Spotlight on Eglinton Country Park

Linda Brown

Eglinton Country Park in North Ayrshire has been welcoming visitors from all over the county and beyond for over thirty-seven years.

Managed and maintained by North Ayrshire Council and the North Ayrshire Rangers Service, the park, situated on the outskirts of Kilwinning, with Irvine only a couple of miles away, is easily accessible by car, cycle or bus. Its grounds are spread over a massive 400 hectares, giving plenty of space to enjoy and explore. Open all year round, with onsite parking, free admission and lots of wonderful features to check out, including Eglinton castle ruins, the Tournament Bridge, a doocot (dovecot), wood carvings and a rather quirky headless statue, Eglinton Country Park is the perfect place to take your dog for a long walk, go for an invigorating bike ride or spend a fun family day out. Perhaps you have already been to Eglinton? If you haven’t, why not pay the park a visit this year and enjoy for yourself the Eglinton ‘experience’?

History of Eglinton Estate

Eglinton Estate belonged to wealthy landowners, the Earls of Eglinton and Winton (the Montgomerie family) for around 600 years. The earliest castle on the estate dated from the 14th century and was destroyed in 1528; burnt to the ground by the feuding Cunninghams led by the Earl of Glencairn.

The Montgomerie ancestral seat, the magnificent Gothic castellated Eglinton Castle (the ruined remains of which still stand today) was built around the end of the 18th century.

Archibald Montgomerie the 13th Earl of Eglinton and 1st Earl of Winton was the brains behind the infamous Eglinton Tournament held over 28th – 30th August 1839. The Tournament was touted to be a spectacular reenactment of medieval joust. A full-sized tiltyard with stands to sit an audience of 2,000 people was constructed on the estate grounds, “genuine” suits of medieval armour were procured by the forty would-be knights and guest were requested to wear medieval attire. Illustrious participants included Prince Louis Napoleon, the man destined to be the last French Emperor, as well as wealthy members of Scottish, English, Irish and foreign nobility. News of the event sparked great public interest – it is said around 100,000 spectators turned up at Eglinton to watch the tournament’s opening parade. Unfortunately, meticulous and expensive though the 13th Earl’s preparations were for his grand spectacle, there was one thing he was not able to organise – the Scottish summer weather – and, as it is want to do, right at the time the parade was kicking-off, dark clouds descended over Eglinton and the heavens let loose. Disaster… thunder, lightning, torrential rain and flooding scuppered the first day of the tournament and the medieval banquet planned for later had to be cancelled. It was such a washout and the grounds were so muddy that all plans for day two were abandoned but luckily, an improvement in the weather on the third day allowed the jousting to take place. Archibald Montgomerie was declared the winner of his own tournament – an award which perhaps softened the blow when he totted up his Tournament’s expenses; it is estimated his medieval folly cost him a vast sum of money, the equivalent today of £2.5 million.

The cast iron Tournament bridge crossing over the Lugton Water was constructed during the 1840s, several years after the event that inspired its name. By 1936 the bridge was badly damaged and had partially collapsed. A full restoration of the bridge was undertaken in 2008-2009.

Sharing an experience familiar to many stately homeowners after the Great War of 1914-18, the Montgomerie family found their finances struggling to cope with the pressure of death duties and the maintenance and running costs of Eglinton Castle and the estate. The family eventually vacated the castle in 1925 and the neglected building quickly fell into disrepair. Further damage to the castle was sustained during World War Two, when, incredibly, it was used as a target by the army during tank firing exercises.
The castle ruins were made safe in 1973, leaving only one wall and a tower standing. The estate was subsequently gifted to the local authority in 1978 on the understanding it would be used by the public for leisure activities. Eglinton Country Park officially opened in 1986.

Over the years it has drawn millions of visitors through its gates. A favourite destination for nursey and school excursions, the park has also hosted large events such as Scout and Guide camps, vintage vehicle shows and last December, a successful Christmas farmers market.

Things to do at Eglinton Country Park

Eglinton has three scenic walking circuits of varying lengths, a mixture of woodland trails and countryside paths, including the trail up to Cairnmount View (Sourlie Hill) where modern standing stones, leftovers from the area’s mining past, stand sentinel.

Some paths are suitable for cyclists and there is a network of bridle paths for those who wish to ride their horse through the park.

To ensure the park is accessible for all, Eglinton hire out electric mobility scooters and ability trikes – booking is essential, there is no charge but a refundable deposit is required.

For those who like to relax with a spot of fishing, Eglinton has a peaceful little loch where anglers can while away the hours trying to catch bream, perch, pike and more (a fishing permit is required). The loch also attracts a variety of water birds, including swans and curlews, and is popular with bird watching enthusiasts.

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife – the park is also home to other species of birds such as the greater spotted woodpecker, the yellowhammer and the kingfisher. If you are very lucky, you might spot mink, otters and roe deer.

Look out for activities, many of which are aimed for young people and children, organised by the North Ayrshire Rangers such as guided walks, making hedgehog homes, pond dipping or creating a festive wreath.

Keeping children entertained and happy, Eglinton offers two play-areas; one suitable for pre-schoolers, the other being a more challenging and inclusive adventure playground, with swings, slides, zip-wire and two wheelchair swings.

Clock up your walking steps while hunting for Geocaches hidden around the park. (Geocaching is a an outdoor, treasure-seeking game played using GPS on a mobile phone).

Immerse yourself in the history of Eglinton at the castle ruins, the Rackets Hall or the ice house, then have a wander at the park’s Visitor Centre which has an interesting exhibition of images, information boards and artifacts giving the background of the estate and the Montgomerie family.

And lastly, indulge in a tasty lunch or treat yourself to coffee and cake or at the park’s dog friendly Tournament Café. What a great way to finish off your day out. Especially if you’ve just stomped around the best part of 400 hectares!