The name "Kilbirnie" is derived from the Gaelic language, and means "Church of St Brendan". The parish was divided into three baronies: Kilbirnie, Ladyland, and Glengarnock. The barony of Kilbirnie was the largest, at around 5500 acres, and had the most fertile quarter with 3000 acres of arable, pasture and woodland.
Kilbirnie Castle is said to be the site where in 1263 the Scots mustered under Alexander III before fighting Norwegian forces in the Battle of Largs.
The castle's location is on high ground in the bend of a deep ravine, giving the site protection along its west and north sides. The word place in Scots refers to a landed proprietor's mansion house, and is equivalent in meaning to the English word "palace", although the term "palace" only acquired its present connotations at a later date. The dwelling is in two quite distinct parts: one a tower built in about 1470 for Malcolm Crawfurd and his wife, Marjory Barclay, an heiress and the last of her line; the other part is dated to 1627. The entrance to the new wing has a very unusual projecting porch on the south front.
Timothy Pont's map, c. 1604, as published by Joan Blaeu in Amsterdam (1654) , shows Kilbirnan Castle (sic), as this date precedes the building of the mansion house. John Adair's map of c. 1685 shows a castellated structure recorded as Kilburny. Roy's map of 1747 shows the castle and the avenue. A Mains Farm is shown located near to Kilbirnie Kirk. The 1832 Thomson map records 'Killbirny House' and shows a lane running directly from the house to the kirk.
The Honourable Patrick Lindsay purchased the castle and estate of Glengarnock in 1677 from Richard Cuninghame, the last of the Cuninghames of Garnock. In 1707 both baronies were united in the Barony of Kilburnie, with the Manor House of Kilbirnie as the principal messuage.
This impressive 15th-century structure measures 42 feet by 33 feet, with walls between 7 feet and 8 feet in thickness. A cellar was present and a sleeping loft under a vault. Another vault had a hall, lit by three ordinary windows in the south wall and a window high up in the north wall, a private room lay beneath. The tower was four storeys high. In the north-west corner a "starving pit" prison was entered by a hatch from a passage from the stair at loft level. Gun ports are not present.
In 1602 the Place of Kilbirnie was broken into whilst the laird "was furth of this realme" and his wife Margaret was at Greenock. A John Crawfurd of "Auchinbothe" was arrested and tried, however he was found innocent despite having returned some of the stolen items to Lady Kilbirnie. The charter chest was one of the items broken into and items removed from.
This was constructed in 1627 at right angles to the old keep using rubble dressed with sandstone ashlar. A door was broken through from the hall to a staircase in the mansion house. The mansion was a fine specimen of 17th-century architecture. It had turrets corbelled out at hall level and these contained closets. The front door was set in an unusual shallow projection and a narrow back door at the north facing aspect led into a court. Two cellars existed with a passage between them that connected with the main staircase. The hall in the old tower may have been used as a dining area and the large room in the mansion house utilised as a drawing-room.
The building was destroyed by fire early in the morning of 1 May 1757 during construction works, and never rebuilt. The 19th Earl of Crawfurd, his infant daughter Jean (later a Countess of Eglinton), and domestics had little time to escape. The family moved to the Barony manse at first and later to Bourtreehill House near Irvine. Lady Crawfurd was the eldest daughter and heiress of Robert Hamilton of Bourtreehill.
The story goes that before going to bed, a lady of the house threw the melted grease from the socket of a candlestick into a fire grate in a lower storey of the house. The ensuing flames set alight the unswept chimney flue and the fire entered the new mansion wing through windows in the garret that had been left open by workmen. The keys had been taken offsite by carpenters and access to control the fire was impossible. Large numbers of people turned out to help, but their assistance was to no avail. Until the death of the earl in 1781 the cause had been carefully concealed and supernatural forces held to blame.
Some of the buildings were retained as a hunting lodge.
The approach to the building from the south was a long straight avenue twenty yards wide, bordered by high walls and once enclosing large gardens. The section down to Causewayfoot was bordered by walls and the section down to the termination at Fudstone (now demolished) was tree-lined only. The remnants of the 'Grand Avenue' are still discernable. A substantial walled garden ran down from the castle to the top of the glen, long abandoned, and shown on the OS maps. Paterson records that the pleasure-grounds were "torn up by the plough". The gardens once contained flowers and shrubs, potatoes, turnips, and orchards.
The mains farm is recorded as Place Farm and sometimes, confusingly, as Kilbirnie Place. The old castle site is recorded as Kilbirnie House. A lane ran up to the Largs Road from Causewayfoot, via a dwelling at Parkfoot, now demolished, crossing the Paduff Burn rivulet by a ford.
