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Scottish Parliament Speech: Whithorn (September 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I, too, congratulate Alasdair Morgan on securing the debate and on his eloquent speech, which was about not just an important phase in Scotland's past but a legacy of resources that we have to hand in tackling many of the problems of today's divided and increasingly bewildered world.

Bewilderment tends to go along with the history of the early saints, too. They are a pretty intangible lot. In the 1840s, no less a person than John Henry Newman, who was editing a series of volumes entitled "Lives of the English Saints" for the Anglo-Catholic clerics of the Oxford movement, approached the historian James Anthony Froude to write the life of St Neot, a contemporary of Ninian. Froude, who was en route to writing a life of another of Alasdair Morgan's constituents, Thomas Carlyle - a somewhat different character - worked diligently through the medieval hagiographies and stories about saints who lit fires with icicles, turned bandits into wolves and floated across the Irish channel on altar stones, before concluding: "This is all, and indeed rather more than all, that is known to men of the blessed St Neot".

There are problems with the historical Ninian. He seems to be almost a clerical contemporary of Arthur. There is a certain logic in that, because Ninian is the semi-mythical embodiment of the activities of Romano-British clerics in congregations that were probably active continuously but subject to someone like an inspector, who would come round and ensure that their churches were in order. That seems to be what modern historians conclude of the Ninian figure. There was another person with the name of Uinnean who seems to have done rather similar work at the same time and I imagine that the ability to conflate the two was considerable.

We can gather from inscriptions, place names and cemeteries that, by the sixth or seventh century, there was a dispersed Christian presence that probably went as far north as the Aberdeen area - the Mounth. Christianity in the aftermath of Roman withdrawal consisted of isolated congregations that were in touch with one another through the travelling priests that I mentioned and strung together - as Jim Hume reminded us - by the sea. Archaeology from a grave in Northern Ireland has provided us with a golden model of a 14-oared skin galley, which gives us some idea of how sophisticated the connections between the various countries were at the time. Such a galley would have been the craft of Ninian, St Patrick - who was roughly a contemporary - and Columba, the young chieftain of the Uí Néill who became the great political figure in the Scotland of his time.

From those times come ideas and practices that are still relevant today - the ideas of peaceful travel and pilgrimage - and of which we desperately need to make use. Those vessels crept round the English coasts and eventually tackled the Channel and the Rhine delta. The boats went as far up the great rivers as they could - to Reichenau on Lake Constance, St Gallen and Würzburg. In the middle ages, Ninian enjoyed even greater popularity than Columba. There were altars dedicated to him by emigrant Scots at Bruges and Bergen-op-Zoom in the low countries, as well as at Hamlet's Elsinore and Copenhagen in Denmark.

We can work on those historical connections to encourage not only tourism connections but a new form of pilgrimage, deriving other, more subtle benefits from those ancient traditions. Members should recall that, in the seventh century, Columba's biographer, Adamnan, stressed in his book "The Holy Places" in connection with pilgrimage that attention should be paid to the rights of civilians in time of warfare. That is one of the first examples of international law.

The Whithorn tradition shows us aspects of cultural preservation: the rescue of Latin, illuminated manuscript probably at its greatest and traditions of asceticism, meditation and closeness to the natural world. Those are more necessary in a modern world that is dominated by materialism and globally divided. Therefore, I wish the Whithorn Trust and all those who are associated with it success in reviving the community's history and, with it, the life chances of us all.

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