There were certainly several good reasons for building the new parish church so close to the ruins of Cumnock Castle. It would be situated on a fairly central location in this expansive upland parish where farmhouses were scattered over 48,000 acres or so of hillsides and valleys . Or perhaps a small community had already started to grow up around the castle. Easy access to much needed building material from the ruins of the old castle is the most common suggestion put forward for locating the church on castlehill. However, perhaps the most compelling argument is that a small chapel already stood on this site and where better to build a new church than on holy ground.
THE AULD KIRKYARD
History of the parish of New Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland
© Robert Guthrie
THE AULD KIRKYARD
The WHIDAR Stone
Boreland Castle and Chapel
Prior to the Reformation it was not uncommon for the local barons or their representatives to maintain chapels for their own private use. Although there is no trace above ground of the chapel that would have served the Dunbars in their baronial seat of Cumnock Castle, evidence of private chapels in the barony of Cumnock is found at nearby Boreland. Here, close to the current-day boundary of the parishes of Old and New Cumnock, stood Boreland Castle with Boreland Chapel nearby. The castle was held by the Hamiltons in1400, under the control of the Dunbars.
Old Cumnock's Rev. Warwick writing in 1899 records that 'a sculputured stone belonging to the old building is to be seen in the present in the farm of Chapel or Chapel-house.' He continues 'Tradition states that a small burial -place was formed round the chapel. Indications of it have been revealed by plough and spade'.
The parish church of Cumnock was situated some 5 miles from Cumnock Castle in what is now the town of Cumnock. It seems unlikely the Baron and his retinue would travel back and forth for daily prayers. Rather, like Boreland Castle (which was only 2 miles from the parish church) , the larger Cumnock Castle would be served with its own private chapel. A picture then begins to emerge of Cumnock Castle situated on the top of the castlehill overlooking the confluence of the Afton Water and the River Nith. Nearby, stood a small private chapel for use by the Dunbars and their supporters. As well as daily prayers it is reasonable to expect that family births and marriages would have been celebrated on this holy hill. Similarly, family deaths would have been mourned and Dunbars laid to rest on the castlehill.
The WHIDAR Stone
It is surely no coincidence that the 'oldest-looking' gravestone in the Auld Kirkyard carries the intials 'I D' in the centre of a plain but bold carved shield. The names James and John (Iohn) Dunbar appear throughout the family tree of the Dunbars of Cumnock from Sir John in the 1400's through to Sir James in the 1500's and finally John Dunbar, who sold the barony in 1612. The Dunbars of Cumnock held properties throughout Scotland, including in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Mochrum, Wigtonshire and latterly Westfield ,Morayshire and therefore there bones may lie elsewhere other than the castlehill of New Cumnock - but then again!
Lesser branches of the Dunbars of Cumnock held properties throughout the barony, including Corsencon (Patrick Dunbar 1512) and Knockshinnoch. The property of Knockshinnoch marched with Cumnock Castle and Paterson records ' The first of them we have met with is John Dunbar in 1551. In his testament he constitutes as his executors his son Patrick Dunbar (leaving him the lands of Makalaxastone), his son William Hamiltoun of Blantyreferme and his son John Dunbar'. (Long after the barons had departed, Dunbars were found in Polquhirter farm in the early 18th century and George Sanderson records that the last of the family were in Polshill farm. )
The WHIDAR Stone
There are three pairs of initials on the graveslab shield, the top pair are the most difficult to read but appear to be W H, followed by I D and finally A R on the bottom .
Could this be the resting place of a William Hamilton, Iohn Dunbar and one of their spouses A R ?
Click on Image
The WHIDAR Stone in the Auld Kirkyard at the entrance to the Auld Kirk
Dane Love, an Old Cumnockian, in his fine book 'Scottish Kirkyards' provides an excellent insight into Scotland's 'kirkyard heritage' and explains the use of grave-slabs in early times.
'Memorial slabs were originally designed as covers for stone coffins which were common among the upper classes during the early medieval and Norman years. These stone coffins were buried in the ground, usually within the kirk building, and the slab, or lid, was placed over them, breaking the surface so as to be visible.'
If the New Cumnock WHIDAR stone falls into this category then the coffin was most probably buried within the original private chapel of the Dunbars before such form of burial was banned in 1588, following the Reformation of 1560. The new parish church was built 100 years after the Reformation and steps would have been taken to ensure that no exisiting graves were encompassed within its walls. The new church may not only have made use of the building material from the ruins of Cumnock Castle but also delivered the opportunity to clear the castlehill of any remnants of the pre-Reformation chapel, which would have stood closer to the present day kirkport than the Auld Kirk.
There is at least one other record of a stone-coffin being found in the kirkyard. Robert Hart, New Cumnockian, recalls the unearthing of a stone-coffin whilst working as an apprentice bricklayer with Crawford the Builder in the 1960's. Repairs to the wall between Glendinning the bakers in the Castle and the Auld Kirkyard were required and the coffin was discovered when digging out the foundations for the new wall. The minister (Lowrie?) was informed and a few days later two gentlemen from Glasgow arrived to take the contents of the coffin away. The coffin was then destroyed to make way for the foundations.
The secret of the WHIDAR stone may still lied buried on the castlehill
The Castlehill with Corsencon hill beyond.
The Arthur Memorial Church (with spire) stands close to the site of Cumnock Castle (shown as Black Bog Castle on map). To the right is the ivy covered ruins of the Auld Kirk and the kirkyard.
Click on map to enlarge image