As Kilwinning is thrown into the spotlight with speculation that it could be the final resting place of The Holy Grail, historian Jim Kennedy, who has compiled an in-depth guide to the history of the town, (…) talks about what lies under the tunnel.
The Abbey was the traditional burial place of the Earls of Eglinton in medieval times and later, it seems unlikely that this powerful family would have allowed the destruction or loss of access to their memorials at the rebuilding of the parish church or at any other time.
The 10th Earl, killed in a dispute with a local excise man, had been buried here in 1769 to the great grief of his mother, Susanna and brother Archibald, who succeeded him and oversaw the rebuilding of the parish church a few years later with the addition of the Eglinton Aisle.
A vault, used in 1861 for the interment of the 13th Earl lies at present beneath the parish church towards the west.
The other lead coffins there were recorded as The Countess Susanna, 1782; 12th Earl, Hugh, 1812; Hugh, 1817; Earl Archibald, the Countess Theresa, 1853 and Countess Adela, 1860.
Timothy Pont, writing at the end of the 16th century, was impressed with the memorials he saw at the Abbey, seemingly, still intact: “The founder thereof Sr Richard Morwell layes interrid under a tome of Lymestone, of old polished work, with this coate cut on the stone without aney superscriptione or Epitaphe. Heir, also were the Lords Montgomery and Earls of Eglintoune interred.”
That there was a place of burial under the old church is evidenced by an entry in the session register: “1731 to workmen for lifting the stone of the burial places.” There is also an account in 1859 of alterations being made to a series of vaults beneath the church.
Mr Pont writes: “The burial place of the noble house of Eglinton is in chambers situated under the present church and must have originally been part of the crypt of the old abbey. Before the late Countess died the vaults were in the state that they had been left in by the old iconoclasts but the present earl has caused these sepulchral relics to be protected. He has also caused several alterations to be made to the interior of the vaults which have altered the appearance.”
There is a final and fairly definite clue in the building contract of 1773 for the new parish church where the contractors were to take down the old walls except 15ft of wall opposite to the aisle to be built to the new church by the Earl of Eglinton. At this precise location at the Tironensian Abbey of St Dogmaels, there is a narrow stair contrived in the thickness of the wall leading down to an extensive early 13th century crypt, so this stipulation, and that no effigies or memorial slabs have ever been found around the site or in town buildings, is a good indication that such a crypt, which would be a great archaeological treasure, still exists below the church.