Ayrshire Towns and Parishes

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Shooting the Papingo 

By Ayrshire writer JOAN BIGGAR   

This article first appeared in The Scots Magazine in June 1978





"0ur society is the oldest in Britain, and probably in the world,” I was told by Ian Jones, a lecturer in computer studies at Jordanhill College of Education, and Captain of the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers in 1975 and 1976.

“ The Guinness Book of Records has got it wrong,” he added with a smile, “ and so have the Edinburgh Royal Company of Archers.” 

I met Ian on a Saturday in June, at Kilwinning’s McGavin Park, when I asked the archers to take me to their leader. He was wearing the Benn, a length of broad scarlet ribbon over the shoulder and crossing the chest, which has been the symbol of supremacy amongst the Kilwinning Archers since 1488. Originally the Benn was a length of Persian taffeta, three ells long, three quarters of an ell broad, in all the colours of the rainbow, and valued at £20 Scots. 

The Society has existed at least since 1488, which is the date acknowledged and authenticated by a minute in the earliest records of it still in existence. These minutes are dated September 1688 and refer to the exploits of the archers two hundred years before. But probably Kilwinning men were already playing fast and loose when the abbey in the centre of the town, now a ruin, was having the finishing touches put to it by 12th century masons. In these far off days, an Act of the Scottish Parliament made archery practice compulsory for men and boys in every parish in the country; the time allotted to it was an hour or two after Divine Service.

“ The expression ‘ playing fast and loose ’ is an archery one,” Ian told me. ” It originates in an old law stating that if a person was slain or wounded in the sport, the man who loosed the arrow could not be sued or molested provided he had cried out ’ Fast ’ immediately before the discharge of the weapon.” 

As I watched the flight of the arrows tearing through the air towards their targets with a hilling yet thrilling whistling sound, it occurred to me how impossible it would be to dodge one in the time taken to shout “ Fast!” No wonder anyone behaving recklessly is said to be playing fast and loose! 

When firearms came into use, archery ceased to be a means of defence and became instead an elegant and manly amusement like that other ancient sport at which the warning cry is “ Fore!” “ The cost is about the same as for golf,” Ian reckoned. “ Our subscriptions for the archery society are only £5.50 a year and £3.50 for junior members. Tournament bows , can cost from £60 to £140. Arrows may be £3 or £4 each.” 

In its present form, the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers has been in existence since only 1950, in which year it was decided that the captaincy should be decided by skill in shooting at the butts, and not at the papingo where an element of luck is involved. The Captain’s Shoot is over a distance of thirty yards to a 9 in. target consisting of three concentric rings. One point is awarded for an outer, two for an inner, and three for a bull’s eye, each archer shooting six dozen arrows. Afterwards, it’s off to dinner at a local hotel, where the new Captain stands a round of drinks. 

In the evening, the archers foregather again, this time at Kilwinning Abbey tower for the  shooting of the papingo (otherwise known as a parrot or popinjay), a wooden bird perched on a ten-foot pole pushed out from the top of the tower at a distance of a dizzy 116 feet from the ground.

The year 1950 marked the third revival of the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers. The first was in 1688, when firearms were still something of a novelty and archery out of fashion. That year, only fifteen members mustered to pit their skill against one another for the prize of a “ silver plaite.” In 1724, this was replaced by a silver arrow, which was won - and kept - by the gentleman donating it, David Muir of Kilwinning. 

Alexander Baillie, a Glasgow merchant who evidently didn’t mind the far travel to Kilwinning to play fast and loose was the next winner. Again the prize was a silver arrow, but he agreed it should be the perpetual trophy, and that every captain should be its custodian for his year of victory and attach to the arrow a gold or silver medallion bearing his name and the date he won the Benn on one side, and his crest, if any, on the other.

Interest in archery increased during the 19th century, and in 1840 Prince Albert became a patron of the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers, choosing them for his bodyguard during a visit to the west of Scotland. By 1859 there were so many medallions attached to the trophy that a bow had to be provided to accommodate them, and two crossed arrows were also added, with the original arrow placed lengthwise above them. In 1860, the Earl of Eglinton donated the first gold medal, which was also the last. Nobody followed his example, as subsequent captains reverted to silver.

Archery was now indeed a sport for gentlemen, and the uniform of the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers a very elegant one. A long green coat, double-breasted and with gilt buttons, was worn over a white cashmere vest. The coat was lined with white silk, the buttons made with crossed arrows as their design, and a broad red and white striped scarf-like collar worn, the Society’s the badge being red, white and green. The membership increased to over 300 during the romantic revival of the 19th century which reached outrageous limits in the staging of a lavish mock-medieval tournament at Eglinton Castle

On May 27, 1871, only three members came to a meeting of the Society to arrange that year’s shoot. Presumably they were the only ones who could afford to risk winning the Captain’s Benn! For being captain had come to entail providing not only rounds of drinks, but a dinner and ball for the Society and their fair partners, verses on whose charms had begun to embellish Victorian medallions added to the trophy. 

Because of the lack of support, that 1871 shoot never took place. The records and trophy were lodged at Archers’ Hall in Edinburgh where they remained until 1951 in the care of the Royal Company of Archers. In 1950 the first shoot of the “ new ” Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers took place, and the return to them of their magnificent trophy by the Royal Company of Archers the following year was celebrated by a memorable shoot-out in which both Kilwinning and Edinburgh marksmen participated. 

