History of the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers

The Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers is one of the oldest archery organisations in the United Kingdom if not in the world and few places have a longer association than the town of Kilwinning, with the sport and practice of archery. Such practice that has by custom and tradition been linked in some of its aspects with the grounds and steeple of the town’s ancient Abbey.

Before the invention of gunpowder and the common use of firearms, King and Parliament regularly enforced by statute the practice in Scotland of shooting with bow and arrow. In every parish the young men turned out for archery practice and these “wapenschaws” or exhibitions of arms were in many places held “every Sunday after divine service”. So, probably, the papingo was at first just shot in connection with the steady and earnest practice of archery, in which all were forced to take a part with the Abbey tower being a very convenient place upon which to fix an elevated target.

As the use of archery in war declined, “wapenschaws” of firearms took the place of statutory archery practice, but in Kilwinning a Company of Archers persisted and the sport has continued, with a few interruptions, until the present day.

Here I can quote from the reverend Kerr’s book on Kilwinning. “Kilwinning, indeed, was evidently for centuries greatly taken up with the papingo. It was the grand annual festival. The boys of Kilwinning had their papingo, the working men had their papingo. The gentlemen had their papingo. Each party held their festival on separate days, and the whole countryside took an interest in the sport.”

But the archers of Kilwinning not only perpetuated for ages this ancient sport, they kept a full and faithful account of their doings; and so to-day, in the four volumes of records of the gentlemen archers now lodged at the National Archives of Scotland, we can perceive how for centuries the game has gone on. Indeed these records mention that this reforming of the Society was to perpetuate the sport, which had gone on for some 200 years prior to this date, and subsequent medals quote the anniversary of the event, which gives us the earliest date for the founding of the Society as 1483 and is the one on our badges and medals today.

Interestingly we do know that in 1482 James III of Scotland raised an army to fight his brother Alexander who, whilst contending the Scottish throne, had sided with Richard of Gloucester, later to become Richard III, and invaded Berwick upon Tweed in the borders. It is highly likely that Hugh Mongomerie, the 1st Earl of Eglinton, took part in that contest and he would have raised his own contingent from this part of Ayrshire and this would undoubtedly have included a body of archers.

Whilst not conclusive it is quite possible that it was this event that saw the genesis of our present day Society when the archers, returned from the war in 1483 and having to practice archery anyway, as it was a law made by King James, chose to do so with their own band of comrades.

They would have practiced together at the butts after church on Sundays and at the Papingo where the Abbey tower was a ready-made place to set it up.

The first minute we have from the records, in our possession, concerns the reforming of the Gentlemen’s Society in 1688 as follows.  (The spelling is as the original)

‘Shooting with Bow and Arrow at Butts and Papingo has been used and practised at Kilwinning by the inhabitants thereof for the space of Two Hundered years and upwards. The prize shott for at the Game of the papingo in former times was a piece of fine Persian Taffetie Three Ells long and three Quarters broad of several colours viz Blew, Green, Scarlet etc. to the value of Twentie pounds at least; which they term’d a Benn.

In Kilwinning having this day met and convened in order to the restoring of the ancient game of the papingo formerly used to be practised in this place, and in order thereunto Ilk yin of the said company of archers have paid out twelve shillings Scots and have bought there with ane silver plaite ,”worth twenty shillings as the prize to be shot for, and having furnished the papingo with the remainder of the said sum. At Kilwinning the fourth day of September sixteen hundred and eighty-eight years, the which day the company of Archers of the town of Kilwinning, viz., Wm. Blair, elder of that ilk, Hugh Montgomery of Collsfield, Hugh Stevenson of Mountgreenan, Mr. James Stevenson, advocat, his brother. Mr Hamilton, son to Captain William Hamilton of Ladyland, and others’. 

So the earliest written records for the Papingo are 1688 and at that time the prize was a piece of ‘silver plait’, which was to cost twenty shillings sterling and it was kept by the Captain although he had to put up a prize of similar value for the next year.

The pastime of the papingo was a very popular one in those days, and so, we find that in the year 1724 the form which the piece of silver took was that of an arrow of much greater value than twenty shillings sterling.

