Revealing the past of Whithorn Priory
16 September 2009
CULTURE MINISTER WELCOMES NEW BOOK IN RAISING AWARENESS OF WHITHORN’S PLACE IN SCOTLAND’S
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
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
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 email@example.com.
- 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
- 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: www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/places.
- 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.
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.
- 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