Our modern mind usually associates the word “Kirk” with the post-Reformation church. In many cases this is absolutely correct, but in fact the word “Kirk” has a much older history, and one that is relevant to our particular heritage.
The lands to the West of where St Brides Roman Catholic Church now sits, have been called Kirkland’s for many hundreds of years. Recent studies (Note 1 below) of place names on the west coast show that in this context, the word “Kirk” does not necessarily relate to the local church, but is in fact derived from the old Norse word “Kjirkja” meaning “community”. These lands were the most fertile ground of our village and sat adjacent to the “Haef Weg” (Old Norse “way to the sea”) which is now our Main Street and passed right through the Kirklands. Of course the Kirk-lands in later years would also come to include the Glebe and all the land to Drummilling and Bridgend.
The Kirkton lands on the other side of the Norse trackway of the Dark Ages, were also of this community. The “ton” can sometimes mean “Town” in old Scots – but stretching back further into History, it was more identifiable as an enclosure. Kirkton in old Norse refers to a “community settlement or enclosure”. This would appear to make some sense in that the valley would be protected from the worst of the weather – although it would have been exposed to easy attack were we a feuding not farming community.
The Kirkcroft however, being the piece of land at the corner of Main Street and Hunterston Road, is much more modern. Croft in this context means the piece of land below the Kirk, and so in this context “Kirk” refers to the church.
Our mixed up understanding of West coast history often times thinks of the word Kirk as modern, and Kil (as in Kilbride) ancient. Actually, royal charters speak differently. Kil is a Gaelic name from the Isles that gained prominence after the Anglo-Saxons and Normans arrived in the late 12th Century and started putting Parishes (parochia) down to identify church lands within their new great estates. The Kil prefix really took hold as the great monastic orders sought Royal Charters for Parishes mainly around the 14th-15th Centuries. Kil names here are always followed by a saint’s name eg kilbride (St Brigid), Kilwinning (St Finnian) etc.
“Kirk” names appear in Royal Charters from the early 14th Century and mainly in South Ayrshire and Galloway. They derive from the Norse “Kjirkja”. These names always precede a saints name also eg Kirkmichael.
In the North West of England there are also many Kirk names, but they are mainly followed by topographical information – eg Kirkdale meaning community of the valley. In this instance “Kirk” derives from the old English (Anglo Saxon) “Cirice” and not the Norse.
So the earliest origins of the word Kirk in our village is not ecclesiastical but in fact Viking Norse that came through the Irish Gaels and the Kingdom of Dal Riata in the Isles. Remember the battle of Largs in 1263 against Hakon was not because he invaded us, but actually because the Norman and Anglo Saxon invaders wanted the west coast for themselves.
So as you pass the cross, as the bottom of the Barony, reflect how, many hundreds of years ago, our nordic viking chums were there before you heading off to Glasgow or back down to their waiting boats at Portencross. Perhaps they stopped in at the farming enclosure at Kirktonhall where they might enjoy a light libation or feast. Who knows, but the clues are all there!
- Alison Grant ” A Reconsideration of Kirk-names in South West Scotland” (Northern Studies, Volume 38, Page 97, 2004) https://ssns.org.uk/resources/Documents/NorthernStudies/Vol38/Grant_2004_Vol_38_pp_97_122.pdf