Paisley Abbey squats in the centre of the town. A large building 279 feet long its square tower is unadorned with a spire, which makes it lower for its size than many church building. Nevertheless it is visible from most areas of the town.
Paisley Abbey founded in 1163 began life as a Priory of the Cluniac Order. The founder, Walter Fitzalan, was the first hereditary High Steward of Scotland. The black and white robed brethren who settled here travelled from Shropshire to set up the Priory on ground once occupied by a church established by St Mirrin in the 6th Century. He is credited with bringing Christianity to the local area but today is more generally known through the local football team carrying his name.
The Cluniac Order founded in 909AD in central France was amazingly successful. They were founded to return monastic life to the rules set down by Saint Benedict around 529 AD. He stressed the importance of austerity, strict discipline and unvarying routine. When Paisley was established there were over 3000 other Cluniac houses scattered over Europe.
By 1219 Paisley founded as a priory became an abbey in its own right and answerable only to the Pope. Through gifts given in self-interest, as these people believed it would smooth their way into Eternal Life the abbey quickly became a powerful and wealthy organisation. The abbots became power brokers in national as well as local politics.
In 1307 English soldiers burned the abbey church in revenge for being ambushed in the forest at Paisley. Much of the Abbey was destroyed but benefactors helped the monks in the rebuilding task. In 1315 the King of Scotland's daughter Marjory Bruce married Walter, the sixth High Steward of Scotland (the founders of the abbey). A year after her wedding Marjory was killed in a riding accident. She was pregnant at the time but the child survived and later become King and first of the Stewart Monarchs, of which the present Queen is a descendant. For this reason the Abbey claims to be 'the cradle of the Stewarts'.
Paisley Abbey enjoyed visits from royalty and became wealthy and very influential. It is the resting places of six High Stewards; the wives of two Kings and of course Princess Marjory. William Wallace (Brave heart) it is claimed was educated by the Monks of Paisley Abbey. There is also evidence of extensive trade between Paisley Abbey and Europe.
The Abbey served the Cluniac Order for 400 years. By the time of the Reformation in 1560 the monks had largely forgotten the founding principles of their order and their life had become comfortable and spiritually undemanding. The Reformation was therefore perhaps justified. It left as a legacy the magnificent church, which has continued to serve as a place of warship for the people of Paisley.
The Abbey began a period of restoration in 2002 and it is estimated this will take about 10 years. Varying styles of architecture from the 12th to 15th centuries are featured in the nave, while the stone-vaulted ceiling of the Choir, with its sculptured bosses, is a fine example of early 20th century restoration. The work of restoration continues and the finely carved gargoyles on the south wall of the nave bear witness to the high standard of craftsmanship available today.
Some notable things to see whilst in the Abbey are The William Wallace window and one of the oldest organs known, as well as being one of the best in the world.
Paisley Museum and Art Gallery
The 1871 Paisley Museum & Art Gallery building is an outstanding example of Victorian architecture and a fitting monument to the former wealth of the town. Its exhibitions contain a sculpture gallery, ceramics, an Egyptian section, and an art gallery. A social history displays draws on photography held in its huge archive. It also has a gallery on Paisley Shawls, the key to the town’s former wealth.
The museums Shawl collection contains over 1000 items, as well as records from textile manufacturers, pattern books and weaving machinery. To enhance these displays further, the Museum is planning to offer a living history display on handloom weaving, incorporating demonstrations and question and answer sessions.
Paisley was famous for its weaving industry. It was a centre for textiles, particularly the Paisley Shawl worn by almost anyone of note in the 19th century. During both the 19th and 20th century, the town’s weavers were some of the most skilled the world.
Paisley shawls’ history starts in India. The fleece of wild mountain goats in Tibet or Central Asia formed the raw material for the original 15th-century Indian shawls. Men wore these early Kashmiri shawls draped around their shoulders. In the 18th century Indian shawls sold for as much as £150, a huge sum in those days.
Both Indian and European shawls feature the diagonal ribs of twill-weave tapestry but the characteristic Paisley form resembles a teardrop shape curved back on itself. The oldest Paisley piece on display in the Museum dates to the late 1700's.
The jacquard loom introduced from France enabled a single weaver to produce complex designs in many colours, and self-employed weavers became attached to powerful manufacturers. The government set up a school of design in the town, to provide Paisley shawl manufacturers with the newest designs for their expanding market. Paisley produced shawls in three basic forms: the scarf shawl, or stole, which measured an astounding 9 x 25 feet; the true shawl, up to 6 feet square, and the ''plaid'' shawl - usually about 5 x 10 feet.
There were printed shawls on wool or silk gauze, some cheap and some high-quality. Reversible shawls had a smooth woven pattern on each side, but these used only small-scale motifs. Usually, the face of a shawl was smooth, with loose threads floating on the back. When the bustle came into fashion, in the 1860's, women didn't want to hide the main feature of their costume and interest in the all-enveloping shawls waned.
The Art Galleries at the Museum are host to many fine Scottish paintings. While I was there the work of Alexander Gowdie occupied the space. Born in Paisley in 1933, Gowdie studied at the Glasgow School of Art and although best known for his portraiture, he had a remarkable breadth of styles and subjects. His is a colourful style as he painted with great panache.
I like to decide for myself what is great art and I am just as likely to find it among painters who are unknown to the wider world than among the masters. I would describe great art as similar to someone throwing a window open on to the world. There is something about a great painting that draws me in. This doesn’t mean I am immune to the efforts of impressionists.
