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Good question, it depends on who you ask. Some place the date of its founding as early as 1140, while the 17th Century historian Timothy Pont states that he had studied the Abbey’s charter which gave the date as 1191. Unfortunately, the charter of the Abbey has been lost, so we have no accurate records to consult. Since then, the date of 1188 seems to be popular, in fact the Old Parish Church celebrated the 800th Anniversary in 1988. The founders were an Anglo-Norman family named de Morville, some say specifically Hugh de Morville, as he was High Constable of Scotland. Some claim it was his son Richard. Others say it was his other son, also confusingly called Hugh. The truth is, we don’t know for sure.
Most likely, the abbey was designed and built by Italian and French mason-monks, assisted by local ‘free’ masons. Being a Freemason meant that, as a skilled worker, you could travel freely without the need to obtain permission from any local Lord. These foreign craftsmen would have brought their practices and customs with them and would have applied them in Scotland in order to protect their jobs and skills. They would have had a hand in all aspects of the building, and many of them would have had skills other than just stoneworking. “Architects” of medieval abbeys were not usually credited by name, as the buildings were for the glory of God, not an individual person. No doubt some of the monks were also skilled in architecture.
As well as the Continent, they came from Kelso Abbey in the Borders. They were members of the Tironensian Benedictine order, originating from Tiron in France. Unlike some other orders, they wore grey habits.
The Protestant Reformation began in the early 16th Century as an uprising against the excesses and corruption of the established Roman church. It spread gradually throughout Europe, and led to the creation of many different forms of Christian worship which are still active today.
The Abbey fell into ruin, not in one outburst of destructive rioting, but bit by bit over many, many years. Various local Earls did some damage in the early 1500s, but stronger action took place in 1559, when the Earl of Glencairn led a raid during which pictures, books, vestments, and all other images and idols were said to have been taken to the Abbey Green and burned. Since there was no system of rebuilding or preservation, wind and weather took their toll, and the site became a source of free building material for use elsewhere in the town and district over many generations. Evidence shows that the Earls of Eglinton were particularly enthusiastic ‘recyclers’!
The town’s ancient name was Segdoune, possibly coming from Sanctoun, meaning ‘Saint’s town’. It was the first recorded name of a settlement here, probably in the Corsehill area, which itself comes from cross hill, or hill of the cross.
The town is now named after Saint Winning. Historians and writers disagree about his origins: some say he came from Ireland, some say Wales, some even say he was Scottish, so his name also appears variously as Vinnen, Wynnyng and Finnan. Still more historians state that a church of Saint Winin existed at Corsehill in the 7th century. Winin, or maybe Winning, Wissing or Wyssyn may be corruptions of the name Uinniau, better known as Ninian, so take your pick. What is not in dispute is that a Holy man arrived via the River Garnock and set up his church or cell here, hence the ‘kil’ prefix in the town’s name.
Historian Timothy Pont wrote that the Saint was dead and buried in Kilwinning by 579, whilst other sources say he didn’t even arrive until 715. We don’t know precisely when the town changed its name.
These ruins are all that remain of what was actually a large Georgian mansion, commissioned by the 12th Earl, and completed in 1802 by the Edinburgh architect John Paterson on the site of a much earlier castle. In other words, it was a stately home. Sitting in about 1400 acres of land with about 10 miles of roads, it was a magnificent building, second only to Culzean Castle. The central saloon was 36 feet wide (11m) and about 100 feet high (30m). The grounds also had a stable block, a deer park, an enormous bowling green said to be one of the finest in Britain, a cricket pitch, tennis courts, croquet lawn, squash court, a rackets hall (the oldest surviving court in the world and the oldest indoor sports building in Scotland), curling pond, fish pond, ice houses, gardens, greenhouses, and a private gas works. At its peak, the estate would have employed more than 400 people. In 1901, it was recorded that Eglinton had the most important collection of species trees in southern Scotland.
The on-going costs of keeping the Eglinton empire afloat were enormous. Unsuccessful business projects, the poor condition of the Castle, the effects on the job market of the First World War and death duties all had impacts on the family finances. The Castle was abandoned in 1925, was de-roofed and had the windows removed, thus avoiding tax. 1,960 items were auctioned off, raising £7004 and some change. During the early part of the last War, the Army and Navy used it for target practice, destroying two of the four towers, and a vehicle maintenance depot for future European troop landings was established in the grounds. Around 1973, the ruins were rationalised and made safe, resulting in what we see today.
Archibald, 13th Earl of Eglinton staged an authentic Medieval Tournament over three days in August 1839 in the grounds of Eglinton Castle, complete with Knights on horseback in full armour and all their servants, feasting, jousting, and a Queen of Beauty. Friends of the Earl, the cream of the gentry of the day, played the parts of the Knights. They had been disappointed by the lack of pageantry of Queen Victoria’s coronation the year before, so it was intended to be a colourful and no-expense-spared party: indeed, it has been estimated that the event cost the Earl today’s equivalent of £2 MILLION (about $3.5 million).
Being free, the extravagant event attracted an estimated 100,000 spectators from all over the UK, the US and Europe, and it benefitted from the recent completion of the first public railway lines in Ayrshire. Unfortunately, torrential rain ruined much of the event, creating huge cleaning bills for the Earl, and earning the Tournament an infamous place in history. However, some good weather on the third day meant that some jousting and pageantry went ahead, and that at least met with some success. Contrary to popular opinion, the Tournament did not directly cause the downfall and bankruptcy of the Eglintons, but it didn’t help. An excellent book, ‘The Knight and the Umbrella’ by Ian Anstruther, is on sale in the visitor centre at Eglinton, and tells the whole fascinating story of the event.
The cinema in Almswall Road was inspirationally called Kilwinning Picture House when it opened in 1915. In those days, it also had Vaudeville presentations before the main feature, live singing and dancing, or what today we would call ‘Variety’. Films were also shown in the nearby Temperance Hall, now the Orange Social Club. Latterly, the cinema was named The Kingsway. The ‘balcony’ was merely a raised area two steps up from the stalls behind a wooden barrier! The floor from the front to the back was sloping, with no steps.
After closing in the 60s, it became a social club, then a disco called Flicks. In the early 80s, it caught fire in the middle of the night, and burned to the ground. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but the cause was never discovered. The site is now Boots pharmacy.
Towards the end of the 18th Century, many new inventions and innovations led to the increasing mechanisation of cotton manufacture. In the 1840s, about half the population was involved in weaving. Within fifty years or so, this had fallen to less than ten percent. The Cotton House was a large, three-storey building near to the corner of Dalry Road, a manufacturing and residential facility to supply muslin to Paisley and Glasgow merchants. When demolished in 1900, it was found to have been built largely from robbed Abbey stone. In 1966, a piece of stonework, allegedly from the tomb of Richard de Morville, was found in the remains of the garden wall, but its whereabouts are unknown.
It was built by Major Hugh Buntine around 1681. He had distinguished himself in 1645 in Border skirmishes during the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell rewarded him by making him ‘Muster-Master of the Horse’ for Scotland. In 1670, he bought a huge estate which included Law Castle in West Kilbride. A velvet nightcap which belonged to him is in the Burrell Collection.
Unsurprisingly, the building was in Greenfoot, between Kyleswell Street and Abbot’s Walk. It was a large and imposing house, being occupied right up until the 1940s. It is said that inside was a flight of steps leading down to the main sewer for the Abbey’s latrines, a possible source of all those daft stories about secret tunnels under the Abbey.
One of the last occupants of the house was Robert Stevenson Shanks. For a bet, he pushed a wheelbarrow to London and back, claiming he would return in time to see ‘The Buffs’ – Kilwinning Rangers – win the Scottish Cup. On May 29th 1909, at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, The Buffs beat Strathclyde 1-0 in the Final. Robert completed his round trip by wheeling his barrow into the ground, to the further cheers of the large crowd. The house was demolished in 1956.
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The Earl and the Exciseman is the story of the violent death of the 10th Earl of Eglinton in 1769 and the subsequent trial of Mungo Campbell. Using previously unavailable sources, James Kennedy meticulously describes the event which rocked the British establishment at the time, and the legal processes in Georgian Edinburgh which are shocking to the modern mind and which favoured the land-owning elite over the ordinary man. Launched on 13th July 2021. See shop page for details.
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