The family name of the Earls of Eglinton is Montgomery. In 1388, Sir John de Montgomerie married Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir Hugh Eglinton. She was his sole heir, so the marriage joined two important families. It joined the Baronies and lands of Eglinton and Ardrossan, as well as other properties and estates in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, and Midlothian, including Rothesay, Eastwood, Cathcart and Eaglesham. Hugh, the Third Lord Montgomery, was created Earl of Eglinton by James IV of Scotland in 1507.
The ruins of the 'castle' are all that remain of what was actually a large Georgian mansion, commissioned by the 12th Earl, and completed in 1802 by the Edinburgh architect John Paterson on the site of a much earlier castle. It's said there were 365 windows, one for every day of the year.
Sitting in about 1400 acres of land, with about 10 miles of roads, it was a magnificent building, second only to Culzean Castle in South Ayrshire. The central saloon was 36 feet wide (11m) and about 100 feet high (30m). The grounds also had a stable block, a deer park, an enormous bowling green said to one of the finest in Britain, a cricket pitch, tennis courts, croquet lawn, squash court, a rackets hall (the oldest surviving court in the world and the oldest indoor sports building in Scotland), curling pond, fish pond, ice house, gardens, greenhouses, and a private gas works. At its peak, the estate employed more than 400 people. In 1901, it is recorded that Eglinton had the most important collection of species of mature trees in southern Scotland.
Archibald, the 13th Earl, staged an authentic Medieval Tournament, complete with Knights on horseback in full armour and all their servants, feasting, jousting, and a Queen of Beauty over three days in August 1839 in the grounds of the Castle. The earl's friends, the cream of the gentry of the day, played the parts of the Knights. They had been disappointed by the plainness and curtailed pageantry of Queen Victoria's Coronation the year before, so it was intended to be a colourful and no-expense-spared party.
The extravagant event attracted an estimated 100,000 spectators from all over the UK and beyond, and it benefitted from the recent completion of the first railway lines in Ayrshire. (It also caused the first fares increase!) Unfortunately, torrential rain ruined much of the first day of the event, creating huge cleaning bills for the Earl, and earning the Tournament an infamous place in history. Contrary to popular opinion, the Tournament did not itself cause the downfall and bankruptcy of the Eglintons, but it didn't help.
The on-going costs of keeping the Eglinton empire afloat were enormous. Unsuccessful business projects, the poor condition of the Castle, and finally, death duties, all had a fatal impact on the family finances. The Castle was abandoned in 1925, was de-roofed and had the windows removed, thus avoiding tax. 1,960 items were auctioned off, raising £7,004 19s 6d. The Montgomerie family now lives in Perthshire.
During the early part of the last War, the Army and Navy used it for target practice, destroying two of the four towers, and vehicle maintenance and preparation depots for future European troop landings were established in the grounds. Not belying the fact that we were at war, the armed forces trashed the estate and what was left of the Castle.
Around 1973, the ruins were rationalised and made safe, resulting in what we see today. The establishment of Eglinton Country Park by the old Irvine Development Corporation (IDC) and North Ayrshire Council saved much of the estate for the benefit of all the people of Ayrshire and beyond. The Wilson family had purchased the old offices, castle ruins, and other land from Robert Howie and Sons in 1950. Clement Wilson, the food processing factory owner, established the Clement Wilson Foundation, and opened part of the grounds to the public, spending around £400,000 (around £5 million in today's terms) on consolidating the castle ruins, planting trees, landscaping, making paths, restoring the Tournament Bridge, etc.
He built a canning factory utilising the old stables block. The factory employed 300 people, but closed in 1997 on the sale of the business. The stable block, said to have been designed by Robert Adam and built of robbed stone from Kilwinning Abbey, has now been converted into private flats.
The Wilson family gave the park to the then Cunninghame District Council in 1978, making it possible to establish Eglinton Country Park, a resource which now attracts over 250,000 visitors a year. Facilities include woodland walks, bird hides, picnic areas, Ranger Service, visitor centre and exhibition, play areas, camping and caravan site, and café.
Eglinton Country Park is served by the North Ayrshire Council Ranger Service which offers a programme of guided walks and events from Easter and July-October.
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