Tales of St Ninian describe an ideal image of a saint, taking himself off to be nearer to God in ‘a place of terrible blackness’.
Tradition holds that this cave was a place of retreat for the saint, who’s said to have been active in Dumfries and Galloway in the late AD 300s. It may well have also been a hermitage from the monastery at Whithorn. Alternative interpretations are as a chapel or stone-carving workshop.
The cave today is a lot smaller than it once was, due to successive rock falls. Today it’s 7m long and 3m high, and almost 3m wide at the mouth.
Excavations in the cave in 1950 revealed internal stone walls and pavements, along with the disturbed and undated burials of an elderly adult and two children.
Excavations in the 1880s and in 1950 also uncovered a collection of early medieval carved stones. There were 18 in total, most of them built into a post-medieval wall, others lying loose in the cave’s interior or at its mouth.
The carved stones can now be viewed at Whithorn Priory Museum.
Ten crosses were carved into the cave wall itself. Eight are Latin crosses, seven of which all take the same form. The remaining two are simple incised crosses with barred terminals.
The carved stones and crosses provide the only certain evidence for early medieval use of the cave.
St Ninian’s Cave remains a place of pilgrimage for the Roman Catholic church, likely an unbroken tradition since the early medieval period.