As the city of York claims to be the birthplace of Freemasonry in England, the obscure little village of Kilwinning is entitled to the same honor with respect to the origin of the Order in the sister kingdom of Scotland. The claim to the honor, however, in each case, depends on the bare authority of a legend, the authenticity of which is now doubted by many Masonic historians. A place, which, in itself small and wholly indistinguishable in the political, the literary, or the commercial annals of its country, has become of great importance in the estimation of the Masonic antiquary from its intimate connection with the history of the Institution.

The Abbey of Kilwinning is situated in the bailiwick of Cunningham, about three miles north of the royal burgh of Irving, near the Irish Sea. The abbey was founded in the year 1140, by Hugh Morville, Constable of Scotland, and dedicated to Saint Winning, being intended for a company of monks of the Tyronesian Order, who had been brought from Kelso. The edifice must have been constructed at great expense, and with much magnificence, since it is said to have occupied several acres of ground in its whole extent.

Lawrie (History of Freemasonry, page 46, 1859 edition) says that, by authentic documents as well as by other collateral arguments which amount almost to a demonstration, the existence of the Kilwinning Lodge has been traced back as far as the end of the fifteenth century. But we know that the body of architects who perambulated the Continent of Europe and have frequently been mentioned under the name of Traveling Freemasons, flourished at a much earlier period; and we learn, also, from Lawrie himself, that several of these Freemasons traveled into Scotland, about the beginning of the twelfth century. Hence, we have every reason to suppose that these men were the architects who constructed the Abbey at Kilwinning, and who first established the Institution of Freemasonry in Scotland. If such be the fact, we must place the origin of the first Lodge in that kingdom at an earlier date, by three centuries, than that claimed for it by Lawrie, which would bring it much nearer, in point of time, to the great Masonic Assembly, which is traditionally said to have been convened in the year 926, by Prince Edwin, at York, in England.

There is some collateral evidence to sustain the probability of this early commencement of Freemasonry in Scotland. It is very generally admitted that the Royal Order of Herodem was founded by King Robert Bruce, at Kilwinning. Thory, in the Acta Latomorum, gives the following chronicle: “Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, under the title of Robert I, created the Order of St. Andrew of Chardon, after the battle of Bannockburn, which was fought on the 24th of June, 1314. To this Order was afterwards united that of Herodem, for the sake of the Scotch Freemasons, who formed a part of the thirty thousand troops with whom he had fought an army of one hundred thousand Englishmen. King Robert reserved the title of Grand Master to himself and his successors forever, and founded the Royal Grand Lodge of Herodem at Kilwinning.” Doctor Oliver says that “the Royal Order of Herodem had formerly its chief seat at Kilwinning; and there is every reason to think that it and Saint John’s Masonry were then governed by the same Grand Lodge. ”

In 1820, there was published at Paris a record which states that in 1286, James, Lord Stewart, received the Earls of Gloucester and Ulster into his Lodge at Kilwinning; which goes to prove that a Lodge was then existing and in active operation at that place.

The modern iconoclasts, however, who are leveling these old legends with unsparing hands, have here been at work. Brother D. Murray Lyon has attacked the Bruce legend, and in the London Freemasons Magazine (of 1868, page 14) says:

Seeing that the Fraternity of Kilwinning never at any period practiced or acknowledged other than Craft degrees, and have not preserved even a shadow of a tradition that can in the remotest degree be held to identify Robert Bruce with the holding of Masonic Courts, or the Institution of a Secret Order at Kilwinning, the Fraternity of the “Hero(lim” must be attributed to another than the hero of Bannockburn and a birthplace must be sought for it in a soil Still more favorable to the growth of the high grades than Scotland has hitherto proved.

He intimates that the legend was the invention of the Chevalier Ramsay, whose birthplace was in the vicinity of Kilwinning.

Brother Mackey says, “I confess that I look upon the legend and the documents that contain it with some favor, as at least furnishing the evidence that there has been among the Fraternity a general belief of the antiquity of the Kilwinning Lodge.” Those, however, whose faith is of a more hesitating character, will find the most satisfactory testimonies of the existence of that Lodge in the beginning of the fifteenth century. At that period, when Jarnes II was on the throne, the Barons of Roslin, as hereditary Patrons of Scotch Freemasonry, held their annual meetings at Kilwinning, and the Lodge at that place granted Warrants of Constitution for the formation of subordinate Lodges in other parts of the kingdom.

The Lodges thus formed. in token of their respect for, and submission to, the mother Lodge whence they derived their existence, affixed the word Kilwinning to their own distinctive name; many instances of which are still to be found on the register of the Grand Lodge of Scotland such as Canongate Kilwinning, Greenock Kilwinning, Cumberland Kilwinning, etc.

But, in process of time, this Grand Lodge at Kilwinning ceased to retain its supremacy, and finally its very existence. As in the case of the sister kingdom, where the Grand Lodge was removed from York, the birthplace of English Freemasonry, to London, so in Scotland, the supreme seat of the Order was at length transferred from Kilwinning to the metropolis; and hence, in the doubtful document entitled the Charter of Cologne, which purports to have been written in 1642, we find, in a list of nineteen Grand Lodges in Europe, that of Scotland is mentioned as sitting at Edinburgh, under the Grand Mastership of John Bruce.

In 1736, when the Grand Lodge of Scotland was organized, the Kilwinning Lodge was one of its constituent Bodies, and continued in its obedience until 1743. In that year it petitioned to be recognized as the oldest Lodge in Scotland; but as the records of the original Lodge had been lost, the present Lodge could not prove, says Lawrie, that it was the identical Lodge which had first practiced Freemasonry in Scotland. The petition was therefore rejected, and, in consequence, the Kilwinning Lodge seceded from the Grand Lodge and established itself as an independent Body. It organized Lodges in Scotland; and several instances are on record of its issuing Charters as Mother Kilwinning Lodge to Lodges in foreign countries.

Thus, it granted one to a Lodge in Virginia in 1758, and another in 1779 to some Brethren in Ireland calling themselves the Lodge of High Knights Templar. But in 1807 the Mother Lodge of Kilwinning renounced all right of granting Charters, and came once more into the bosom of the Grand Lodge, bringing with her all her daughter Lodges.

Here terminates the connection of Kilwinning as a place of any special importance with the Freemasonry of Scotland. As for the Abbey, the stupendous fabric which was executed by the Freemasons who first migrated into Scotland, its history, like that of the Lodge which they founded, is one of decline and decay. In 1560, it was in a great measure demolished by Alexander, Earl of Glencairne, in obedience to an Order from the States of Scotland, in the exercise of their usurped authority during the imprisonment of Mary Stuart. A few years afterward, a part of the Abbey Chapel was repaired and converted into the parish church, and was used as such until about the year 1775, when, in consequence of its ruinous and dangerous state, it was pulled down and an elegant church erected in the modern style. In 1789, so much of the ancient Abbey remained as to enable Grose, the antiquary, to take a sketch of the ruins.

– Source: Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry