In Scotland you are surrounded by history wherever you travel in the country and for every popular historical attraction there are dozens of others that remain under the tourist radar. Many of these sites have just as much, if not more, historical significance but receive much less attention for various reasons.
Nestled tightly between a housing estate and the Main Street of the North Ayrshire town of Kilwinning is the unexpected gem of Kilwinning Abbey.
Although I know some parts of Ayrshire really well, North Ayrshire is still an area that I have barely explored. When I recently became aware of the ruins of this 12th Century Medieval Abbey, I decided it was a good excuse to get to know the region a bit better.
Although the ruins of Kilwinning Abbey are opened all year round, access to the heritage centre and tower is from 12 - 3pm, Friday to Sunday from mid-May to mid-September and I recommend going during these times to get the most out of your visit.
Although the clock tower is visible from most parts of Kilwinning, the Abbey ruins are hidden away behind the Main Street, surrounded by modern houses, I'm getting used to hidden gems in unexpected places but even I was surprised at the close proximity of the old and new.
The heritage centre is manned by enthusiastic volunteers and I advise joining a guided tour to get a background on the history of Kilwinning Abbey and access to the tower. The heritage centre is free to visit and although small, it houses an eclectic mix of exhibits.
Our tour started in the Abbey grounds and we were informed that Kilwinning Abbey was once one of the grandest in Scotland and probably built on the site of a much earlier Celtic Church. The Abbey was founded in the 12th Century and colonised by Tironesian monks from Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders.
Kilwinning Abbey fell into ruin during the Reformation and the stones were reused to build local tenements and a new Parish church on the grounds.
Originally the Abbey had two western towers, one which was lost when a large part of the Abbey was demolished and the remaining tower was blown up in 1814 as it was in a dangerous state. The 100 ft clock tower that stands today was completed in 1816 and you can climb the 143 steps to the rooftop as part of a guided tour.
I'm never one to pass up an opportunity of a view and as we wound our way up the spiral stone staircase we passed Mason's marks on the walls, the clock workings and the bell tower, before exiting out to take in the 360 degree vista.
My visit also coincided with the annual Papingo Shoot which involves the members of the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers attempting to hit a wooden bird (known as a papingo) mounted on the end of a pole at the top of the clock tower. The society is said to be the oldest archery organisation in the world, with their first recorded shoot dating back to 1483.
Standing at the bottom of the tower looking up, the papingo was a tiny target and I was impressed that a few archers actually managed to hit it. This was a fun event, not without an element of real danger as the arrows fell back down towards the gathered spectators. On more than one occasion people had to jump out the way to avoid being impaled, apparently the arrows are blunted to prevent injury (so you wouldn't really be impaled) but better safe than sorry!
There are also theories that Kilwinning Abbey could be the final resting place of the Holy Grail as it is said that the town and surrounding area was home to a high concentration of Knights Templar but I'll leave you to do your own research and make up your own mind about that hypothesis.
Next to the Abbey is Mother Lodge No 0, the oldest established Mason's lodge in the world although the present building only dates back to 1893.
For those interested in the history of the Freemasons, you can arrange a visit to the museum which has over 600 exhibits, many dating back several hundred years.
I really enjoyed my afternoon at Kilwinning Abbey but I would say that the tour and access to the heritage centre and tower was the highlight for me. If the centre is closed you can still wander around the external ruins but there is little left to see so I would recommend timing your visit for the heritage centre opening hours if you can.
If you can also arrange for your visit to coincide with the Papingo Shoot even better, although you might want to bring a hard hat!
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