Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Whithorn Priory

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 15
Whithorn Priory

by David Oswald Hunter Blair


Located in Wigtownshire, Scotland, founded about the middle of the twelfth century, in the reign of David I, by Fergus, Lord of Galloway, for Premonstratensian, or White, Canons. The canons of Whithorn formed the chapter of the Diocese of Galloway, which was re-established about the same time, also by Fergus, the old succession of bishops having died out about 796. The prior stood next in rank to the bishop, as we see from the order of signatories to an espiscopal charter early in the thirteenth century; and he and his community enjoyed the right of electing the bishop, although this right was occasionally overruled in favour of the secular clergy by the Archbishop of York, of which see Galloway was a suffragan for several centuries. The full list of priors has not been preserved; among them were: Maurice, who swore fealty to King Edward I of England in 1296; Gavin Dunbar (1514), who rose to be Archbishop of Glasgow; and James Beaton, successively Archbishop of Glasgow and of St. Andrews, and chancellor of the kingdom. Whithorn was long a noted place of pilgrimage, owing to its connection with the venerated memory of St. Ninian. Many Scottish sovereigns, among them Margaret (queen of James III), James IV, and James V, made repeated pilgrimages to the saint's shrine, and left rich offerings behind them. The monastery, thus endowed, became opulent, and its income at the dissolution was estimated at over £1000. The last prior (Fleming) was committed to prison in 1563 for the crime of saying Mass. The whole property of the priory was vested in the Crown by the annexation act of 1587, and was granted in 1606 by James VI to the occupant of the See of Galloway when he established Episcopalianism in Scotland in 1606. It continued to belong to the bishopric until the revolution of 1688, at which date that see was the richest in the kingdom next to St. Andrews and Glasgow. The priory church, which served also as the cathedral of the diocese, had a long nave without aisles, a choir of about the same length, and a lady chapel beyond. In 1684 the nave and western tower were still intact; but the existing remains consist only of the roofless nave and the extensive vaulted crypts constructed under the eastern end of the church. Such restoration as was possible has been carefully carried out by the third Marquis of Bute.

The Five Great Churches of Galloway (Edinburgh, Ayrsh, and Gall. Archaeol. Assn., 1899), 169-96, with a complete series of drawings of the ruins; MAXWELL, Hist. of Dumfries and Galloway (Edinburgh, 1896), 22, 48 sq.; GORDON, Monasticon, III (London, 1875), 318-21; WALCOTT, The Ancient Church of Scotland (London, 1974), 223-28; CHALMERS, Caledonia, V (Paisley, 1890), 410-20; BELLESHEIM, Hist. of Cath. Church of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1887-90), I, 303; III, 73; ROBERTSON, Scottish Abbeys and Cathedrals, II (Aberdeen, 1891), 42.

D.O. HUNTER-BLAIR