St John’s Tower in Citadel Place is all that remains of Ayr’s medieval parish church, dedicated to St John the Baptist. The church appears to have been founded in the late twelfth century, and it was enlarged during the following centuries. In 1315 King Robert the Bruce convened a parliament or assembly in the church to decide the succession to the Scottish throne. At some point, a large tower was added to the church’s western gable. The many alterations which it has undergone make it difficult to date, but it seems most likely to have been built during the fifteenth century. Internally the tower has five stages – a ground-floor vault, three rooms and a bell chamber, all accessed by spiral staircases.
The series of civil conflicts which swept the British Isles during the mid-seventeenth century culminated in Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Scotland in 1650-52. Ayr was chosen to be the site of one of the garrison fortresses constructed by his occupation army, and St John’s Church was commandeered and enclosed within its walls. (What is now the Auld Kirk was built by the townspeople at this time as a replacement.) The fort garrison divided up the church building for use as a chapel, a mill house and a storehouse, and the tower was used as an armoury and look-out. (Incidents from the Cromwellian occupation will be featured in forthcoming posts.)
When the monarchy was restored in 1660 following Cromwell’s death, the demilitarised fort – including the former church of St John – was gifted by the crown to the 7th Earl of Eglinton as compensation for the losses suffered by his family while supporting the royalist cause. The fort grounds became the barony of Montgomerieston, a private estate lying between the town of Ayr and the sea, where various industrial activities were carried on. By 1726 it was owned by a consortium of Ayr merchants, and around that time the body of the church was demolished to provide stone for the re-building of the High Tolbooth in the Sandgate. (See the previous post The Gibbet Stones from Ayr’s Sandgate Tolbooth.) The tower was left standing as it was an important navigational aid, guiding mariners to the harbour entrance.
In 1852 gunsmith John Miller returned to Ayrshire from India, where he had made his fortune. He purchased the barony of Montgomerieston, and he thus became known locally as Baron Miller. To provide himself with a suitably baronial-looking residence, Miller set about transforming the old church tower. Architect John Murdoch added extensions to it in Gothic style, creating a mansion which was christened Fort Castle. Keeping a walled yard around his home for himself, Miller disposed of most of the rest of the fort estate as house plots.
Following John Miller’s death in 1910, Fort Castle was acquired by the 4th Marquess of Bute. 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 old tower to its appearance when John Slezer sketched it in the seventeenth century.
In 1913-14 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, and it is now in the care of South Ayrshire Council. The tower and its grounds are normally closed to the public, but each year on Doors Open Day, on the first Sunday in September, it is usually possible to gain access and enjoy the spectacular views from the roof parapet.