In the medieval period the church was a great power in the land. Endowed by the lords, it held large areas of land in south west Scotland and the majority of the parish churches, linked to either bishoprics or monastic orders. The church was the centre of education, offering legal and clerical skills, and educated, powerful men to influence national events. The church also provided the only social services available to the population in general.
The feudal lords of the medieval period worked to build up the
church. As well as reasons of belief, they also had political and
practical reasons for this. The church introduced trained men who
could minister to the people, encourage them in arts and crafts,
help them in sickness and distress and act as clerks, lawyers and
Evidence is limited, but private chapels of the lords seem to have developed over time into parish churches, endowed on cathedral churches or monasteries. In the 12th century David I organised the parish churches under the bishoprics, divided into deaneries in line with the feudal political administration. Ayrshire parishes, divided into three deaneries, were all allocated to the diocese of Glasgow. The Galloway diocese had no connection at first to these, as it considered itself subordinate to York until the 14th century. It slowly came under Scottish authority and by the time Glasgow became an archdiocese in 1492, Galloway was included in the see.
Parish churches in Ayrshire were possessed by or contributed to Glasgow Cathedral, the Chapel Royal, Stirling and in one case to Whithorn (Kirkmichael). All other Ayrshire parish churches were associated with various regular orders, both within Ayrshire and beyond.
Several old medieval churches survive as ruins, such as the old kirk at Alloway and the Tower of St. John's in Ayr, while the medieval Norman church at Symington remains intact and in use. Each church had a number of altars and funeral rites, requiem masses and yearly remembrances were very elaborate. Records such as the surviving Obit Book of St John's give a clear insight into these practices.
In addition to the parish churches, there were also chapels, with one in most parishes. Little is known of most of these, however.
From the 12th century grants of land were made by the king and lords to monastic orders to found abbeys in Scotland. In Ayrshire these were Kilwinning (1140), Crosraguel (1244) and Fail (13th or 14th Century), each endowed with lands and a number of parishes. There were also Dominicans or Black Friars (pre 1242) and later Franciscans or Grey Friars (1474) in Ayr. The Carmelites or White Friars came to Irvine in the 14th century. Such orders had considerable influence, as they held large areas of land, plus controlled most of the parish churches.
The church also maintained spittals, which were endowed for the care of the poor and afflicted and to cater for pilgrims and travellers. These were each run by a priest, under control of the bishop and combined the functions of hospital and hospice. One of these was the leper-house St Ninian's of Kincase, endowed by and probably made use of by Robert the Bruce.
In its parochial organisation the church ministered to the spiritual needs of the population. Such social services as existed were the responsibility of the church, but the extent of these are unclear. Evidence of schools is fragmentary, beginning to appear in the 13th century, but schooling will have been available for potential priests.
Notable churchmen from Ayrshire, or who served here, include:
Duncan Pettit, native of Ayr - became Chancellor of Scotland in 1370
James Kennedy from Carrick - became Archbishop of St Andrews in 1430 and a founder of the university. He was adviser to James II (at first as a minor) and James III.
Michael Gray - Ayr-born friar became leader of church reform in 15th century
Martin Reid, of Barskimming - 1506 became Chancellor Glasgow Cathedral & Rector of Glasgow University
Walter Kennedy, priest-poet - Provost of the Collegiate Church of Maybole
George Lockhart of Ayr - great scholar (of international reputation) in the final days of the medieval church in Ayrshire
Quintin Kennedy, Abbot of Crosraguel - also outstanding scholar in the final days of the medieval church in Ayrshire
John Major, vicar of Dunlop 1509-1540, became later the King's Secretary and one of the first great Scottish Historians.