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St Ninian's Cave

Cave (8th Century), Cross Incised Stone(S) (Early Medieval), Rock Carving(S) (Period Unassigned)

Site Name St Ninian's Cave

Classification Cave (8th Century), Cross Incised Stone(S) (Early Medieval), Rock Carving(S) (Period Unassigned)

Canmore ID 63133

Site Number NX43NW 9

NGR NX 4224 3595

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Dumfries And Galloway
  • Parish Glasserton
  • Former Region Dumfries And Galloway
  • Former District Wigtown
  • Former County Wigtownshire

Early Medieval Carved Stones Project

St Ninian’s Cave, Wigtownshire, rock carvings

Measurements: various

Stone type:

Place of discovery: NX 4224 3595

Present location: natural cleft in the cliff at the northern end of the Physgill shore on Port Castle Bay.

Evidence for discovery: the carvings were well-known locally by the mid nineteenth century. Seven incised crosses were recorded by RCAHMS in 1912, and a new survey by RCAHMS in 2004 identified another fourteen crosses.

Present condition: mostly in good condition.


In its surviving form, the cave is V-shaped in plan, 10m long and a maximum of 5m wide. The crosses are incised on the south wall of the cave, all but two on the outer unroofed part. They are all of early Christian type and range from simple Latin crosses to crosses with barred terminals, ringed crosses and outline crosses, including a finely carved encircled Chi-Rho cross. A number of cross-slabs and cross-incised stones lay loose in the cave, and these are now in the Whithorn Museum except for one in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Date range: sixth to ninth centuries.

Primary references: RCAHMS 1912, no 3.

Desk-based information compiled by A Ritchie 2019

Archaeology Notes

NX43NW 9 4224 3595

(Name: NX 4230 3597) St Ninian's Cave (NR)

OS 6" map (1957)

St Ninian's Cave is a natural cleft in the cliff face, its floor 25' OD. Excavations were carried out in it in 1884 and 1950. It was found that the occupation levels were of no great date, the earlier levels having been destroyed.

Seven early incised crosses are cut into the rock of the W wall of the cave of the cliff face outside, they are now protected by metal grills. Other cross-incised stones from the cave are in Whithorn Museum and one in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS - Accession no: IB 54). The early crosses, dating to the 6th or 7th century show that it was used by Christian recluses; it must have formed the focus of some hermitage associated with Whithorn. Most of the crosses date to the 8th and 9th centuries, and the latest one, bearing part of an inscription in Anglian runes, is of 11th cent date. This was a headstone, re-used as a paving slab, which must originally have stood in or near the cave.

In 1884 a skeleton was found buried in the outer part of the cave. Possibly this burial was of a hermit, who had retired to the cave, and this cross was set up to mark his grave. Under guardianship.

NMAS 1892; RCAHMS 1912; C A R Radford and G Donaldson 1953; C A R Radford 1957; C A R Radford 1963.

NX 4224 3595 As described. No original occupation structure remains.

Visited by OS (DWR) 18 January 1973

Other material from this cave in the NMAS comprises a stone whorl, polishing stone, and part of a deerhorn handle, also two cross-incised stones.

Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1889; Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1926; Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1973.


Publication Account (1986)

A cleft in the headland at the northern end of the Physgill shore is part of a collapsed cave which since 1871 has been the scene of some remarkable archaeological discoveries. By tradition, this south-facing cave was long regarded as a devotional retreat used by St Ninian. The discovery of crosses incised on the face of the living rock, and on loose boulders and slabs confmned that veneration of the cave goes back at least to the 8th century when Galloway was under Northumbrian influence. Most of these crosses are probably votive, cut by pilgrims to record their visit and their offering made in honour of the saint.

Between points 6m outside the cave and 3m from its inner end there are seven small crosses incised on the western rock-face. The forms of the crosses suggest an 8th or 9th century date, the outermost one perhaps even earlier. Excavations conducted between 1883 and 1886 brought to light among the debris of the collapsed cave a number ofloose stones gearing votive crosses, two pillar stones, and a sculptured Anglian headstone carved with interlace ornament and part of a runic inscription. About eleven stones are ascribable to the 11th century or earlier, and all are now in Whithorn Museum. Among other items recovered from the cave is an inscribed slate dedicated to St Ninian, the lettering having probably been scratched in post-Reformation times.

Stone pavements and fragmentary walls represented relatively modem occupation-levels and were lifted in 1950. The early floor had been destroyed, but from the positions of the rock-incised crosses it evidently stood at much the same level as it does today.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Dumfries and Galloway’, (1986).


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