The donor of this gift was David Mure a merchant in Kilwinning, Baron Baillie of Regality and Chamberlain to the Earl of Eglinton, and being not only an enthusiastic archer but also a good shot, was himself the successful competitor for the prize.

In 1725 Mr Mure, it seems, was equally liberal by presenting a second silver arrow, and this time it was won by Mr Alexander Baillie, a merchant in Glasgow.

However the archers did not give Mr Baillie the arrow gained by him, instead they met in the house of Mr James Eagle, and ultimately agreed that “the said arrow should continue to be the prize at the Papingo and not to be altered,” and evidently Mr Baillie agreed. They further determined that the gainer of the silver arrow should affix to it a badge of silver or gold “not under a crown in value,” and that he should be the custodian of it, but on condition that he gave ample caution for its safe delivery.

In fact a ‘Cautioner’ was also appointed thereafter each time the arrow was won to make certain of this.

So it seems that there was not one but two silver arrows and that the one that now graces the top of our trophy dates from 1725. – Or does it?

Given that the winner of the Papingo had to donate a prize of similar value it is highly possible that David Mure having won the Silver Arrow he presented in 1724 and being obliged therefore to donate a second prize of the same value perhaps chose instead to re-donate the same arrow.  Remember also that this was in the aftermath of the Darien disaster when Scotland was effectively bankrupt.  Certainly there is no indication in the Society records that this was a second silver arrow and furthermore this one also bears a medal for David Mure with the date 1724 on it as well as 1723 and earlier still, 1697.

No doubt David Mure took the opportunity to have his previous wins recorded on the arrow strongly suggesting that this was in fact the same arrow he first presented in 1724 and which was to now become a recurring prize.  Incidentally he was not the only one to record earlier wins.  Mr William Baillie of Mountgreenan, a possible relation of the 1725 winner Alexander, has one that is dated 1698 and 1706, and there are 3 others prior to 1725 who did the same. It seems, however, that not all of the earlier winners chose to do so; they had after all already donated substantial prizes following their wins. However, regardless of all of that, we can still claim that the first medal on the arrow is dated 1697 and that is undoubtedly true.

From this point on the Arrow became a recurring prize with a medal being fixed on to it for each year it was won.

The Mure (or Muir) family acted for the Earls in a variety of ways over the ensuing years and kept their links with the Society. For instance a David Muir was Bowyer to the Society from 1805 to 1867 and Peter Muir, his cousin and apprentice, became Bowyer to the Royal Company of Archers from 1826 to 1877.

The papingo day was a great day in Kilwinning. For though the gentlemen’s papingo, with which we are now specially concerned, did not probably excite the general enthusiasm of the people to the same extent as the men’s, or even the boys’, nevertheless it must have produced not a little excitement both in town and country. Early in the morning the grand bell in the Abbey tower announced a gala day that started at Smithstone House, which is about a mile North of the town. The archers formed up behind a band and the burgh mace-bearer who hoisted the Papingo onto the head of his civic Lochaber Axe then led the procession to the butts.

After a round had been shot there the procession reformed and marched around the town with a free drink being taken at each of the 25 or so inns (a custom which, regrettably, has fallen into abeyance though possibly a good thing from the safety point of view).

Eager onlookers visited the turrets of the Abbey as the papingo was duly suspended from the highest point. About twelve o’clock the archers wended their way back to the churchyard, preceded by their officer carrying the silver arrow and its numerous medals, and marching to the lively strains of the Kilwinning instrumental band. Shooting for points was then briskly carried on amid the huzzas or the laughter of the crowds at the success or failure of the marksmen.

Then came the dinner, held in the beginning of this century in the Mason Lodge, but latterly in the hall of the Eglinton Arms. About seven o’clock the base of the tower was again reached, and the shooting for the captaincy began.

Each archer shot one arrow in his turn until the “doo” was “Dinged doun”, the new Captain, the first to knock the Papingo off its perch, was invested with his “Benn of Crimson Taffeta” and presented with the Kilwinning Silver Arrow. When the bird fell, the tower bells pealed and the crowd cheered, especially if the captain was a popular man, and the instrumental band struck up and altogether something like wild enthusiasm was manifested. (It is a man of the cloth I am quoting here!)

