Travel: Isle of pilgrims and martyrs

St Ninian began it all. For centuries pilgrims made their way to the Isle of Whithorn in south-west Scotland. Now the area is hoping to attract a new type of visitor.

PILGRIMS: THEY were the earliest tourists. And what a potent combination must have fired them - penance, conviction, curiosity and no small amount of courage.

Standing on the shores of the Isle of Whithorn, with sunlight dancing on the water, waves gently churning the pebbles on the beach, it was difficult to appreciate the determination and discomfort with which the pioneer globe-trotters must have travelled to this remote corner of south-west Scotland. The area is so quiet and thinly visited today that it requires a leap of imagination to conceive of the numbers of sea-weary travellers who came here. Yet from England, Ireland, even Italy and beyond they would arrive to pay tribute to a saint now relegated to the margins of folk memory.

Few hard facts about St Ninian have survived. It is known, however, that vast and valiant numbers of people came to pray here over the centuries, not least because Ninian was the first missionary to bring Christianity to Scotland. More than 100 years before St Columba set up his monastery on the island of Iona, Ninian had already converted the southern Picts of Galloway. It is thought that he was the son of a local Solway chieftain, and that at some stage he left to study in Rome. He returned not only to preach, but also to build a stone chapel which became one of the wonders of the region, the Picts not having seen a stone construction before.

The roofless ruin of the building, which was rebuilt in the 13th century, stands at the edge of the Isle of Whithorn. Follow signs a few miles further north to Kidsdale, and you can pick up a trail running through woodland and down to a sea-lashed cave where legend has it that the saint sought meditative sanctuary.

Whatever the truth of this, the cave was certainly the site of many visits from those early pilgrim-tourists. Meanwhile, inland, in the little town of Whithorn itself, some of the mystery of St Ninian is being dug up in an archaeological excavation of the monastery and town that grew up around the saint's shrine.

Indeed, in its time the Whithorn area became something of a Lourdes of the north: Ninian died around 432 and from then until the latter part of the 16th century, when pilgrimages were banned under the Scottish Reformation, those coming to pay tribute to his relics would often claim miracle cures.

For my own part, I had come to both to satisfy my curiosity and to seek a modern-day cure of space and peace. The Isle of Whithorn is not in fact an island at all, but a pretty harbour village lying more or less at the point of a gloriously quiet peninsula. In the chunky triangle of The Machars, jutting into the Solway Firth between Dumfries and Stranraer, there's a distinct sense that you are getting right away from it all. This is a place that feels as if it has slunk back into the Fifties.

The area may lack the spectacular views of the Highlands, but those in the know come here to enjoy the green and gentle landscape of rolling hills, the history and mystery (ruins and standing stones) and the golf and game (trout- and salmon-fishing on the river Bladnoch), to say nothing of the walks through unspoilt countryside.

"People sometimes head north to The Machars when the Lake District gets full up - it's not far, after all," one Whithorn resident explained. "And then they come back, again and again."

So why was the area now so under-visited? Peaceful and unspoilt though it may be, such tranquillity comes at a price for local prosperity.

"Transport," came the brief reply.

The Scottish Reformation may have brought an end to the steady stream of pilgrims, but the peninsula had continued to attract sea-faring trade. Railways replaced this in the last century, but when the last of the trains stopped running in the Sixties the place all but died commercially.

It was in a bid to inject new life into The Machars that Wigtown, some eight miles north of Whithorn, recently applied to become Book Town of Scotland. Beating off rival applications from the likes of Moffat and Dunblane, Wigtown won - which effectively means that funding is available for regenerating the area, especially for those attracting a new breed of bookish tourists. The town is now busily revamping itself as a northern answer to Hay-on-Wye, and at least five new bookshops have popped up.

All power to them. This looks bizarrely like a ghost town, a place that was clearly built in better days. Its massive High Street, echoingly empty on the day I was there, is wide enough to accommodate a neatly clipped bowling-green right in the middle. Its huge town hall remains as something of a memorial to past prosperity.

Another memorial stands on a hilltop overlooking the town. Until the triumph of the book bid, this encapsulated Wigtown's main claim to fame - a haunting story from one of Scotland's more turbulent periods.

It was in Wigtown in 1685 that five Presbyterians were sentenced to death for refusing to sign a government oath that was at odds with the fundamental beliefs of their Kirk. Across Scotland, particularly in the Lowlands, 600 named people were also executed. And it is probable that several hundred more nameless souls met the same fate.

The Wigtown martyrs, however, became particularly famous because of the two women among them. Margaret Maclachlan, aged 63, and Margaret Wilson, just 18, were tied to a stake in Wigtown Bay and slowly drowned in the rising tide. Nearly a century later the poignancy of their fate captured the imagination of the painter Sir John Millais, whose Martyr of the Solway, portraying the young Margaret, was painted in 1871 and now hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

The martyrs' monument quotes Margaret Wilson's tombstone.

The actors of this cruel crime/ Was Lagg, Strachan, Winran and Grahame/ Neither young years not yet did age/ Could stop the fury of their rage, I read on the breezy hilltop.

"Sounds uncannily like a modern law firm" said a dry American voice behind me. "Are you related to Margaret?" I thought he was going to hug me. "Eh, no."

"Ah, we are," he said proudly, gesturing towards his wife and extremely elderly parents who had made a slow, tortoise-like procession from the small car park. After Margaret Wilson's death, he explained, her relations had fled to Pennsylvania where her story had been passed down through subsequent generations of the extended family. And as they posed for pictures and took videos of the view, I realised that these people were the pilgrims of today.

What to see: the Whithorn Dig, the Whithorn Trust, 45-47 George Street, Whithorn DG8 8NS (01988 500 508) is open from Easter to end October daily, 10.30am-5pm; adults pounds 2.70, children and concessions pounds 1.50.

Where to stay: Corsemalzie House Hotel, near Port William (01988 860254), is set in lovely wooded gardens with peacocks. B&B pounds 47 per person per night. The hotel also offers fishing and rough shooting. Meanwhile, for home comforts at a more modest pounds 17 per night there's little to beat the B&B run by Alison Foster at Killern, just beyond Gatehouse of Fleet (01557 814398).

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