St Ninian’s Cave3 min read
St Ninian’s Cave stands at the rear of a collapse in part of the rocky headland at the north western end of the stony beach at Physgill, that looks out over Port Castle Bay,some three miles south west of Whithorn.
To reach it, there is a car park at Kidsdale, which is signed for St Ninian’s Cave.
The walk begins along the path which is signed from a corner of the car park.
It then runs down the wooded Physgill Glen.
At one point the path divides, with a higher level option crossing the burn while a lower level alternative stays to the right or northern side of the burn.
The two meet a little further on: the lower level option has a couple of patches that can be muddy after rain. The glen ends at the attractive pebble beach of Port Castle Bay.
The cave entrance, visible across the beach to the right, may not be possible to reach it if the tide is very high.
The cave is a site of early Christian worship in Scotland and a site of pilgrimage still today.
Local tradition has it that St Ninian would use this quiet and secluded cave as a place of solitude and retreat.
Ninian, also known as Trynnian or Ringan (born 360AD – Died 432AD) was a missionary amongst the Picts of what is now southern Scotland and the first Bishop of Galloway.
He was the first missionary saint to arrive in Scotland and he set up the first church in nearby Whithorn some time in the 390s.
The cave which is now 7m in length was excavated in the 1880’s and 1950’s.
The excavations discovered, beneath the collapsed roof, eighteen carved stones now on display at Whithorn Priory Museum, three burials (one adult, 2 children), a pavement and internal wall. Ten crosses are also carved into the cave wall, thought to be over 1,000 years old.
The findings suggest the cave was used from at least the early medieval period which would correspond, not by chance, with the time of St Ninian.
Suggested uses for the cave have included a stone carvers workshop or a hermitage associated with the monastery at Whithorn.
Other carvings among the very many on view bear dates of 1718, 1866 and 1871, while more recent visitors have left their mark in the form of wooden crosses constructed from driftwood, or rocks and pebbles, some bearing inscriptions, pushed into clefts in the rock.
Either way, from the early Middle Ages onwards, the cave became a place of pilgrimage.
To modern eyes, the cave seems to offer little shelter for anyone wanting to spend much time here.
And thus It is very likely that what you can see today is just the far end of what was once a much larger cave, whose roof has at some point collapsed.
Noboby known if before the time of St Ninian, or after, but before the visits of pilgrims in the 700s, or in the medieval era. One thing the excavations did reveal was that at some point in relatively modern times, someone walled in the front of the cave to make it more habitable.
Traces of this were removed in 1950.
More recently the cave and beach were featured in the cult film ‘The Wicker Man’.