Winning was a successful preacher from Ireland who built a church on the banks of the River Garnock in North Ayrshire after being revealed the site by an angel in a vision. Not entirely convinced this is how it all started, but the subsequent abbey is named after him. A Kil means ‘cell’ of the early Celtic church, hence lots of places in Scotland begin with Kil, like Kilmarnock.
The abbey church was dedicated to St Winning and the Virgin Mary and between 1163 and 1188 monks arrived from Kelso to set up a Tironensian Benedictine monastery. The origins of this order are in Tiron, near Chartres, and the monks were known as ‘grey monks’ due to their cloth. They established a few monasteries in Scotland.
The practice of dedicating a church to a patron saint began as early as the 4th Century but it wasn’t until 1229 that it was mandatory to have the name of the saint alongside the altar. The reformation whitewashed over the saints and the service of dedication was removed from the Book of Common Prayer. It was the Victorians who revived an interest in the patron saint with some gaining new dedications such as All Saints, or the very common, St. Peters. In parishes across the country its not uncommon to refer to the local church by its saint.
St Winning was supposed to have told his monks to fish in the river and when they failed to catch something he cursed the river to never have fish again. The river responded by changing its course, thereby freeing itself of the curse. I don’t think this St Winning had a love of nature if he went around cursing it.
Kilwinning Abbey was well endowed with estates and tithes bringing in an income of 2 million pounds… in modern money… a year! Such wealth didn’t go down with the reformers and the abbey’s destruction began during the Scottish Reformation. The Earl of Glencairn raided in 1559 and removed books, statues and vestments and by 1591, most of the monastery was demolished.
The main church originally had a spire – now long gone. What is left is a ruin and a bell tower. The bell tower is detached from the main body of the church, which is unusual and it was reconstructed in 1816 after the previous one fell down following a lightning strike.
There are 5000 bell towers in England, compared to a few hundred in the rest of the world. The practice of bell ringing, or ringing in the changes, is still very common across the UK and the sound of bells is often heard on Sunday mornings. You can find out more about bell ringing here.
The tower is now a heritage centre, rather than a prison, which it once was and poor Bessie Graham was held there accused of witchcraft by a witch finder in 1649. She was burnt at nearby stake. I’m sure these days the people of Kilwinning are very friendly.