Although the trophy is officially known as the Papingo Arrow, the Kilwinning archers refer to it amongst themselves as “ Jingle Bells ” because of the musical sound made by the many dangling medals, the first of which is dated 1688“ It takes three people about four hours to clean them,” said ex-captain David Dickie who had been an archer for twenty years before his name was added to its silver medallions. David has been involved in archery from the age of seven, when his uncle made him a small, but very professional, bow. 

At present there are 22 members of the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers and one of them, Bob Gilmour, takes aim from a wheelchair. He was unable to take part in the 1977 shoot as he was in London at the British Paraplegic Games. Bob is the Society’s president. 

The archers hold regular practice sessions every week, and both Ian Jones and Stuart Wilson have shot for the Scottish men’s team. Using a lightweight woman’s bow, one of the two lady members, pretty Beryl Shaw, has also distinguished herself as an archer by winning many prizes including the Hunterston Clout trophy. This is in the design of the hunting horn which forms the badge of the Hunters of Hunterston.

For the Clout shoot, archers aim at a flag on a pole stuck in the ground near Hunterston House. I was shown a gnarled yew tree from which the Hunters are said to have got the wood for their bows 500 years ago. Many of the medallions on “ Jingle Bells ” make interesting reading, and the ornate Victorian ones encrusted with cupids, garlands, Latin quotations, verses and elaborate borders, form a striking contrast to those of the 18th century and Georgian age which have an elegant simplicity. The modern ones, paid for by society funds, are all of the same pleasing and tasteful pattern. 

The youngest captain ever was a ten-year-old boy, son of a Port Glasgow merchant, who was awarded the victor’s Benn in 1825 and must have looked like grandpa-cut-down in his green double-breasted coat.  

The Earl of Eglinton’s gold medal disclosed that he had not actually won the shoot in person, but by proxy. John Warner, student, had taken aim on behalf of his patron the earl. 

William Baillie was no mean marksman, having won the Captain’s trophy in 1698, 1706 and 1713; but how would he have fared, I wonder, against Stuart Wilson who won it three vears in succession in the 1970s? Stuart must have had his fellow archers worried, as their forebears had made a ruling that if anyone ever won ” Jingle Bells ” six times he could keep it if he provided a replacement prize to the value of thirty shillings and sixpence. This rule has never been altered though the trophy is now so valuable that it is kept not in the custody of the reigning captain, but in a solicitor’s office. 

The afternoon was decidedly chilly for June and I left the archers to it, returning to Kilwinning that evening to see the ancient custom of shooting the papingo.

There was no need to ask who had won the afternoon shooting match. Bill Petrie, (photo right) of  Kilwinning, was proudlv sporting the scarlet Benn over his white Aran sweater. Dark green trousers, white jersey, and Stewarton bonnet - a tammy in the Kilwinning Archers colours of red, white and green, knitted in a design of circles resembling a target - now comprise the uniform of the Ancient Society. Bill’s score had been 91, with Matt Macpherson, Saltcoats chemist, coming second with 89.

Matt had prudently swopped his Stewarton bonnet for a green crash-helmet, and I soon Discovered why.

“ Do you see these?” asked Bob McKie, a founder member of the archers’ society in its modern form. He pointed to the table-shaped tomb-stones surrounding the Abbey tower, which were pitted all over with tiny but deep marks. “ These are where arrows have fallen,” he said. “ Of course, we no longer use the steel-tipped kind for the Papingo Shoot. They’re rubber-tipped now.”  

All the same, I stepped smartly back!

The present papingo was made in 1950 by John Walker, a Kilwinning man and keen archer. He also presented the John Walker Trophy, a prize for the winner of the Papingo Shoot. It’s in the form of a model of Kilwinning Abbey tower, with the papingo on top, and the tiny figure of an archer about to take aim from the foot of the tower, Each archer shoots in turn, facing the tower, with one foot placed on the step; and the order in which members take aim is decided by lots drawn from a hat. The idea is to dislodge the papingo from the pole, or at least wing it, as the wings are attached loosely through slots in the bird’s sides. If, between 7 and 9 pm nobody has succeeded in “dinging doon the doe,” the John Walker Trophy remains unwon for that year, and this was the case in 1977. As a looker-on who saw most of the game, it seemed to me that the papingo had been too firmly fixed in place, probably because of the near gale-force wind which was rushing through the old trees around the Abbey. I distinctly saw the papingo hit four times, but though it quivered, the arrows glanced off their target.  

For the enthusiastic archers, it mattered not who won (the papingo in this case) or lost, but how they played the game. Everyone had enjoyed themselves. In the old days, the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers held a three-day gala at which there were separate shoots for gentlemen, students, and artisans. The victors had the doubtful privilege of partnering the oldest female inhabitants sprightly enough to lead off the evening balls. The elegant and manly amusement of archery is still as much part of the Kilwinning scene as the Abbey which has been the site of so many papingo shoots, and will no doubt remain the venue for many more.

One thing certain, the small boys dashing about to retrieve the fallen arrows for their owners can hardly wait to get their hands on those bows, and beat each other to the Benn!







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