The Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers

Stuart Wilson, Past Captain & President

The Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers is the oldest archery club in the UK, if not the world. Established in 1483 during the reign of James III it has continued, with a few breaks, since that time.

That initial formation was as part of the army raised by James III in July 1482 to fight his brother Alexander who, whilst contending the Scottish throne, had sided with Richard of Gloucester (later to become Richard III of England) and invaded Berwick upon Tweed in the borders.

These days, though, we are perhaps better known in this part of Ayrshire as a modern target archery club and also for our ‘Shooting at the Papingo’. Shooting at the Papingo, or Popinjay, is a unique form of archery where the archers shoot at an elevated target, in our case a wooden pigeon, or Papingo, which is mounted on a pole from the old Abbey Tower in Kilwinning. The archers take it in turns to shoot a specially blunted arrow at this ‘Doo’ as we call it.

In days long past a live bird was the unfortunate target with steel tipped arrows being used to try and kill it. The pockmarked tombstones in the Abbey kirkyard will attest to this and it would seem that the archers and spectators that thronged the foot of the tower would have been as much at risk from the falling arrows as the poor bird that was chained to the pole at the top of the tower.

Today, with a wooden bird and rubber tipped arrows, the event has become more of a pageant than a serious practice for war and the archer who manages to knock the ‘Doo’ off its perch wins a much-coveted rosette for his bonnet. The bonnet is the last part of the Ancient Society’s uniform that we still have today.

In the early days, the first to hit the Papingo was declared the Captain of the Society winning a piece of ‘Silver Plaite’. He then had to donate another piece of similar value the next year. However, in 1774 a Silver Arrow was presented by David Mure who won it himself that year and which thereafter became the recurring prize every year with the new Captain only having to fix a medal to it. There are now 174 medals, all silver except for one gold, currently on the Silver Arrow. The old medals, 118 in number, are fixed to the bow itself and the more modern ones to the bases.

After the Second World War, for the duration of which the arrow was buried, along with the Scottish Crown Jewels (The Honours Three) to keep it out of enemy hands, interest in the Kilwinning Papingo was rekindled by a few local enthusiasts and the club was reformed in 1948.

With this revival in archery, came a revival in the sport of the Papingo, (now held on the first Saturday of July) with rules more or less identical to ancient practice. The bowman stands with one foot on the bottom step of the tower, aiming at the Papingo some 114 feet above him.

There is some break with tradition, however, in the fact that the successful archer at the Papingo no longer claimed the Kilwinning Arrow and the Captaincy, which is now the reward for shooting at the Butts during the morning prior to the Papingo.

The reformed society felt that it was better for the Captain of the club to be the best shot as demonstrated at the Butts, thus removing the element of luck that accompanies winning the Papingo. Also, of course, the bird might have been hit before everyone has had a chance at it and sometimes, we don’t manage to hit it at all!

The competition at the Butts in McGavin Park is again unique to this part of Scotland being the Kilwinning round which consists of a 9” target subdivided into three zones of 3” (gold) 6” (red) and 9” (blue) with a total of six dozen arrows being shot by each competitor at a distance of 30 yards.  Although the distance is relatively short for archery this is quite an intimidating target for those archers who have never seen it before.

Whilst we greatly treasure our ancient traditions, it should be said that we are, these days, also very much a modern archery club competing in national competitions all over Scotland and beyond. In fact, over the years several of our members have been selected to represent Scotland in various international matches against both the Home Nations and European countries.

Our Society was one of the founder members of the very successful indoor Ayrshire League which has been running since 1983 and which we have succeeded in winning a few times as well.

Our main shooting ground is McGavin Park in Kilwinning where we have taken up the legacy left by John McGavin, a keen archer himself, who donated the money to create the Park on the condition that it always had a portion to be set aside for archery.

During the winter months we shoot indoor at Kilwinning Academy on a Wednesday evening and at Greenwood Academy in Dreghorn on a Thursday evening when we do most of the training and coaching of beginners and novices. We take people from all walks of life, experienced archers or complete novices and youngsters from the age of nine. We provide club equipment for those trying the sport for the first time and they get a six-week period to find out if they like it or not before being required to join the Society.

The Society also takes part in many community events in and around Kilwinning. We provided a Guard of Honour for the Queen’s Baton Relay when it visited Kilwinning Abbey in 2014. And again, at the lighting of the HM Queen Elizabeth’s Birthday Beacon in 2016 where we led the procession up the Castlehill in Ardrossan. In fact, we are happy to participate in anything where we feel that we can contribute to promoting the ancient traditions and heritage of the Society, Kilwinning and this little corner of Scotland.

Michael Portillo and Great British Railway Journeys paid us a visit in August 2014. They filmed what was the Open Papingo of that year and Michael himself had a shot, only narrowly missing the ‘Doo’. This was aired as part of the Ayr to Strathaven episode.

The Society also features on the Great Tapestry of Scotland which is something we are extremely proud of. This is on the very first panel no less, where you will see the gable end of the old abbey, a Kilwinning Archers bonnet and a Papingo with a pair of arrows wrapped around the whole.

Times have changed vastly since the 15th century when the archers were primarily a force for warfare. Our costume has changed over the centuries too. However, the ancient and traditional sport of shooting at the Papingo, and the association with such a magnificent trophy as the Silver Arrow, still continues in Kilwinning and we are very proud to be part of it.

For full information on our Society and details of how to join please visit www.kilwinningarchers.net.