IT IS said to be the ancient royal seat of Scotland, a place where kings were crowned and the Stone of Destiny was kept.
• The Stone of Destiny, now in Edinburgh Castle, is rumoured to have been kept in the ancient Scottish city of Evonium
Photograph: Neil Hanna
And now, new evidence has emerged that the lost Scottish city of Evonium, rumoured for centuries to be the Argyll village of Dunstaffnage, may actually have been the less picturesque modern-day town of Irvine.
Scots historian AJ Morton has uncovered research suggesting Evonium, described by one chronicler from the Middle Ages as a place where 40 kings were crowned and reigned, and believed by some to be the country's ancient capital, was sited in the North Ayrshire town. Dunstaffnage, near Oban, was thought to have been the site of the city because of its proximity to the important religious island of Iona.
Morton also questions the origins of the Stone itself, which became a national cause clbre when it was retrieved from Westminster Abbey by a group of Scots nationalists on Christmas Day 60 years ago. He claims it could have been quarried from a sandstone belt that stretches down to the Ayrshire coast from Perthshire, where the Stone is believed to be from.
But it is the existence of Evonium, a "lost city" that was first suggested in the 15th century by the Scottish historian and philosopher Hector Boece, the first principal of King's College in Aberdeen, that is most intruiging.
Morton, a specialist in west coast religious history, claims Irvine was an important administrative centre in the Middle Ages and that many of the country's ancient rulers came from or lived in the area.
John Balliol, the Royal Lord of Cunninghame and the last Scottish king to be crowned on the Stone before it was seized and taken to England in 1296, was a hereditary overlord of the town. Morton has concluded that Evonium would have been more likely to be in Ayrshire, closer to the Irish coast, rather than in a remote part of Argyll, suggesting that the town's name, and the fact that it was once known as the capital of Cunninghame, might itself be a clue.
"The ancient capital of Cunninghame (thought by some to mean "king's home"] was known historically as Erewyn, Ervin, Erevine," he said. "Given its importance, it is almost unreasonable that Irvine has been overlooked in all previous attempts to identify the legendary city of Evonium."
He points out that in the early medieval era Irvine was of huge strategic importance in the country.
"The most intriguing evidence concerns Irvine's links with early monarchs and officers of post-Norman Scotland," said Morton.
"The High Constables and High Stewards of Scotland, for example, established their national and military headquarters in Irvine and Dundonald in the 12th century. Balliol, Robert Bruce and the first Stewarts had a vested interest in the region. John Balliol was hereditary overlord of Irvine when he was crowned on the Stone in 1292."
Further evidence of the importance of the area lies in the existence of the Castle of Irvine, first mentioned in writings in 1191, as well as Bruce's determination to seize the lands around Irvine after 1296.
Morton also pointed out that King Robert III, who ruled from 1390 to 1406, issued at least seven royal charters from various bases in the Irvine area.
Irvine is well recognised as an ancient military capital, and as the former headquarters of the Lord High Constable of Scotland, Hugh de Morville. However, in recent times it has become known as a "poverty hotspot", with figures released this year showing that North Ayrshire had one of the highest deprivation levels in Scotland, with one in four households living in poverty.
Meanwhile, Morton, who wrote The Weight of Kilwinning, which investigates the significance of a 12th-century monastery in the town, goes even further by arguing that the Stone of Destiny could have been carved from Ayrshire rock in the first place.
Nick Aitchison, author of Scotland's Stone of Destiny, concluded that the rock, Old Lower Red Sandstone (OLRS), had come from Scone, near Perth, but Morton said: "The official maps make it quite clear that the OLRS seam runs directly west into North Ayrshire. In identifying the Stone as OLRS, the quarry from which the Stone was cut could now be said to be anywhere along this line.
"If the Irvine region really is Boece's Evonium, it may be important that the district is one of the few on the west coast that has sizeable access to the same OLRS that is found near Scone"