Ayr's Oldest Building
St John's Tower is all that remains of Ayr’s original parish church, which was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Ayr. Excavations of the site, carried out by Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society (1984-1987), date the church to the late 12th century; however the building is not specifically mentioned in documents until 1233.
A charter of 1233 authorised St John’s Church to establish a ‘Sang Schule of Air’ – a choir school for boys. This is the origin of what became, over the centuries, Ayr Academy, and more recently, Ayr Grammar Primary School.
''The Prospect of the Town of Air from the East', from Theatrum Scotiae by John Slezer, 1693.
Stonework, revealed during excavations shows that the church was cruciform in shape and very large for its time. Oriented east-west, the remains extend beyond the present grounds, so its high altar would have been outside the current boundary wall, in the road area.
St. John’s is thought to have been one of the most splendid churches in Scotland, with a great gothic window and numerous altars (the Obit book refers to eight chaplains who officiated at eight altars in the 15th century).
The bell tower was a later addition to the original church, added in the 14th or 15th century.
Notable visitors include, Robert the Bruce, whose historic Parliament held at the church on 26th April 1315 determined the succession of the throne in Scotland.
James IV visited during his trips to Whithorn and made numerous offerings for masses to be said at St John's. It is also recorded that Mary Queen of Scots ‘supped and slept at St. John’s in Ayr’, although it is not clear if this is a reference to the town or the church.
The church was Roman Catholic until the middle of the 16th century when John Knox led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
In 1560, St John's became a Reformed Church, under an Act of Parliament and the altars were removed.
In 1652, Oliver Cromwell’s army arrived in Ayr and set up a fort and citadel. They took over the church for their storehouse, armoury and watch tower. In 1654, Cromwell helped to fund the building of a new church, also called St. John the Baptist, now more commonly known as Ayr’s Auld Kirk.
Following Cromwell’s death in 1658 and the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, the demilitarised fort, including the former St. John's Church, was gifted by the crown to the 7th Earl of Eglinton as compensation for losses suffered by his family while supporting the royalist cause.
The fort grounds became the barony of Montgomerieston, a private estate.
Cromwell's Citadel Ayr,
by Robert Nelmes
The original St John's Church was last used as a place of worship in 1687.
By 1726, the body of the church had been demolished. The tower was left standing as it was an important navigational landmark, guiding mariners to the harbour entrance. The bells were probably removed at that time.
In 1852, John Watson Miller, a gunsmith who had made his fortune in India, returned to Ayrshire and purchased the barony of Montgomerieston. He then set about transforming the old church tower into a suitably baronial-looking residence for himself and his family.
John Miller became known locally as 'Baron' Miller, and he engaged an Ayrshire architect, John Murdoch, to design his new home.
Murdoch added extensions to the tower in Gothic style and the property took on the title of 'Fort Castle.'
Miller disposed of most of the rest of the fort estate as house plots, keeping a walled yard around his home for himself.
Following John Miller's death in 1910, the tower was put up for sale and acquired by the 4th Marquess of Bute for £2700. He had inherited the enthusiasm of his father, the 3rd Marquess, for using the family fortune to preserve and restore historic buildings.
He engaged architect James Kennedy Hunter to return the tower to its appearance as sketched by John Slezer in the 17th century. Miller's additions were torn down and extensive restoration work resulted in St John's Tower as it stands today. The 5th Marquess of Bute gifted it to the town of Ayr in 1949.