Nobody is sure exactly where, but archaeologists think they are about to find out.
A team led by Rathmell Archeology has begun a series of excavations aimed at unravelling the secrets of mediaeval monastic life in the town.
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Locating the bones of the abbot, Bernard of Kilwinning, who drafted one of the most significant documents in Scottish history, would be the biggest find of the excavation.
Thomas Rees is the archaeologist heading up the project. He said: “He could be under newer masonry, under more recent graves in the churchyard or even under the current 18th century church, in which case we won’t find him. But he is here somewhere.
“Chasing specific graves is very challenging and attributing identity to an unmarked grave is problematic. You’re certainly not going to do a CSI job on remains that old.”
Fiona Watson, an archeology student at Glasgow University taking part in the dig, said she came across human remains under the abbey’s nave but that they were “probably post-Reformation”.
She added: “With Bernard you’d expect to find certain accoutrements along with the burial that would give you a clue as to his status.”
Bernard, who died in about 1331, was head of the Tironesian monastic order at Kilwinning.
He became Chancellor of Scotland under Robert the Bruce, then later Abbot of Arbroath, before being handed the bishopric of the isles.
“He is a huge figure in Scottish history there’s no doubt about that,” said local historian Gardner McLachlan.
“The Declaration of Arbroath is hugely significant globally because it’s the first document that enshrines the idea that the people of the country are sovereign, rather than the governing monarch or anyone else.”
Although a shell today, Rees said of the abbey that “in its time it was an incredible church, similar in scale to Paisley or Glasgow cathedrals”.
Besides bones, the team – which has £90,000 worth of support behind them from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the regeneration company Irvine Bay – has so far found mediaeval and post-mediaeval pottery, a slate inscribed with a Morelles board (a counter-based game played as far back as 1440BC) and has located the line of the arcade, the covered walkway around the church’s cloister.
There is a Facebook site detailing progress and local people are encouraged to drop by at the site – one woman even brings along home baking for the dig team every day.
“To an extent it’s a lost chunk of Kilwinning, right in the middle of Kilwinning,” said Rees.
“A proportion of residents know the heritage of the burgh, but others are almost baffled to find that all this is here. But there have been really good visitor numbers.
“It’s a starting point from which we can help to improve people’s understanding and perception of this town, which is a real challenge.”
The history of Kilwinning Abbey
l 1162-1168: Abbey established by Tyron- esian monks, dedicated to local saint, Winning.
l 1286: Bernard, later Chancellor of Scotland, becomes abbot.
l 1320: Declaration of Arbroath, believed to have been drafted by Bernard, sent to Pope John XXII.
l 1562: John Knox visits Kilwinning to find Reformed church at former abbey. The first minister is a monk.
l 1774: Present-day Abbey Church built.
l 1814: New bell tower built next to ruined abbey.