Historians and writers disagree about who was the man we call St Winning. Some say he came from Ireland, some say Wales, some even say he was Scottish, and his name has many variations in spelling. What is agreed though is that a Holy man set up his church or cell here, perhaps on the very site of the Abbey, hence the 'kil' prefix in the town's name, but there is no set date for this either.
The medieval Abbey was commissioned by the Anglo-Norman family of de Morville; some say specifically by Hugh de Morville, High Constable of Scotland, some say his son Richard. Yet others say it was his other son, also called Hugh. Some place the date as early as 1140; while 17th Century historian Timothy Pont states that he had studied the Abbey's charter which gave the date as 1191. Unfortunately the charter, or cartulary, of the Abbey has been lost, so we have no accurate records to consult.
The Abbey was relatively short, but very wide. The public parts, the nave and transept, were 100 ft (30m) across, wider than Paisley, Glasgow or St Andrews abbeys. It was unique in Scotland, as the two bell towers at the western end were open on the inside, perhaps to more or less their full height. One of these towers fell at a relatively early date, but the other remained standing until 1814 when most of it collapsed. The tower you see now is a replacement with the addition of a clock, completed in 1816.
Kilwinning Abbey was very wealthy. Its income came from a wide variety of sources, including many Parishes, farms and churches in Ayrshire and Dumbarton, as well as on the island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. In the 1860s, historians calculated that its yearly income could well have been in the region of £20,000, or in today's money, around £3 million.
During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the abbey was cleared and fell into disuse, the stones being robbed to build other structures in the town and district. But the town still needed a church. The first post-Reformation church was built about 1565 over the foundations of the old medieval monastery, and the present church in 1774. Also known as the Abbey Church, it was built over the altar and chancel of the medieval Abbey. It was designed by John Swan and cost £546, partly donated by the Earl of Eglinton. Many stones from the old Abbey were re-used, and these are easily seen by the uneven surface of some of the outer walls.
A bazaar was held in 1896 to raise funds to install a new organ in the church. £1630 was raised, and the organ was built and installed by Foster and Anderson of Hull, at a cost of £750.
The pews at the front of the balcony within the pillars facing the pulpit are known as the Eglinton Loft. Being the Parish church, the Eglintons paid for and were granted their own private pews for family and servants, and a private room and stairway entrance at the rear.
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