Politicians, police, and community leaders in Kilwinning all stress the harmony between local groups and inter-denominational activities. But the word on the streets and in the working class pubs paints a black, depressing picture.

Most people refused to be named and photographs were out of the question. In Kilwinning alone, there are six Loyal Orange Lodges, for men, women, teenagers, and youngsters under 13.

The town also became the seat of Freemasonry in Scotland, with the country's oldest lodge. Kilwinning was the scene of a month's violent sectarian rioting in 1907.

''If you are not a Protestant you don't stay here,'' says one regular in the Buff Tavern, named after a junior football team. ''There's the Orange Lodges, three bands, and the oldest Masonic lodge in Scotland. That's how bad it is.''

Heather, a 38-year-old NHS manager at a Glasgow teaching hospital, left Ayrshire soon after being thrown out of Kilwinning's Winton Arms for being a Catholic. The pub, now demolished, became infamous after a customer was banned for owning a green car.

''I was 18 at the time,'' she remembers. ''The woman behind the bar took one look at me and said: 'You look like a Catholic and you smell like a Catholic.' Then she threw me out. She was notorious for barring Catholics and bigotry is still rife. I don't want my name printed because I still have family there.''

Heather first experienced sectarianism when she was just seven. ''I went to a friend's house in Stevenston and her mother slammed the door in my face. She said: 'I don't want any Papes here.' If you go back it's always been there - what school did you go to, who your dad was. There was only one big employer in the area and that was ICI."

Heather adds: ''I was glad to leave it all behind. My mum and dad protected us and told us to be good to everybody, because she was a Protestant and he was a Catholic. They had a mixed marriage. Can you believe that's what they still call it?''

Cunninghame South Labour MP Brian Donohoe stresses the importance of peaceful co-existence. ''As someone who has to deal with all sorts of disputes, it's less than helpful to encounter bigotry coming to the surface,'' he says. ''This one isolated incident possibly had its roots elsewhere. I have no major concerns of it being repeated in the future.''

Roy Lauchlan, a Justice of the Peace and former Kilwinning town councillor, insists: ''Kilwinning is more together than most communities. The Orange label is more in the past, and these incidents tend to get blown out of proportion.''

Nobody would comment at Kilwinning's Orange lodges, but Jack Ramsay, secretary of the Loyal Orange Institution of Scotland, says: ''Mark Wyper is not an Orangeman, he does not play in an Orange band, and I have no knowledge of his links with the Apprentice Boys, which is a separate and autonomous organisation.

''All people have the right to their own beliefs and to live their lives without interference to their basic civil and religious liberties.'' Mr Ramsay would not comment on alleged sectarianism in North Ayrshire.

Superintendent David Johnstone, in charge of policing Irvine and Kilwinning, says: ''I have no knowledge of overt sectarianism in the area.''

A source close to MI5 in Northern Ireland confirmed the strong links between loyalist paramilitary groups and Scottish supporters. ''The one place where they have the most practical support has been Scotland,'' he says.