Scheduled Monument

Whithorn Priory, monastic settlement and priorySM12992

Status: Designated

Documents

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Summary

Date Added
01/02/1994
Last Date Amended
14/10/2011
Type
Ecclesiastical: burial ground, cemetery, graveyard; church; claustral remains; monastic settlement; priory, Secular: Viking settlement, Norse settlement
Local Authority
Dumfries And Galloway
Parish
Whithorn
NGR
NX 44423 40326
Coordinates
244423, 540326

Description

The monument comprises the buried remains of a large early historic monastic settlement, founded probably in the 5th or 6th centuries AD; buried remains of later Viking and medieval settlements; graves that may date from the 5th or 6th century AD to the 19th century; and the remains of a medieval priory and cathedral. The west end of the medieval cathedral survives as a standing structure, while the east end is represented by buried foundations and crypts, the crypts partially reconstructed during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Archaeological evaluations and excavations demonstrate that complex archaeological deposits extend into areas that have not been disturbed and have enormous potential to enhance understanding of the site. The monument lies on a low rise towards the eastern edge of the basin of the Ket Burn, at around 60m OD. Slightly higher ground screens the site from view from most directions. The town of Whithorn, with its late medieval street layout, lies immediately south-east of the monument and there is a harbour 5.5km to the south-east at the Isle of Whithorn. The monument was last scheduled in 1994 but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.

The medieval cathedral ruins lie on the crest of the low hill, about 90m west of George Street. The nave of the cathedral was adapted to form a simple parish church around 1690, and this structure survives to wall head height. It measures around 24m NE-SW by 10m transversely. There are no upstanding remains of the central part of the cathedral; the crypts at the east end lie at least 25m north-east of the nave and occupy an area measuring around 14m NE-SW by 35m transversely. Excavation shows that there are additional buried remains of the church that supplement the visible parts. Together, the surviving masonry and foundations demonstrate that: the church was extended to the east around 1200 to meet the needs of the newly established Premonstratensian canons and probably to incorporate the shrine of St Ninian; a large chapel with undercroft was constructed south of the choir during a major rebuilding programme around 1500; the nave was repaired around 1610; and the nave was converted for Presbyterian worship around 1690. Excavations have revealed graves spanning the 11th to 14th centuries beneath the east end of the priory church, including the burials of many 13th-14th century Whithorn bishops, some accompanied by exceptional grave goods including chalices and the Whithorn crosier. Other medieval graves may survive elsewhere in the vicinity. In 1822, the present parish church was built on the site of the north-east claustral range, and remains of the cloisters and other monastic buildings probably survive nearby. Excavation in 1975 located the N range of the cloister, in the field to the west of the parish church.

Evidence for much earlier activity may also survive in the vicinity of the medieval church. Excavations 'on the site of the priory' revealed the Latinus Stone, the oldest surviving Christian monument in Scotland, bearing an inscription dating to around AD 450 (now housed in the Whithorn Museum). There is potential for other carved stones or archaeological features of comparable date to survive in the vicinity and part of an upstanding stone building that projects east of the medieval priory crypts may be a chapel dating to as early as the 8th century. However, the most comprehensive evidence for the origins and early history of the monastic settlement has come from excavation of a field at least 20m south-east of the priory ruins, sited between Bruce Street and the rear boundaries of properties fronting onto George Street (the Glebe Field). Excavation here has revealed Roman finds and a broad roadway pre-dating the late 5th century AD; builders' debris containing fragments of imported Mediterranean pottery and glass vessels; a group of small sub-rectangular wooden buildings; and an enclosed graveyard laid out after removal of the buildings. Researchers believe that these remains, together with the Latinus stone, demonstrate the establishment of a monastery in a period that ended around AD 550. Subsequently, there is excavation evidence for a double enclosure, that arguably defined the inner precinct and outer zone of the monastery. The inner area was occupied by shrines and graves, the outer by small timber buildings. Only a fraction of these areas has been excavated and researchers suggest there may have been over 50 buildings, including specialist structures for cooking, eating, and preparing and writing manuscripts, that were probably positioned in parts of the site that have not yet been excavated. A test pit excavated in the field west of the main excavation area revealed a feature that may be the outer boundary of the late 7th century monastery, sited 60m SSW of the priory nave.

Excavation in the Glebe Field also provides key evidence for the Northumbrian monastery that was established around AD 730. Two timber oratories and a stone-founded burial enclosure were discovered here, one of the oratories extending west into an area that is still unexcavated, sited at least 25m SSW of the priory nave. A graveyard extended beyond the limit of excavation to the east of the burial enclosure, and probably continues beneath Bruce Street. The oratories were subsequently rebuilt to form a timber church, probably supplementing other churches in the vicinity of the later priory. Remains of timber buildings were excavated south of the oratories and in a separate excavation immediately north-east of the museum. Parts of many of these structures survive below ground beyond the excavated areas and there is very high potential for other similar buildings to be discovered in other parts of the site.

Successive timber buildings continued to occupy the Glebe Field until the 13th century. After around 1050, the structures were characteristically square with rounded corners, rather than rectangular in shape. The buildings, together with artefacts such as bone pins and combs, suggest strong Irish and Norse influence, and evidence for workshops and commerce has lead researchers to identify the settlement as a monastic town. From the 14th to mid 15th centuries, a burial ground superseded the settlement. Again, both the buried structures and the later graves continued beyond the excavated area and some of these features remain preserved below the ground in the Glebe Field. Burials have been observed 15-20 cm below the surface of Bruce Street just south of the priory gates.

Other parts of the site have seen less investigation, but excavation in the Manse Field to the north of the medieval priory has revealed the remains of a sunken building, possibly a smithy that was in use between AD 650 and AD 890. This strongly suggests that the boundary of the early monastery ran to the north of the Manse field. However, there were also the remains of a substantial later building erected probably in the early or mid 16th century, suggesting that structures associated with the priory also spread north from the church for a distance of at least 100m. Portions of both these buildings are preserved in situ beneath the Manse Field. Excavation has also revealed a very long sequence of activity in a field 30m west of the priory church on the west side of Bruce Street. Here, a large stone building has been interpreted as a byre or stables for the priory, and a buried culvert is likely to have been the priory's main drain. There was also a succession of earlier timber buildings spanning the 9th to 12th centuries. Remains of many of these buildings extend beyond the trench and are preserved beneath the surface of the field.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan, to include the remains described above and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduling specifically excludes the above ground elements of the Parish Church and buildings north-east of Bruce Street (the Museum, No 6 Bruce Street and Strathkett). The scheduling specifically excludes the metalled surfaces of all modern roads, paths and yards, and the above-ground elements of all fences, gates, modern walls, street furniture, street lights, telegraph and electricity poles, flood lights, signs, information boards, bridges, benches, railings, posts, chains, flag poles, oil tanks, washing lines and rubbish bins to allow for their maintenance. The scheduling specifically excludes all active burial lairs and the above-ground elements of all burial monuments of 19th-century or later date.

Statement of National Importance

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

The excavations have established beyond doubt that the site contains very significant buried remains with great potential to provide information about the layout of monastic centres from the 5th/6th to the 16th centuries and the types of activities their inhabitants conducted. The excavations south of the priory have provided a partial picture of the layout of the monastery and how it changed over time, but the buried archaeology that remains in situ has very high potential to support a more comprehensive understanding of the evolving extent and layout of the settlement and its boundaries features and internal divisions.

There are clear indications that, from an early date, several churches and chapels stood at the core of the monastery. These may have clustered in the position occupied by the later priory, probably close to the shrine of St Ninian, and buried traces of these early Christian ecclesiastical sites may have survived the construction and expansion of the medieval cathedral. By the 8th century, chapels stood south of the priory and there is ongoing potential to examine the west end of one of these structures. Communal buildings for the monks to sleep and eat in probably stood nearby, and we know that timber buildings still exist in the Glebe Field and close to the Museum. The buried archaeology has exceptional potential to tell us about the construction and architecture of buildings of differing function within a monastic site over an extended time period. In each period, we know that burials clustered within and around the churches and chapels, and burials still exist around the excavation area in the Glebe Field and upslope in and around the priory church. Surviving graves may date from the 5th/6th centuries to the 19th century and can provide information on the population over an extended time period. They may enhance our knowledge of status and burial practice, but can also reveal evidence for health, diet, illness, cause of death, and perhaps place of birth and the types of activities people undertook during life.

Excavations and historical sources both suggest that an extensive craft zone existed to service the monastery. By around 1050, the site can be characterised as a monastic town, attracting crafts people and traders, but evidence for trade and manufacture goes back to the origins of the settlement in the 5th or 6th centuries. Excavation has produced a large assemblage of glass cone beaker fragments, many of them unparalleled, and glass beakers may have been made at Whithorn or nearby. Given our knowledge of the site to date, unexcavated deposits almost certainly contain more of these artefacts, together with evidence for the manufacture of textiles and bone combs, both of which were made here for many centuries. We can also expect evidence for a range of other crafts, including vellum production and metalworking. Waterlogged or charred organic remains almost certainly exist. They can enhance knowledge of craft activities, as well as informing us about the character of the local landscape and agricultural practices. It is clear that the remainder of the site has exceptional potential to provide further information about many diverse aspects of a monastic community over a long time period, supplementing knowledge of the core ecclesiastical buildings. Archaeological deposits should enable a better understanding of the period between 850 and 1200, a time when Whithorn's history is shadowy and Northumbrian influence was replaced by Norse and Irish influences.