Then there was a procession to the Crossbrae, and, according to use and wont, a bowl of toddy was brewed and prosperity to the old town of Kilwinning proposed and success to the Papingo was proposed by the captain. The archers then returned to the hall in which the meetings were for the time held and the insignia of office, the Silver Arrow and medals, were ostensibly handed over to the captain, but actually only held up before him, and immediately thereafter removed to the safe keeping of the secretary. Then there was a ball, whose “glitter and· glare” depended not a little upon the social position of the conquering hero of the day, and in which the he had the privilege of leading off the dancing with some ancient matron, ‘Sibby’ or Sybil Glen, a ‘widow of fourscore years’, being the favoured partner in those days.

The Society continued to prosper throughout the 18th Century despite some minor bother around 1715 and 1745. Interestingly whilst there was a medal fixed to the arrow in 1715 there was apparently none for 1745 although, intriguingly, there are two blank medals that have always been present on the Silver Arrow.

We have recently established that there was a shoot in 1745 and the Society record states that it was ‘Fairly gained by Charles Boyd’. He was the son of William Boyd (Lord Kilmarnock) also a member of the Society and also present on the day.  It transpires that they were both Jacobites fighting for Prince Charles Edward Stuart at the battles of Falkirk Muir and Culloden and, furthermore, we have also found out that a medal had indeed been fitted and also that one of the blank medals matches the general design of others from that decade. So it is unsurprising, perhaps, given the hunt going on by Cumberland’s army for Jacobite sympathisers at that time that this medal was left blank. Charles Boyd survived the massacre at Culloden and escaped initially to the island of Arran and eventually to France. His father William was not so lucky, having been captured at Culloden he was tried, convicted of treason and subsequently be-headed at Tower Hill in London.

More details of this can be found in the Silver Arrow Medals archive elsewhere on this site and we are in the process of commissioning a medallion to be fitted along with this blank medal to say who won it and why it was left blank.

The Society flourished over the next 100 years and the medals became ever more elaborate as time went by. It was during this period that the Society could be said to have, perhaps, reached its pinnacle of social heights.

In 1830 the Society was granted the right, by King William IV to be his bodyguard should he ever visit the west of Scotland. In 1844 His Royal Highness Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobourg became our patron and the Society was nominated to form a bodyguard should Her Majesty Queen Victoria ever visit this coast of Scotland.

By then the Society had over 300 members and shot at the butts in a number of places in the Burgh and, by invitation, also at Eglinton where we still shoot today. In fact we had so many members all solemnly pledging a ‘piece of silver plait’ in turn each year that the dates that these pledges fell due went into the far future, up to the year 2410!

Eventually the medals had become too heavy and too many to be borne by the original silver arrow and, in 1859, two members of the Society, Andrew Scott and William Brown were given the task of obtaining a new one. Instead they chose the option of a silver bow and crossed arrows supporting David Mure’s original arrow. Recent research in connection with getting the repair done to the left hand limb of the bow has revealed that this was made by James Kirkwood, a silversmith, working in Edinburgh at that time. It now makes a unique, magnificent and most beautiful trophy, a true masterpiece of the silversmith’s craft.

The Kilwinning Silver Arrow

However Society records from that era suggest that by now many members had been finding it difficult to afford both the cost of the medals and the funding of the grand ball that traditionally had been financed by the new Captain and there were several attempts to make the ball at least a subscription event. This in turn, perhaps, explains the rise in the number of “proxy” shooting that was now happening with a wealthy backer financing the considerable expenditure following a win on his behalf.  In any event the last medal of the old era is dated 1869 won by William James Smith Neill and in 1870, there was no shoot, and the Society fell into abeyance.

