I had never heard of the Eglinton Tournament until I watched an episode of Scottish Television’s People’s History Show which billed it as Scotland’s most expensive and worst party. I was intrigued!
When Queen Victoria came to the throne, the country was in dire economic straits and she was given a scaled-down coronation ceremony which was ridiculed as ‘The Penny Coronation’. One of the fiercest critics was Archibald, 13th Earl of Eglinton, who decided to throw his own party over three days in August 1839 in the form of a grand medieval tournament on his Ayrshire estate. He invited a couple of thousand of his rich mates and thought he might let in a few thousand of the lower classes too. However, ticketing procedures and crowd control were woeful and some estimates suggest that in the end over 100,000 people attended the Tournament. Local transport and accommodation were overwhelmed, and the knights themselves created gridlock on the estate with the opening parade taking three hours longer than expected. And, of course, you can’t rely on the Scottish summer weather – the heavens opened on the first day and flooding meant that the entire audience, apart from Eglinton’s personal guests, was stranded without transportation. They had to walk miles through the rain and the mud to nearby villages, where only a few people found any food, drink, accommodation or transport. Even the personal guests missed out on the medieval banquet and ball that evening because banqueting tents had also been flooded. The middle day of the Tournament was cancelled, but the third day went ahead as planned with the overall winner judged to be – guess who? – Lord Eglinton himself.
After learning this story I wanted to see Eglinton myself, so on a sunny August Sunday, almost 180 years to the day since the Tournament, we set off – it’s less than an hour’s drive from home. There isn’t much left of Eglinton Castle itself, and it was difficult to get pictures of what there was because of all the picknicking families and children joyously leaping off the ruins.
You can see below what it looked like in its heyday before the Eglintons lost all their money and abandoned it. In 1925 the roof was removed so that the walls could be used for target practice by the military, and most of the rest was pulled down in 1973.
There are several other interesting structures in the park. The ornamental Tournament Bridge, which crosses Lugton Water a short walk from the castle, might seem to be a remnant of the events of 1839, but actually dates from 1845. It has recently been beautifully restored.
The old stable block has been converted into a café, and the gardens and grounds of the estate surrounding it are very attractive. Interesting objects include some colourful benches and a double headless statue. I have no idea who they are or where their heads have gone, in case you are minded to ask!
Carved doves and doocot
Knight and horse
The garden also contains war memorial benches and a cairn commemorating those who died in the 9/11 attacks.
War memorial bench
There are several trails round the park, a mixture of woodland …
… and open countryside. We wondered about these stones on top of Cairnmount Hill. They were obviously not ancient standing stones, but we thought they might be a folly placed there by one of the Earls. Googling them later, I found that they are much more recent than that. An opencast mine was established nearby in 1983, and when extraction finished in 1986 it was filled in and these large boulders discovered in the process were erected on top of the restored hill. The stones effectively mark the closing of the last coal-mine on the land attached to Eglinton Castle after a period of at least 400 years of continuous production.
Finally, a small loch attracted walkers, such as ourselves, as well as those who just wanted a peaceful spot to read.
A peaceful reader
John at the loch
We enjoyed our day out at Eglinton: the trail we followed was pleasant, if not spectacular, and fairly quiet once we got away from the café and the picnickers at the castle. I think the park caters mostly for that audience and not so much for those interested in its history – a few more information boards would have been helpful: the only one I can recall was at the Tournament Bridge. I’m pleased to have seen the site of the Tournament, and certainly recommend the park to anyone who happens to be in the area, but for me it is one to file away as a once-only visit – I don’t feel a strong need to go back.