Monday, 12 September 2016

Kilwinning Abbey

Time to move away from Rome for a little while, as we take a look at my own home town. Kilwinning lies in Ayrshire, in South West Scotland. Its original name was Segdoune - from "Sanctoun" - the town of the saint. "Segdon" still appears in a few street names in the town.
St Winning came to Scotland in 715 AD as a missionary from Ireland. He is supposed to have had a vision of an angel telling him where to set up his first church. The prefix Kil- in Scottish town names means "church of -".
Kilwinning Abbey was founded by monks of the Tironensian Benedictine Order - from Tyron near Chartres in France. A group were based in Kelso, in the Borders, and they began building the abbey around 1162. It was completed by 1188. There was some major work done again around 1230. The abbey church was one of the biggest in Scotland - its nave wider that Glasgow or St Andrews cathedrals.

Unusually, the abbey did not have a royal benefactor. The original patron was supposed to be Richard de Morville, Lord of Cunningham and Grand Constable of Scotland. Its early history is vague, as the abbey records were removed during the Protestant upheavals of the 16th Century, and were apparently later given to a local group of antiquaries in the early 18th Century - supposedly to publish, but nothing ever came of this. The records are now lost.
The first Abbot is recorded as taking his seat in 1190.

Revenues came from all over Ayrshire. The Abbot had a house in Glasgow, at the Drygate, and later a palace at Kerelaw.
The masons who built the abbey were responsible for Kilwinning having the Masonic Mother Lodge, only a short distance from the abbey today. As the first lodge in Scotland, it claimed the number "1". When the capital insisted that it should have the No.1 lodge, Kilwinning renumbered itself "0" to stay one step ahead.

With the rise of Protestantism in Scotland in the early 16th Century, the abbey was raided a number of times, and suffered damage. Its statues and stained glass were broken up, and treasures removed. The abbey was finally dissolved in the 1590's.
The buildings were never demolished, however, as it still had to perform the function of a kirk for the local population. The ruins we see today are the result of slow atrophy. With the loss of its lands and revenues, the local people could no longer afford its upkeep, and it slowly fell into ruin.
A lot of stone was quarried away for other building projects - such as the rebuilding of Seagate Castle in nearby Irvine, and Eglinton Castle elsewhere in Kilwinning. At Eglinton is a dovecot - or doocot as we say in Scotland. This originally belonged in the abbey and was moved to the castle stone by stone. The Earls of Eglinton lived in part of the abbey until their castle was built in the 17th Century.

The clock tower is a later addition, but built on original foundations. In 1649, the tower was used as the prison for a suspected witch - Bessie Graham. She was found guilty, and was burned to death in the area to the east of the River Garnock known as the Corsehill - a corruption of Cross Hill, as it used to have a large cross established to guide pilgrims to the abbey. The Corsehill was the site of a number of other witch burnings.
As a child, I used to hear stories that the tower was haunted. The spectre was known as the "Crack-faced Man". This was because he had a livid scar running down the middle of his ashen face. He never stopped you going into the abbey grounds after dark, but you certainly ran and never lingered.
There is a very atmospheric graveyard, and I could never understand how anyone could choose to live beside it.

Today, the various sections of the abbey have now been given signage, so you can tell what it is you are looking at. The tower is open during the summer months as a museum, and gives fantastic views over the entire town, the countryside around, and the nearby Firth of Clyde with the island of Arran dominating the western horizon.
Kilwinning's a nondescript little town in many ways these days, one you pass through going somewhere else, but if you are ever in the area do stop off and have a look around. You could see the abbey, Eglinton and Seagate Castles all in a day.
Eglinton still has the medieval doocot in its park, though there isn't much left of the castle itself (trashed by commando training during WW2). Seagate once hosted Mary Queen of Scots, and Irvine has literary links to Burns and Edgar Allan Poe. Just up the coast you can also visit Ardrossan Castle, which this year celebrated its 470th anniversary.

A couple of other mysteries to round off with. The treasures of the abbey have never been found. Some say that they are still buried somewhere in the grounds. Others say that they were buried on the crannog in Stevenston Loch, to the north of Kilwinning. There is reputed to be a tunnel leading all the way from the abbey to Eglinton Castle, which follows a ley line.

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