Archaeology Projects

Full reports of these projects are available free from our Downloads page.

The Kilwinning Community Archaeology Project (KCAP), from July 2010 to March 2012 aimed to discover more about the historic burgh through archaeology and related areas of activity. Digging took place in the grounds of the Abbey, and test pits were also dug in a couple of local gardens, on land which would have been within the original Abbey grounds, to look for artefacts or evidence that may relate to monastic life and the medieval burgh.

In the 1960’s the area of the Abbey grounds and cloisters known as the Abbey Green, was cleared of dilapidated 16th to 19th century domestic dwellings. This clearance was followed by so-called archaeological investigation by the then Ministry of Works over the course of a few years. But it was a wonderful and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity missed and mishandled. If any records were made, they have been lost. Only a few dozen photographs remain. At the end of the investigation, the ground was levelled and an artificial layout of parts of the south range was created to fit the available space. Part of our Project was to try to re-establish these forgotten walls and foundations, and to try to make sense of what the medieval layout may have been.

Excavations uncovered medieval structural remains relating to the south range of the abbey buildings, along with the probable foundation layers for the cloister arcade. Soil samples revealed seeds of cereal crops, alder, birch, hazel and oak, as well as seeds of either apples or pears. This would fit nicely with descriptions of orchards being on the site.

Radiocarbon dating of mammal bone and two charcoal samples also took place. The dates for the bone came back as mid-15th century, the charcoal being dated as 5th century and 11th century. This is potentially exciting, as it proves human activity on or very near the site before the visit of St Winning.

A remarkable find in 2010 was a graffiti gaming board scored on a roofing slate. Post excavation work revealed another scribed slate, this time with what appears to be the figure of perhaps a rearing lion. Gaming boards are created by concentric squares scratched onto building stone or roofing slate for use in counter-based games. Typically, these games were played with nine counters (or men) per player, giving its name of ‘Nine Men’s Morris’. The use of building material for the boards suggests they were made by masons or other workers, or perhaps were used by the monks to teach maths. The form of this board has been dated to the 13th or 14th century.

An unexpected find in the 2011 season was a Neolithic flint arrowhead. Our experts revealed that this specimen in this context is referred to as being ‘elf-shot’. Even though ostensibly Christian, everyone in medieval times, including monks, still believed in magic and the supernatural as much as they did in their religion. It was believed that illness or bad luck was caused by evil elves that shot invisible arrows of bad magic. Monks would often wear ancient items such as this as charms or talismans against evil influences. Since it was found in the Chapter House, an area containing human remains, this arrowhead could once have been worn by one of the monks or abbots.

Pieces of medieval pottery were also recovered. Most of these were probably made fairly locally, but one piece of ‘redware’ pottery has been identified as probably being 16th century Spanish in origin, another from 14th century Germany.

The full report of the archaeology is available from our Downloads page. The full findings of the Project have been summarised in plain language in Issue 1 of the Kilwinning Heritage Series, available at the Heritage Centre or from our Shop page.

Two investigations of the site of “Lady Jane’s Cottage” in Eglinton Park have taken place, both with Rathmell Archaeology staff. The works were scheduled so that Guides from the International Guides Camp at Eglinton (Ayrwaves 2012 and 2017) could visit the site, discover more about the estate and its archaeology, as well as taking part in some practical exercises.

The cottage’s name makes reference to Lady Jane Montgomerie, the daughter of Hugh Montgomerie, 12th Earl of Eglinton. The small cottage of one or two rooms for day use, and built around 1800 at the same time as Eglinton Castle, is described as follows: "Near to the gardens, in a remote corner, more than half encircled by the river, a remarkably handsome cottage has been reared and furnished, under the direction of Lady Jean Montgomery, who has contrived to unite neatness and simplicity, with great taste in the construction of this enchanting hut”. Romantic cottages such as this were referred to as a 'cottage ornée'. She used this thatched building to teach domestic skills to local girls, and the young grandsons of the 12th Earl were brought out here to play. Described as a ruin in 1928, nothing remains of either the cottage or the nearby footbridge, though some footings of the footbridge were found by the project team in 2012. A persistent local tradition is that Lady Jane was banished daily to this cottage for some misdemeanour or other and would be led back to the castle by a manservant every evening.

Both excavations revealed the partial remains of the cottage, In 2012 the work took place over three days and only one corner of the foundations was exposed, but in 2017 the works, over seven days, uncovered the lower courses of the foundations with the exception of one end which was missing. Different stretches of these foundations were built with a mixture of well-dressed sandstone, boulders and brick which would have formed the cottages chimney/fireplace base. Garden features were also identified which included stone steps which led to paved and rough stone surfaces, possibly forming a very small ‘patio’ area or outbuilding to the side of the cottage. There were also stone and brick kerbs which suggested garden features and paths. Stone and brick drains were also identified, the purpose of which was to deal with runoff from the cottage’s roof and keep the garden areas well drained. The majority of the artefacts recovered from the site - window glass, lead window rods and iron fittings and ties from the thatched roof - relate to the demolition of the cottage in the 1930’s. Some domestic artefacts, such as white glazed pottery sherds and glass vessel fragments, were found within the ‘patio’ area.

Full reports from both seasons are available from our Downloads page.

This near derelict cottage and adjacent railway loading platform was our first independent investigation, instigated by KH member and former Eglinton Park Ranger Roger Griffith. Situated in the small hamlet of Benslie outside Kilwinning, it appears to have been built originally to service a short-lived coal pit on part of the large Eglinton estate around 1860-70. It was unusual in that some of the windows appeared to be built with reused stonework from Kilwinning Abbey. We carried out an industrial archaeology rescue investigation, assisted by Rathmell Archaeology Ltd, resulting in excavations, measurements and local history research to record and clarify issues relating to the heavily overgrown and near-collapsed building's construction, uses and occupancy. Within living memory, it has seen service as a domestic dwelling, a piggery and an office for a coach hire company.

Census and Inland Revenue records were consulted and we found the names of many of the dwelling’s occupants of the last 150 years.

Coal authority maps showed the cottage sat next to what was an early mineral railway built to the old ‘Scotch Gauge’ of 4ft 6ins, and worked at least initially by horses. Adjacent to the cottage is the remains of what clearly was a railway loading dock, known as a “hurry”, which was also partially exposed and recorded. This consisted of a length of substantial and well constructed walling with several courses, deep foundations, and different types of stone employed in the build. A direct link with the old waggonway was established through the discovery that the red sandstone courses along the top of the wall were built using stone railway sleeper blocks. All these sleepers had the same dimensions and had two circular or triangular holes drilled or cut to a significant depth. A heavily corroded iron spike used to grip the rails was discovered which backs up this discovery.

The land here was part of the Eglinton Estate and the main reason for building the Hurry may even be related to the construction and resource requirements of the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, an exciting possibility. It is situated conveniently close to the site of the tournament, now Eglinton Loch, and lay on a railway line that ran from Ardrossan Harbour. The metal and wood materials required for the substantial stands and pavilions for the Tournament would have been unloaded here after being shipped, possibly from London where Mr. Pratt, the supplier of these structures, had his base. It may even have been the point of arrival for some or other of the VIP guests at the Tournament who had travelled by steamer to Ardrossan and thence by the new-fashioned railway.

Full report is available from our Downloads page.

The site lies on a knoll on the west side of the Garnock valley between Kilwinning and Dalry in North Ayrshire in the grounds of Monkcastle House, a late Georgian structure within its own estate. The knoll was first noted as having archaeological potential during a survey carried out by KH member Ralph Shuttleworth in 2004 when an arc of boulders (kerb) around the slope of the east side was noted which was clearly not of natural origin.

It was initially thought that the site could be an unrecorded Iron Age site. Sadly, it appears to not be the case. The results show very clearly that the knoll is made up of bedrock of basalt lava with a thin cover of topsoil. The brown clay or silt initially taken to be of glacial origin is now best interpreted as decay product of weathering of the bedrock. The arc of smooth boulders is the only artificial remains identified within the knoll, and nowhere else on the site were similar boulders identified, so we must ask, where did they come from? The nearest source of water-worn stone is the River Garnock some 250m to the east and 55m below. If so, considerable effort has been deployed in the creation of the feature.

In summary, what we have seen is an enclosure within the knoll by a simple kerb of stones which have been brought to the site, but there is no evidence of what the enclosure was for. The central raised area is certainly bedrock and no evidence of any structure was seen there, but there are level areas to the south and west which could have held structures. 

Such a kerb could not have functioned as a stock enclosure. The possibility of a cairn was excluded and a homestead seems very unlikely, given the absence of a surrounding ditch and bank. A garden feature is not likely, given the distance from Monkcastle House. So it remains a puzzle.

Full report is available from our Downloads page.

The site contains the remains of an 18th century thread mill and a 19th century print works on the banks of the River Rye in Dalry, North Ayrshire. There is also visible evidence of a mill dam, sluices, lead and channels which could predate the buildings. The location was discovered by KH member Diane Brown after examining an 1856 OS map and earlier plans of the area held by Glasgow University Archive. The aims of the project were to collate and analyse the information which already exists, to examine, record and analyse the surviving remains, and to develop an interpretation of the history, character and operation of the site.

Desk-based research revealed a good quantity of old maps showing several buildings in use over 150 years or so, and put to various uses - flax mill and bleachfield, a shawl print works, corn mill, Turkey Red Dye and calico printing works and a woollen mill, all using the nearby river to power their machinery. Naturally, there were mill lades and other watercourses to be uncovered and recorded, so these were a specific target for the digging team.

Also discovered was the foundation of a small powder and ammunition store, used by the members of the Dalry Rifle Volunteers, who had used the surrounding land for target practice and training in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Thanks to dogged determination by a small dedicated team and the occasional use of a mechanical digger, several useful trenches were dug, exposing interesting industrial archaeological features comprising water channels and underground mill lades. All helped to expand the story discovered by desktop and book research to make what is so far the only historical interpretation of the site.

In summary, the site was found to contain three unrelated structural features - the mill, lade and associated buildings dating broadly between about 1750 and 1819, the fabric printing works dating from c.1840, and the powder magazine, dating from c.1870

Full report of both seasons is available from our Downloads page.

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