A Whithorn Tour
Whithorn, with its two-storeyed town houses and wide main street,
comes as something of a surprise, after the visitor has passed through
the traditional strip villages of Sorbie and Kirkinner, and through
the countryside dotted with single cottages and groups of farm buildings.
The underlying explanation for this more urban feel is that you
are indeed now entering a town: Whithorn, like Wigtown, is a Royal
Burgh and has traditionally been a capital for the South Machars.
While the existing houses date predominantly from the period of
the Napoleonic Wars and first quarter of the nineteenth century,
when there was significant rebuilding and when the town probably
came to look much as it does now, an aerial view shows that these
eighteenth century and nineteenth century buildings have been set
along a street which respects a much older pattern : traditional
long narrow burgage plots which extend behind the houses, and the
narrow enclosures at either end of George Street belong to the Middle
Ages, the period of Whithorn's greatest prosperity and expansion.
The visitor still has a sense of enclosure in the centre of George
Street, looking south to the cross-house at the crest of the hill,
and north to the narrowest point where George Street joins St. John
Street. This safe enclosed space would have been the place where
cattle and sheep could have been kept in folds, where cattle trading,
markets and fairs would have taken place. These were authorised
by the burgh's Royal Charter and continued into the nineteenth century,
with diminishing importance as the system of royal burghs began
to lose its monopoly on trade.
focal point of Whithorn at the time when most of its houses were
built would have been the tolbooth and gaol, now removed from the
widest point of the street, at approximately the site of the War
memorial. According to early travellers, there were also a series
of "luckenbooths" for traders in the widest part of the
street, which now provides extra parking spaces. Weights and measures
were also checked by the burgh, and burgh privileges to trade were
jealously guarded ; Wigtown and Whithorn were frequently in dispute
about dues payable and the destinations of profitable cargoes. Without
knowing the history of this part of the town, one might well agree
with the eighteenth century minister, Christopher Nicholson, who
commented that the town was "inconveniently narrow at both
extremities and uselessly wide in the middle". The town house
was removed from the centre of George Street in 1814 And rebuilt
on the west side, where its square tower and attractive circular
spire can be seen, projecting beyond the roofs of the houses. Until
local government reform in 1974, this continued to be the site of
town council meetings and municipal government.
George Street, now designated an Outstanding Conservation Area,
presents a mixture of relatively sophisticated town houses with
single storey cottages in the vernacular Scottish tradition. Number
29 is a good example of a town residence, with circular-headed doorway,
cornice and parapet with central panel. Others show by their steep
roof pitches that they hark back to an earlier era, when they were
thatched, and have small irregularly spaced windows, which seem
to belong to the seventeenth century rather than the Georgian period.
The ¾ mile-long terrace of houses in George Street is almost
complete, appearing just as it must have been developed in the early
nineteenth century, with two exceptions : the Catholic Church, St.
Martin's and St. Ninian's, was built on a gap site in the 1950's
and the site at no. 61-3 George Street, which was burnt by fire
in the 1930's, but rebuilt to the pre-existing building line.
By local tradition, the houses in Whithorn are generally painted
in bright colours, with contrasting tones used for the walls and
for the facings and courses, allowing textures and detailing to
stand out, and for the buildings to be emphasised strongly, "coming
forward" to the building line in cases where strong tones have
chief historical treasure, however, can only be glimpsed from George
Street : the mediaeval Priory, archaeological site and Museum of
Christian stones are hidden from view, and the early Christian (Fifth
century) heart of Whithorn was probably sited on the gentle rise
at the top of Bruce Street. The entrance to the Priory, however,
constitutes one of Whithorn's most pleasing groups of buildings
and provides a taste of the grandeur of what once lay behind it.
Framing the entrance to Bruce Street, "The Pend", a late
mediaeval arch flanked by pillars with moulded caps and grandly
surmounted by the Royal Arms of Scotland, tempts one off the main
street towards the original site of St. Ninian's shrine A "Pend"
in Scotland is used to refer to any passageway driven through a
building, so creating a suspended room above it, but, notably, other
monastic gateways in Scotland are also referred to as "Pends",
such as that at St. Andrews. The Pend building probably once stood
much taller, and possibly had the form of a tower, familiar in monastery
gateways elsewhere : the coat of arms on such an imposing building
would have served as an advertisement of the power of Whithorn's
Prior, who was under royal protection and had an all but regal power
within his domain (known, in fact, as a "Regality"). The
heraldic panel is likely to date from about 1500 and is one of only
four Stuart coats of arms of this quality in Scotland; the Bishops'
arms on the caps of the pillars are those of Bishop Vaus (Vaux,
Vans), who was bishop from 1482-1508. On the southernmost pillar,
there are the arms of Vaus , surmounted by a crozier, and on the
northern pillar, the arms of Vaus quartered with the arms of Shaw
(three closed cups argent on a ground azure) surmounted by a Bishop's
mitre and mantled with a cope.
today, passing under the gatehouse, one has the sense of leaving
one world and penetrating into another : in the days of pilgrimage,
one was indeed passing into the sacred world of the monastery, with
its own order, calendar and organisation. Archaeology has shown
that Bruce Street respects the line of a road with a 1500 year old
history and we know that at least five monarchs of Scotland came
on pilgrimage by this route. Facing Bruce Street, in fact, on the
eastern side of George Street, is King's Road, which originally
led from the landing place at the Isle of Whithorn across country
to St. Ninian's shrine.
Further up Bruce Street , facing the archaeological site, is the
museum, (The Whithorn Trust)
containing one of the most important collection of carved and inscribed
Christian stones in Scotland. The stone forming the lintel to the
door, which is dated 1730, was actually taken down from a small
school building, which once stood nearly opposite the museum and
which was excavated during the 1980's. The stones were first gathered
together from various sites by the Third Marquess of Bute, one of
the great patrons of Christian archaeology, and the man who financed
excavations at Whithorn in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
The current appearance of the graveyard and crypts owes much to
his reconstruction. The view from the balcony over the crypts gives
one an unexpected view of George Street from behind : the narrow
gardens, unexpected extensions, the Ket Burn, the tower of the Old
Town Hall, all present a pleasing jumble from this vantage point
over the town.
The parish church was built in 1822, and the Manse, now a private
house, in 1819, when the heritors of the parish decided to replace
the old church, which had occupied the former nave of the mediaeval
cathedral since the Reformation. The severe nineteenth century church
was built over remains of one of the mediaeval transepts; later
the tower was added to the front. Within feet of each other, the
early Christian, the mediaeval, the post-Reformation and the modern
jostle for space on this small hillock.
Whithorn participated to the full in the complex church schisms
of the Scottish Protestant Church. Apart from the Established Church,
which remained at its current hilltop site, there were also the
Reformed Presbyterians, who built first at the site now occupied
by St. John's Garage in St. Johns Street. There was also a Free
Church in King's Road, at the site of the modern Council flats and
parking lot, and a Cameronian meeting house in Drill Hall Lane,
which briefly possessed its own ministers and a thriving congregation.
In addition to these four, particularly with the increase of Irish
immigration from the early nineteenth century, a Catholic church
was established, at first beyond burgh boundaries at a tin structure
on High Mains Farm (then owned by the 3rd Marquess of Bute) , and
then eventually in the centre of George Street.