The Silver Arrow was sent by the few remaining members of the Society into the safe keeping of the Royal Company of Archers in Edinburgh where it graced the main dining table at formal dinners in Archers Hall. It was during this time that the Silver Arrow gained it’s ebonised base and tripod stand.  During the Second World War the Silver Arrow, along with the ‘Honours Three’, (Scotland’s Crown Jewels) and other important Scottish treasures, was buried in an attempt to keep it safe in the event of an invasion by hostile forces.  The Society was revived in 1948 and negotiations began for the return of the Silver Arrow. These were instigated by two members of the reformed Society, Robert McKee and Harry Travers who enlisted the aid of Archibald Montgomerie the 17th Earl of Eglinton who was a member of the Royal Company, and whose family had also been closely associated with the Society over the years as their medals attached to the Silver Arrow will attest. The Silver Arrow was eventually returned to us in a formal ceremony in 1951.

The silver ring around the first base, constructed we believe by Glasgow Silversmiths Angell and Fletcher, was added at this time and was to be the place where the modern Society’s silver medals were to be fixed.

At this point it was decided that the Captain should be the Society’s best archer and this should be decided by a butt competition rather than at the Papingo, which it was felt contained an element of luck, and the Kilwinning Round is now used for this purpose and consists of six dozen arrow at 30 yards at a nine inch face divided into three concentric circles. Coloured from the centre outwards, gold, red and blue and scoring 3, 2 and 1 respectively.

Incidentally the Society Records show that this round had been used extensively for butt shooting in times past and, up until the relatively recent arrival of the Grand National Archery Society (GNAS) in 1861, we used the ‘inside’ method of scoring.

That is, to quote from the old record, the ‘arrow must be completely inside the scoring ring to count’. Imagine doing that on this tiny target with longbows!

Perhaps, unsurprisingly the vote to adopt the ‘New’ (GNAS) scoring criteria where the arrow has just to touch the line to score the higher value was passed, though not without debate and some opposition, at a general meeting shortly after 1861.

So from that point onwards, with the exception of a brief interlude from 2011 – 2014 when the Captaincy reverted to the Papingo, the Silver Arrow has been shot for at the butts.


The Papingo

The Papingo shoot, held annually in June, requires archers to shoot vertically, from the base of the Abbey tower, to dislodge a wooden pigeon approximately 112 feet (30m) above.

Shooting is restricted to longbows, with specially blunted arrows (to prevent injury) although pointed ones were used in past times as the many pockmarks on the tombstones in the churchyard will testify. The first person to “ding doun the doo” wins the competition and, is declared “Captain of the Papingo” and is now awarded the Walker Trophy, a magnificent scale model of the Abbey tower made by Andrew Walker, an engineer, the brother of one of the Society members and a man of obvious talent.

For the brief period from 2011 – 2014 inclusive, as mentioned above, the Captaincy reverted to the Papingo as a means of trying to reconcile the different types of bow being used in the Society at that time (Recurve, Longbow and Compound) with the medals from this period being marked ‘Gained at the Papingo’.

In 2015 however, the Captaincy returned to the Kilwinning round, with the Captain being judged the best archer from the majority bow type used on the day, with the winners of the other two bow types designated as Lieutenants. This structure resurrects the awards given in times gone by to the archers who hit the wings of the “Doo”, whilst the first archer to strike or “Ding it Doun” became the Captain. It also restores the ethos of the modern club where the Captain should be the best archer and removes the element of luck associated with hitting the Papingo.

There is also a junior competition on the same day and at the same targets with the winner becoming the Junior Captain of the club.

In 2014, Glasgow Silversmith Colin Morrison-Ignatieff and his associate Maciej Sankowski carried out repairs to both bow limbs and the two crossed arrows. They also created the bodkin point adorning the tip of the original silver arrow which incorporated the silver donated by the family of the late James Fishleigh, a long serving secretary and member of the Society. Colin incidentally had previously worked for and learned his skills with the firm Angell and Fletcher.

The addition of a second ‘tier’ to the base to accommodate the growing number of medals has now been completed greatly adding to overall appearance of this magnificent trophy. The Society’s Past Lieutenant, Arkley Simpson, constructed this tier with the silver work again being carried out by Colin Morrison-Ignatieff and Maciej Sankowski. Further strengthening work to the bow limbs is also envisaged in the near future to protect this priceless piece of the Society’s and indeed Scotland’s heritage.


