Making History: The Secret Covenanters Cave near Kirkcudbright and St Ninian
Can you help solve the strange mystery of a lost cave associated with a famous saint and the Covenanters? Can you help make history?
In a footnote in F. R. Coles in ‘Notices of Rock-Hewn Caves’, he mentions that St Ringan’s Cave was also known as the ‘Covenanters Cave’. St Ringan is a popular name for St Ninain, which is in itself probably a scribal error for St Uinniau, i.e., St Finnian of Movilla.
The ‘Covenanters Cave’, aka. Saint Ringan’s Cave, either lies, or lay, beside the Billies Burn, near the ruins of St Cormac’s Church in Kelton parish, Kircudbrightshire. However, it does not appear on the map.
Coles visited the cave before 1910 and described it as a four-foot wide manmade passage with a roughly-hewn arched roof six feet in height. On surveying the cave, he found that it was made up of a passage running thirty-three feet due east which ended in a recess. Near the end of that passage was a second passage of the same length which ran north which connected to a ‘third’ passage which ran north-west for a further fifty-four feet. At the ‘extremity’ of the latter he found a ‘squarish recess, with a seat-like block three feet wide’. He also found that ‘the floor was in some places several inches deep in water, which drips from the roof’. This was apparently due to a mill lade lying directly above a large proportion of the cave. (‘Notices of Rock-Hewn Caves’, PSAS, Vol. 45., 297-8.)
Coles provides a plan of the cave, which can be found in the article on page 298 (34/37 on the PDF.).
To access the article, go to this website.
Then click on Volume 45, 1910-11. The article mentioning the Covenanter’s cave is under ‘Notices of Rock-Hewn Caves in the Valley of the Esk and other Parts of Scotland. (pp 265-301) ‘. Click on the PDF link on the right. The Covenanters Cave is on p297 to 298 (or 33/37).
The Covenanters Cave?
There is no evidence beyond the local name for it for the cave being used by Covenanters. Some caves were used by the Covenanters, but many of them may be later traditional associations. It is not clear if the cave existed in the seventeenth century or when it was constructed.
Kelton parish was not a stronghold of the Society people.‘John Colton in Nether-third’ is the only fugitive from the parish found on the published Fugitive Roll of 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 218.)
Netherthird lies a short distance to the south-west of Billies Burn.
Where is the Cave?
Before going on, I must strongly advise against any amateur cave hunter trying to excavate or enter it, if it still exists. That is a job for professionals who know what they are doing. Do not risk your life.
My interest in the cave is about the local tradition which claimed that it was used by the Covenanters, if it is still there and where it is located. I want to know where the entrance is, not what is in it. It is not clear if the cave still exists. It may have collapsed or been filled in the century since Coles recorded it. It is not marked on either modern. or old, OS maps. Although, it may appear on the finest detail OS maps. There is no doubt that the cave existed before 1910.
From the description and map in the article, the entry to the cave appears to be located on the northern or eastern bank of Billies Burn, probably above/to the east of Billies Bridge.
Above the bridge, the arc of a mill laid which ran to a threshing mill at Billies, is still visible in the landscape. That same arc is on the map pictured above. That may be the mill lade above a large proportion of the cave.
If you find the entrance to the ‘Covenanters Cave’, please let us know where it is and photograph it. Even if you do not find it, please let us know about where you searched and any information that you discovered.
Please follow the rules of access to farmland and do not risk you life.
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.