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?

Covenanters Cave at Billies Burn

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.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABillies Glen © Ed Iglehart and licensed for reuse.

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 ‘Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’ and accept the terms of use.

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.

Map of Netherthird                Aerial View of Netherthird

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.

Street View 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.

Map of Billies Burn           Aerial View of Billies Burn

Kirkcormack and MotteKirkcormack and Motte © Chris Newman and licensed for reuse.

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.

Nearby is the site of St Ringan’s Well (and here) and St Cormac’s Church and a Motte.

Good luck!

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on May 30, 2013.

5 Responses to “Making History: The Secret Covenanters Cave near Kirkcudbright and St Ninian”

  1. On John Ainslie’s 1797 map of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright [which is in the Kirkcudbrightshire section of the National Library of Scotland digital maps of Scottish Counties] a ‘Lead Mine’ is shown near to Billies and the Billies Burn. It could be that the cave Coles found was the remains of a small (unsucessful?) lead mine. Here is a link to the Ainslie map

  2. Hi Alistair,

    Terrific. That lead mine does look close to the suspected site of the “Covenanters Cave”. Any idea when it was sunk?


  3. Also
    The Fourth [and Fifth] Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in Galloway, Edinburgh 1912

    Footnote to ‘St. Ringan‘s Well, Kirkcormack’, page 105,

    The so-called cave at Billies, Kirkcormack, known locally as the ‘Covenanters’s Cave’ and situated in a glen on the edge of a small stream, described in PSAS 45 p. 297 where it is called St Ringan’s Cave, has, in all probability been a gallery made by miners prospecting for copper.

    If in Billies Glen and near a mill-lade, this would give OS Grid Ref NX 724 568,
    with NX 723 570 as less likely alternative.

  4. The dating would be 1760s – the Old Military Road through Galloway was built 1763/4 and during construction lead was accidentally found near Minnigaff/ Newton Stewart and the lead was mined for the next 30 years. This inspired landowners to search for lead/ copper on their estates. Ainslie puts ‘Sup’d’ (supposed) in front of ‘a lead mine’ [It is clearer on John Thompson’s 1821 map) – so the mine was no longer active in 1797 and had probably been disused / never successful for 20 years or so – long enough for Ainslie to be doubtful about its original function.

  5. […] Caitloch Cave shares a similar location to other caves which, either are, in the case of the Covenanters Cave in Kelton parish a lead mine, or may be an unsuccessful mine, such as Peden’s Cave at […]

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