Contextual characteristics

Whithorn has particular significance as probably the earliest large monastic settlement established in Scotland. It certainly had wide-reaching contacts. The artefacts recovered from Period 1, before the arrival of the Northumbrians around AD 730, include pottery from North Africa and France, some probably brought by merchants whose main business was the wine trade. However, there are also many fragments of glass cone beakers of a type that is unparalleled in Europe and may have been made at or near Whithorn. Researchers have argued that artefacts from Whithorn have the potential to transform our understanding of technology and trade in the early medieval period, upsetting the long-held assumption that, in western Britain, luxuries were usually imported and paid for with leather, metals and other commodities.

The Northumbrian monk Bede suggested that missionaries from Whithorn set out to convert the Picts to Christianity, the people we believe lived in central and eastern Scotland at that time. It seems certain that Whithorn had a very direct impact on the spread of Christianity through south-west Scotland, but the archaeological evidence should allow us to test the tradition that it influenced events further afield. Although isolated in today's landscape, Whithorn's location near the coast resembles that of many other monastic sites at a time when the sea would have been the main communication route allowing movement around a network of monastic communities. The early historical sources, although problematic, suggest Irish as well as British influence, which may have shaped monastic layout and architecture. We can compare early Whithorn with early Irish churches sites at Glendalough, Innishmurray, Clonmacnoise, Moville, and Armagh. From the 8th century, Whithorn fell under Northumbrian control and can be compared with monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. Eventually, Northumbrian control waned and influence from Iona and Ireland became more important, with buildings and artefacts resembling those of the Norse people who had settled in Ireland.

Early historic monastic settlements known to have surviving physical remains are rare in Scotland. Nevertheless, archaeologists have excavated significant areas within the monastic enclosures at Hoddom, Portmahomack and Iona, as well as remains at Inchmarnock and on the Isle of May. These sites will allow researchers to set the findings from Whithorn in context, enhancing their significance. There is great potential to characterise the influences displayed by individual Scottish monastic sites and to chart how they varied over time. Whithorn is especially important because it appears to show continuity of monastic life, through periods of Norse and Gaelic influence, up to a time when it was incorporated into the kingdom of Scotland, became home to a house of Premonstratensian canons, and was a major medieval place of pilgrimage. We can compare the medieval cathedral church at Whithorn, with its elaborate shrine of St Ninian, with other medieval churches, including Paisley and Crossraguel Abbeys that lay on the pilgrimage route from the north.

Associative characteristics

The Northumbrian monk Bede mentions Whithorn twice in his 'Historia Eccesiastica', written in AD 731. The first reference, prefaced by the comment 'so the story goes', describes the activities of Bishop Ninian who built a church of stone and tried to convert the southern Picts. This passage is of uncertain historical value, whereas the second more reliable account describes the recent appointment of the Northumbrian Pecthelm as bishop. Other written sources include a late 8th-century verse life of Ninian, a 12th-century prose life, and references in a variety of Irish sources, many of which are problematic as factual documents and pose problems of interpretation. The Northumbrians actively promoted the cult of St Ninian from the 8th century, and his shrine was a very important focus for medieval pilgrims, but Ninian himself remains a shadowy figure, despite the research of historians and archaeologists. Whithorn remains an important site for Christians today and continues to attract modern-day 'pilgrims'.

National Importance

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of the past, in particular of early historic monastic settlements and medieval centres of pilgrimage. The site retains exceptionally complex and well-preserved archaeology and has the potential to make a very significant contribution to our knowledge of monastic layout, economy, and culture. Archaeologists have investigated a relatively small part of the site and there is high potential for other future discoveries. Archaeological deposits offer particular potential to illuminate the arrival of Christianity in Scotland during the 5th to 7th centuries and developments in the 9th to 12th centuries, when Northumbrian control waned and Norse and Irish cultural influence was strong. The later priory ruins are a poignant reminder of medieval Whithorn's role as a busy pilgrimage centre. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand the origins and development of early historic monasteries, their role in manufacturing, trade and exchange, and their part in the conversion of Scotland to Christianity.

References

Bibliography

RCAHMS records the Priory and burial ground as NX44SW 5.00 and the Manse Field excavations as NX44SWE 34.

References

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed B Colgrave and RAB Mynors, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Hill, P, 1997 Whithorn and St Ninian: the Excavation of a Monastic Town, 1984-91, Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd.

Lowe, C, 2009 'Clothing for the Soul Divine': Burials at the Tomb of St Ninian. Excavations at Whithorn Priory, 1957-67, Edinburgh: Historic Scotland.

Historic Environment Scotland Properties

Whithorn Crosses (& Museum)

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/whithorn-priory-and-museum

Find out more

Related Designations

  1. BRUCE STREET, MUSEUM AND CUSTODIAN'S HOUSE AND BOUNDARY WALLSLB42185

    Designation Type
    Listed Building (B)
    Status
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Whithorn Priory

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/whithorn-priory-and-museum

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Related Designations

  1. WHITHORN PRIORYLB42266

    Designation Type
    Listed Building (A)
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Printed: 12/12/2018 19:36