Birnie's well was a spring that supplied excellent water. It was about a quarter of a mile north of the Kilbirnie Castle ruins and water was carried to the castle by pipes. The well no longer exists.
Ordnance Survey (OS) maps show that a sandstone quarry was located at Causewayfoot, overlooked by the old but now demolished dwelling at Selsy, with cottages and the farm of Causewayfoot standing nearby. A small ironstone pit was also present. The OS 6 in. of 1897, 1911, 1938 show a trapezoidal curling pond south-west of Kilbirnie Castle and records show that a match was played between Kilbirnie v. Dalry 3 rinks each, on 20 February 1895. The curling pond built below the Causewayfoot is now drained and overgrown, shown as already abandoned in 1938. A lozenge-shaped curling pond at Fudstone south-west of the dwelling is shown on OS 6 in. 1st ed. ca. 1860, 1897 and 1911.
The arms of the Barclays, impaled with those of Crawfurd are carved on a panel located on the tower of the kirk. The Crawfurds added the Crawfurd Aisle to the Auld Kirk with its fine Renaissance-style carvings of 1642. A private apartment is located behind with the family burial vaults lying beneath. The numerous heraldic shields were carved for John, first Viscount Garnock, and represent the armorial bearings of his ancestors.
The castle passed from the Barclays to the Crawfurds through the marriage of Marjory, an heiress, to Malcolm Crawfurd. Marjory was the daughter of Sir John Barclay of Kilbirnie and Craufurd-John. These Barclays of Kilbirnie are thought to have been a branch of the ancient family of the Barclays of Ardrossan. Sir Walter Barclay was Lord High Chamberlain of Scotland in 1174 and married Margaret Crawfurd of Craufurd-John. Marjory was descended from this line.
In 1470 Thomas Crawfurd, sometimes written as Crauford or Crawford, obtained the castle through marriage. He was descended from the Crawfurds of Loudoun Castle. Sir John Crawfurd had been knighted by Charles I in 1642 and fought in the Civil Wars, but died without any heirs in 1661. John Crawfurd married Margaret, daughter of John Blair of that Ilk, although Dobie records her as being the daughter of James, Earl of Glencairn. Cornelius Crawfurd of Jordanhill was the closest relative, however his youngest daughter Maragaret Crawfurd inherited the estate of Kilbirnie.
In 1810 John Crawfurd assumed the name Lindsay and claimed to be descended from the Hon. James Crawfurd, third son of the first Viscount Garnock. After much expense and deliberation the story was found to be entirely false and the claim rejected. To add some credibility to the claim he had claimed that his forbear had been the eldest son and heir and had been forced to flee to Ireland after having murdered a man in a duel by firing before the signal. This duel he claimed had been over a matter of honour relating to the Lady Susanna Kennedy, with whom he was entirely smitten.
The Crawfurd-Pollocks of Pollok and Kilbirnie were granted a baronetcy that was extinct by 1885.
Margaret Crawfurd had been married to Patrick, second son of John, 15th Earl of Crawfurd and 1st of Lindsay. Her husband took the title and armorial bearings of Crawfurd of Kilburnie as per the entail to the estate. The couple died only three days apart in 1680 from a malignant fever that also carried off her sister, Lady Blackhall, when she came down for the funeral. Records show that a significant number of mourners travelled down from Glasgow to the funeral. The eldest son of their seven children, John, inherited in 1690. John Crawfurd became the commander of the Fencible men of Cuninghame in 1689 and in 1693 he was chosen as the Ayrshire member of the Scots Parliament. In 1705 he was created Viscount Mount Crawfurd, by Queen Anne, later changed to Viscount Garnock, and died in December 1708. He married Margaret Stewart, daughter of the first Earl of Bute, and the couple had two sons and three daughters. The line continued until George Lindsay Crawfurd inherited, the 20th Earl of Crawfurd, 6th Earl of Lindsay, and 4th Viscount Garnock, who died unmarried in 1808 and the estates passed to his sister, Lady Mary Lindsay Crawfurd who also died unmarried in 1833.
In 1833 George Boyle, 4th Earl of Glasgow, inherited the ruins of the fire-gutted castle and house from Lady Mary Lindsay Crawfurd. George was descended from Margaret, eldest daughter of Maragret Crawfurd and Patrick Lindsay, who had married David, 1st Earl of Glasgow.
At the break up of the Earl of Glasgow's estates the castle and lands were purchased by Sir James Knox.
Kilbirnie Place, or Place House, was built between 1892 and 1894 for Sir James Knox. The house was designed by Henry Lord of Manchester. The building was demolished and only the outbuildings now survive.