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.
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.