One feature has dominated the skyline of Kilwinning for more than eight hundred years, namely, The Abbey Steeple or Tower. When Richard De Morville, most likely, founded the Abbey in the latter part of the twelfth century, possibly 1188, it was designed with three towers or steeples, two of which were on either side of the main entrance and the third sited on the centre of the roof midway between the north and south transepts.
Following the Reformation and the destruction of the Abbey in the sixteenth century only one of the steeples remained intact, this being the one on the left-hand side of the main entrance. This remaining steeple was used to house the great bell, but it also served as the town jail. Over the years many a miscreant, both male and female, spent some time in the rather primitive and intimidating conditions of this makeshift prison. Two of the Towers most notorious characters were Bessie Graham and Duncan Cochrane. Bessie was imprisoned in the Tower in 1649 for a period of thirteen weeks on a charge of witchcraft. It appears that during a fall out with her neighbour, Mrs Rankin, Bessie said things to Mrs Rankin, which other neighbours believed to be a curse. The fact that Mrs Rankin died a few weeks later was sufficient proof in the eyes of her neighbours to accuse Bessie of being a witch, an accusation that
In those early days demanded immediate internment, whilst the accusation was investigated. Alexander Bogs, a Witch finder from Irvine, was called in to examine Bessie and his verdict was that she was, without any doubt, a witch and in league with the devil. Poor old Bessie, a sad, lonely and elderly spinster was taken to Corsehill Moor and burned at the stake, a victim of mankind's ignorance and fear.
Duncan Cochrane on the other hand was a much more frequent visitor to the Tower spending many weekends of incarceration, arising from drunkenness, rioting and the occasional assault. This behaviour was considered to be trivial in comparison to Bessie's. It should be said, however, that on one occasion Duncan was facing a charge of attempted murder, which for some reason or another he was never convicted. It should also be noted that his anti-social activities were not just confined to the Kilwinning area but are recorded as occurring in Irvine, Dreghorn, Dalry, Beith, Saltcoats and Ardrossan, where he originally came from.
The old Tower remained standing until 2nd August 1814, when weakened by age and several strikes by lightning it collapsed. This was not altogether unexpected; in fact the very day on which it fell a party of workmen had arrived to carry out structural maintenance and repairs. To this end the bells, the original Kilwinning Bell and a smaller bell donated by the Eglinton family, had been removed a fortnight earlier.
Saddened by the loss of the Tower the good people of Kilwinning immediately got together and unanimously agreed to build a replacement. Designs and plans were quickly produced, the first by John Connell of Dalgarvan then a second and third set by David Hamilton the architect from Glasgow. The Heritors finally approved of David Hamilton's second design, accepted John Connell's estimate of one thousand four hundred and thirty pounds for building the new Tower and finally appointed Mr. John Wyllie, Mason from the Corsehill,as the inspector and superintendent of the building.
On the 21st December, 1814, the day of the Festival of St. Thomas and the date of the annual installation of the office bearers of Mother Lodge Kilwinning Masonic Lodge, the foundation stone was laid by William Davidson Esq. Most Worshipful Grandmaster of the Most Ancient Mother Lodge, Kilwinning and Provincial Grand Master of the County of Ayr in the presence of the Earl of Eglinton and the Heritors of the Parish of Kilwinning and the members of the Mother Lodge Kilwinning. The Festival of St. Thomas was always a day of great celebration but on this occasion the town went wild with excitement. The Freemasons were out in all their glory, Worshipful Masters, Provincial Grand Masters, deputations from other lodges all dressed in their finery and sporting their jewels of office were there in abundance, as were the Archers and the townspeople. Cannons at Eglinton Castle and Ardrossan shot forth angry sheets of flame and bands paraded the streets. It was never to be forgotten. Incidentally, at the time of the laying of the foundation stone the final contracts had still not been signed, and it was not until 5th June 1815 that the paper work was completed, agreements signed and the work commenced. On the 12th November 1816 the new Tower was completed to the satisfaction of the superintendent, John Wyllie, at a total cost of one thousand five hundred and ninety pounds eleven shillings and ten pence. The additional cost of hundred and sixty pounds over the builders original estimate is accounted for by architects fees, joiner work, inspection fees and the installation of glazed windows.
The new Tower was a truly resplendent structure complete with a clock with four faces, a bell tower with two bells and standing 100 feet tall, or, 120 feet if we take cognisance of the four pinnacles.
During the 1990's Cunninghame District Council (Now North Ayrshire) and enterprise Ayrshire pooled their resources in a joint venture to renovate the Tower, which was in a state of disrepair, and also establish a Heritage Centre. By 1995 the renovations were completed and the Abbey Tower Heritage Centre was officially opened on the 17th March 1995 by Councillor Graham Ritchie from Kilwinning and Councillor Stewart Dewar the then Convenor of Cunninghame District Council.
The Heritage Centre is officially managed by the Museum Services of North Ayrshire Council, but staffed and cared for by members from Kilwinning & District Preservation Society. On permanent display are short histories of The Abbey, The Tower, The Masonic Lodge and The Kilwinning Archers. The connection with the poets Robert Burns and Robert Service is permanently highlighted and models of The Abbey, Eglinton Castle, The Robert Service Memorial and The Tower itself, recreated and constructed with matchsticks, are on display.
During the open season from May till September a regular stream of visitors visit the centre, many of them from overseas but equally so visitors from all parts of the United Kingdom. One of the growth interests today is tracing one's ancestors and in this area the Centre is well equipped to help people with Kilwinning connections get started or find answers.
If you have still not yet visited the Tower and Heritage Centre please do so; you will be made most welcome.
During the closed season or out with normal opening hours The Centre and Tower can be opened on request to both individuals and groups by simply contacting James S Miller, Secretary, Kilwinning & District Preservation Society. TEL:01294558352.