Commemorative Plate fitted between the Silver Arrow Plinths

Drummond Castle

We have recently started shooting at the Papingo at Drummond Castle Tower by kind invitation of Lady Jane Willoughby de Eresby who, along with Countess Ignatieff presented us with this Silver Arrow.

Whilst not as high as the Abbey Tower in Kilwinning it is nonetheless still quite a challenge.

Drummond Castle is located near Crieff in Perthshire and its beautiful gardens were used as the home of the Marquis of Montrose, played by Sir John Hurt, in the movie ‘Rob Roy’. It makes a lovely venue for shooting at the Papingo.


McGavin Park Kilwinning

McGavin Park has been our home for many years; in fact John McGavin made it a condition of his bequest of 1884 when he gifted the park to the town of Kilwinning that there should always be space set aside for archery. In 1981 the then Cunninghame District Council reaffirmed this by granting us the ‘right to use this section of the park in perpetuity’ and we have continued to shoot there every year since.

The Society took part in the Park’s Centenary Celebration in 1984 when funds were raised to provide a set of gates at the main entrance to mark the 100 year anniversary of the bequest and Society members Bill Petrie and Jim Boyd are pictured above standing guard at the official dedication ceremony.

Our outdoor shooting year begins and ends with a club shoot at McGavin Park with distances being based on age and scores based on a handicap system so even novices have the chance of winning as happens on a regular basis.

It is also the venue for the annual Kilwinning Round Captaincy shoot which takes place in the morning with the Papingo at the Abbey Tower in the afternoon, usually on the first weekend of June. It is also where we hold the ‘Open’ version of this event, later in the year, where visitors from many clubs get a chance to participate in this unique form of shooting.

Whilst McGavin Park is the venue for most of the Society’s shoots we also hosted an ‘Open’ competition in Eglinton Park open to all GNAS members and is also the venue where we hold the Provost Cox Clout shoot.

We hold another clout shoot at Hunterston estate, near West Kilbride, where we shoot by kind invitation of Madame Pauline Hunter, Chief of Clan Hunter. The trophy for the Hunterston Clout is a rather beautiful silver Hunting Horn the emblem of the Hunters of Hunterston.

The Hunterston Horn

Clout shooting involves shooting at a flag in the ground at distances far in excess of normal target shooting. This is a form of shooting dating back to the Middle Ages when the archers were the artillery of the army. This consists of shooting at a flag or ‘clout’ positioned for the gentlemen at a distance of 180 yards and for the ladies 160 yards. This requires the bow to be raised at an angle of some 45 degrees to get the distance with sighting being done beneath the hand and arm. (This incidentally gives rise to the expression of underhand tactics since it was considered unfair or cheating to be able to strike at such a distance whilst your opponent could not get at you.  Perhaps today this would be considered to be perfectly sensible). Of course whilst we only shoot at 180 yards the bowmen of old with their great war bows could reach 300 yards but that took a lifetime of training.

Whilst much of our history is taken up with the Papingo and all of the traditions that go with this we are first and foremost a modern archery club. Indeed many members of our Society over the years have had the honour of being selected to shoot for Scotland as members of the Scottish Team, both SAA and BLBS, shooting at all of the UK international matches as well as some abroad. We have members participating on the tournament circuit outdoors and indoors and also have sent a team to the very successful Ayrshire League series of shoots since they started, in their present format of teams of four, in 1982.

Times may change; the modern archer’s white shirt, green slacks and Stewarton Bonnet may contrast strangely with “the double- breasted green longcoat, lined with white silk”, worn by the Kilwinning Society archers at the Eglinton Tournament. Their bows these days would look strange indeed but I am sure that some of the expressions and banter that I hear on the line following a fluffed or bad shot would probably be recognised. It is also pleasing that the ancient and traditional sport of shooting at the Papingo, associated with such a trophy as the Silver Arrow, still flourishes today in Kilwinning.

Stuart Wilson


The Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers