The town of Kilwinning probably developed from a small settlement on the east side of the River Garnock, known as Segdoune. The coming of St Winning and subsequently of Tironensian monks of the Benedictine order shaped the development of Kilwinning as a major centre of medieval Christianity.
Throughout its history, Kilwinning has been a centre of the weaving, coal mining and ironworks industries, and in the 20th century became part of Scotland’s last New Town. From small beginnings, Kilwinning is now home to over 16,000 residents, and is the second largest town in North Ayrshire.
The Medieval Abbey was probably built on the site of a smaller, much earlier Celtic church set up by the person we now call Saint Winning. The date of this church is lost in time. One 16th Century historian wrote that the Saint was dead and buried in Kilwinning by 579, whilst other sources say he didn’t even arrive until 715. What IS true is that a Holy man arrived at the mouth of the River Garnock and set up his church or cell here, hence the ‘kil’ prefix in the town’s name.
At some time in the 12th Century, the building of an Abbey was commissioned by an Anglo-Norman family of de Morville. Unfortunately, the charter, or cartulary of the Abbey has been lost, so we have no accurate date for this. Some historians place it as early as 1140, while others say 1191, but dates in between are also possible. Even the name of the original founder is not settled, and historians still argue whether it was Hugh or Richard de Morville.
The transept of the original Abbey was about 100 feet (30m) across, wider than Paisley, Glasgow or St Andrews. The two towers at the western end were integrated with the walls of the abbey as you would expect, but uniquely in Scotland, they were open on the inside, perhaps to the height of a couple of storeys. This method of construction could have caused an inherent instability, as one of these towers apparently fell at a relatively early date. By the beginning of the 19th century, the remaining tower had many cracks and gaps. On the very morning workmen arrived to effect repairs, a large section of one corner collapsed. What was left of the structure was declared beyond saving, and was blown up in 1814, killing a pig tethered in a nearby yard.
The new 100 foot clock tower (33m) was completed in 1816, at a cost of £1590 10/11d. In the 1960’s, damage was caused by storms which removed the tops of the pinnacles, the remains of some of which are on display in the Tower.
Following the changes brought about by the Reformation in the mid 1500s, the nave of the medieval Abbey was rebuilt as the Parish church. The rest of the site was viewed as free building materials, and tenements went up, built largely from reused Abbey stone. These buildings, abutting the Abbey walls and surrounding the site, formed Abbey Green. Shops and businesses appeared, and the Green, in effect, became the heart of the town. The Green and its buildings survived up to the 1960s.
The Protestant Reformation began in the early 16th Century as an uprising against the excesses and corruption of the established Roman church and led to the creation of many different forms of Christian worship. The Abbey fell into ruin, not in one outburst of destructive rioting, but bit by bit over many, many years. Since there was no question 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.
The present church, now called the Old Parish Church, was completed in 1774 and cost £546, partly funded by the Earl of Eglinton. It was built of stones from the old Abbey over the site of the original Chancel, and these stones are easily seen by the uneven surface of some of the outer walls.
The cloisters, a square covered walkway surrounding an open central area, were on the south side of the Abbey buildings. This whole area, including the remains of the tenements built over the cloisters, was cleared by a Government body, the Ministry of Works, in the early 1960s. Original Abbey walls were exposed and made safe, a few photographs were taken, but any official reports have been lost, and a never-to-be-repeated chance was squandered. Sadly, evidence of the exact location of medieval foundations was largely ignored, and due to the extension of Vaults Lane and the building of new housing on the Green, the layout of the foundations you see today was ‘invented‘ to fit the space available and the wishes of town planners.
Research into the last inhabitants of these tenements has been published by Kilwinning Heritage, and copies are available to buy from the Heritage Centre or from our Shop page.
The Masons met within the Abbey buildings from its founding right up to the mid 1600s. Tradition and rumour says King Robert the Bruce visited Kilwinning after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, when he is said to have attended a Masonic festival in the town and instigated a Masonic decree called The Rosy Cross of Scotland.
In 1743, the Lodges were numbered by seniority. The Kilwinning lodge was placed second, but disputed this date, so in protest, declared itself independent. The arguments went on until the beginning of the 19th Century, when Kilwinning’s claim of seniority was approved and it was accepted back into the fold, when it became known as No. 0. This makes it the oldest established lodge in the world. The new Mother Lodge building was built on the present site in 1893.
The annual Papingo Shoot is the only one of its kind in the world. A papingo, or pigeon (also the same word as popinjay), is a wooden bird mounted at the end of a horizontal pole at the top of a tall building or steeple. Members of the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers shoot at it from below, keeping one foot on the step of the Tower’s old doorway. The winner is the first person to knock it off its perch. The ASKA is probably the oldest archery organisation in the world, the first recorded shoot being in 1483. The magnificent silver Kilwinning Arrow trophy of 1724 associated with the Shoot is on display in Kilwinning Library.
In 1649, Bessie Graham had a drunken argument with a neighbour. The argument was overheard by others, who interpreted what she’d said as a curse. When the neighbour died suddenly, the authorities accused Bessie of witchcraft and imprisoned her in the original medieval Tower for many weeks. Witchfinder Alexander Bogs was summoned from Irvine to torture and interrogate her. He pronounced her indeed to be a witch in league with the Devil, so poor Bessie was taken to Corsehill Moor and burned at the stake. An interesting story, but with no provable evidence.
Visit the Heritage Centre
Mid-May to mid-September
Friday, Saturday & Sunday 1-3.
Other openings to be arranged.
Please check our Facebook page for details.
Climb the 143 steps for stunning views from the roof.
Under 16’s must be accompanied by an adult.
Andy Baird, Chairman 2011-2019
Andy passed away on 31 January 2019. Sorely missed for his humour, his love of Kilwinning and his hard work for the town's heritage.
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