A daughter of Kelso
Kilwinning Abbey was founded in the later 1100s, probably by Sir Richard de Morville. Either he or his father, Hugh, also founded Dryburgh Abbey
, one of the three great Border abbeys. Another great Border abbey, Kelso
, a Tironensian house, provided the colonising monks.
Kilwinning appears to have had a relatively uneventful 400-year history. By the 1530s the 16 monks still in residence had abandoned the communal life and were each living in their own chamber and yard (garden).
Little remains of the abbey complex. The south transept of the church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, still stands almost to full height. So too does the south nave wall, including the east processional doorway, and part of the west front.
The west front includes a pair of west towers flanking the central entrance doorway. These are reminiscent of those still standing at Kelso, the mother house, and Arbroath Abbey
in Angus, another daughter of Kelso. Of the monks’ cloister, only the entrance into the chapter house stands to any height; the vaulted cellars in the west range also remain.
St Winnin’s kirk
The founding Tironensian monks arriving from Kelso in the 1160s were not colonising a new site – Kilwinning was already a holy place. Tradition holds that St Winnin, a holy man of possibly British or Irish origin about whom little is known, set up the first church around 400 years earlier.
The place-name Kilwinning means ‘the church of Winnin’. The only objects surviving from this early church are parts of a carved stone cross dating to around AD 900. This is now on display at North Ayrshire Heritage Centre in Saltcoats.
Victim of the Reformation
The Protestant Reformation of 1560 soon made its presence felt at Kilwinning. John Knox wrote of the abbey building being ‘cast down’ by a Protestant mob, goaded on by the Earls of Argyll, Arran and Glencairn.
By 1592 the place was certainly in ruins, although the nave of the church was repaired and used as the Presbyterian parish kirk until a new one was built. This new kirk, still in use today, was built in 1775 over the site of the old choir and presbytery. In 1814 the north-west bell tower of the old abbey collapsed. The following year it was replaced by the present clock tower.
- The south transept – still standing to full height, and along with the 19th-century clock tower, the town’s chief landmark.
Region – Glasgow, Clyde and Ayrshire
Off A78 Kilwinning to Ardrossan road.
Grid reference - NS 303 433.