properties and sites in the care of Historic Scotland.  Ranging from prehistoric dwellings to medieval castles, and from cathedrals to industrial buildings, these include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country. Among the most popular are Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart Castles, Skara Brae, and the Border Abbeys.  (For further details visit:

  • Historic Scotland’s mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

  • Historic Scotland is delighted to be supporting the 2009 Year of Homecoming with a series of initiatives including family trails, spectacular events and the creation of a Homecoming Pass for heritage attractions in association with other heritage organisations.

Case study

When archaeologists of the 1950s discovered a skeleton in what was once the holiest location in Whithorn Priory church, in Galloway, they knew it must have belonged to an important churchman. The question was who?

At that time the scientific techniques were not available to take the issue further. More recent researchers believed that the most obvious person was Bishop John who died in 1209 after two decades in the job and at the ripe old age – for the times – of 55+. After all, John had presided over impressive extensions to the church and it was right and proper that he would have been buried in the most honoured position. Indeed, he would have been likely to have reserved it for his own use well in advance. It would have been a fitting end to a career that probably saw him start out  as a royal clerk to King Henry II of England, who was consecrated at Pipewell Abbey in Northamptonshire, and later moved north.

But Carbon 14 dating now suggests the skeleton is actually that of Bishop Henry who died some decades later in 1293. Experts still believe that the carefully-crafted stone lined grave was originally occupied by John, but that his remains may have been moved elsewhere. Our medieval ancestors were not squeamish about reusing the graves of the great if there was someone else who they subsequently felt deserved high honour. Bishop Henry, who restored parts of the priory after damage by troops in a local feud of 1286, was just such a man. Historical documents show that he was previously abbot of Holyrood, in Edinburgh, but was awarded the Whithorn see in 1253 where he had an extraordinarily long reign of 40 years. This is all the more remarkable as he was, by modern standards, middle aged by the time he became bishop and lived to 80+.

Finds associated with the burial include brocade threads, a silver chalice, a carved wooden crozier head (probably once painted silver or gold) and a gold ring. While the bishop appears to have gone to his grave in full vestments and with fine ornaments and jewellery, his old age was probably dogged by pain. Analysis of the skull shows that he suffered tooth abcesses and had a benign brain tumour.

Other finds

  • Ritchie’s excavation revealed a number of other skeletons. Eight were much deeper and had been covered over when the priory extension was built by Bishop John. Analysis showed that they were buried not long before the construction took place – suggesting the building covered part of an existing graveyard. Bone analysis showed they were probably relatively ordinary folk as their diets had not been of the same richness as that of the bishops.

  • The group of ten graves which included the bishops also contained one belonging to an unknown priest who died around 1220. Two sets of female remains were also found. These burials were close to the walls of the church, allowing the possibility for ornate wall tombs and even effigies to have existed. One came from around 1270 and the other from about 1330. While their identities are unknown they were almost certainly ladies of considerable importance in the region.

  • Many of the graves contained items which helped identify the deceased. Every effort was made to send the bishops to their graves looking splendid – but in some cases appearances were at odds with the reality. Expensive and intricate items like crozier heads were sometimes replaced with carved wooden replicas, probably painted to look metallic.

  • The bishop’s graves were of two kinds. In some cases they were buried in wooden coffins, while others were of stone-lined chambers, with specially rounded ends to hold their heads.

For further information

Rebecca Hamilton
Marketing and Media Manager
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871