I suppose I think there is snobbery about paintings just as there are with wines. I recall watching a taste panel comment on different wines. The one that scored highest was a home-made wine – perhaps enough said! Anyway with me Alexander Gowdie paintings scored high but lacked that certain ‘wow’ factor.
The Museum Shop has many exclusive gifts in Paisley pattern, including genuine shawls and scarves produced by Whitehill and Wilsons, the last shawls manufacturer in Paisley.
This is an important museum as it highlights the important place that Paisley played on the world stage. If that isn’t enough, entrance is free!
The Coats Observatory
The heavens have always fascinated mankind. Aloof, ordered, mysterious, many speculated that it might even have some control over us. It is not surprising therefore that astronomy is the oldest of the sciences. Ancient civilisations looked to the heavens and marvelled at what they saw. Telescopes brought the far distances closer and allowed better understanding.
In 2009 the world will celebrate the ‘International Year of Astronomy’ to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope to study the night sky. Many followed his example. The Coats Observatory for instance has been a feature of the Paisley skyline since 1882. Proposed by the Paisley Philosophical Institute and funded by Thomas Coats, of the wealthy thread making Coats family, the observatory has been operating ever since.
When the observatory opened it welcomed members of the public to view the night sky through a five-inch telescope from the end of September to the end of April. The currently telescope is a 10-inch refractor dating from 1898. To gaze through it at the heavens visit on Thursday nights from the end of October to the end of March from 7pm to 9pm. Avoid nights with overcast cloud!
The observatory also houses items of interest which make a daytime visit rewarding. The telescope sits in the dome at the top of the building. For viewing the heavens the roof slides open. The dome also houses a sidereal clock. It measures time through the motion of the stars. So accurate was this method of timekeeping, the authorities linked the Paisley Town Hall clock to it in 1888.
From the balcony outside the dome, panoramic views can be had over Paisley and north over the Kilpatrick Hills. To the south-east the Lanarkshire countryside unfolds.
On the second floor is a large working model of the Solar System. By turning the handle on the machine the planets rotate around the sun. The relative sizes, distances and orbits of the planets are all to scale. This particular model dates from 1892 so doesn’t have Pluto - only discovered in 1930.
Also housed in this room is a seismograph. Earthquakes occurring anywhere on the planet have appeared as blips here since 1899. Around the ceiling are carvings depicting a bear, a hippopotamus, a puma and seal, and also a telescope, a globe and maps and books. These represent natural history, astronomy and geography the branches of science promoted by the Paisley Philosophical Society.
On the first floor is the Instrument Room. It originally contained many of the scientific instruments. It now features a display entitled ‘Amazing Space’, describing our Solar System in detail.
Of particular note about the building itself is the stained-glass window. As fine as any seen in a church it incorporates an image of Sir William Herschel (1738-1822) who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, the first new planet discovered since ancient times. He also discovered two moons of Saturn, infrared radiation and the structure and shape of the galaxy, the Milky Way.
A visit is free and is well worth the trouble of seeking out this often forgotten gem. It is full of interest on where we fit into our wider surroundings and the natural curiosity that people had in centuries past. They sought knowledge for its own sake.
Sma' Shot Cottages
Paisley boomed during the 19th century driven by the weaving of scarves, shawls and ties with Paisley patterns by its workers. A visit to Sma' Shot Cottages gives us a glimpse back to this time - around the time of the Battle of Waterloo and during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Opened in 1990, this attraction consists of two traditional workers' cottages. One is a one-storey cottage, the Weaver's Cottage, built and refurnished as it was in the 1740s. The other is a two-storey version, Sma' Shot Cottage, dating from the 1840s. The cottages are the oldest secular building in Paisley, apart from the much grander ‘Place‘of Paisley and the Black Hall Manor.
Sma’ Shot, refers to a hidden width of plain strong yarn which held the woven fabric patterns together in garments. The buyers initially refused to pay the weavers for the small, or sma’, shot until the workers went on strike at the summons of the famous Charleston Drum, which is today on show at Paisley Museum.
The Sma’ Shot celebrations in the town on the first Saturday of July mark this important victory. During it participants dressed as weavers march to the beat of a modern replica of the Charleston Drum.
Viewing is by guided tour only, which lasts around 30 minutes. They start as soon as people turn up for a tour. I tagged onto one that had already started. Some children were in the group and the guide asked them questions about what they thought different objects might be. They were discussing the laundry tools when I joined. It is only in the last 50 years or so they had changed much for the ones on show weren’t that different from the ones my mother used.
The loom rooms contain original handlooms, the cupboard for storing the loom materials and a special fireplace for starching the thread before use - one of just two surviving examples in West Scotland.
The weaver who lived in Sma' Shot Cottage had 11 children sharing two rooms. Pride came first for the family still kept the parlour, furnished with their best furniture and china, to receive visitors and host special occasions, even though it lay unused most of the time. They pretended to be wealthier than they were through having items like vases cheaply made - from chalk.
The house also features wooden box beds, which in draughty cottages would have kept the occupants snug. A small room contained a normal bed. In the kitchen the guide explained the method of hanging a pot over the fire and the use of a slow cooker - meat inserted into a metal lined box and cooked slowly from a low source of heat.
The tour finishes in the gift shop. Afterwards I had a seat in the café, the Alexander Wilson Room, and ordered a bite to eat. Alexander was a weaver-poet born in nearby Seedhill in 1766. He went on to become the Father of American Ornithology after immigrating to the New World out of necessity. A ‘cork’, the link between the weaver and the distributor, successfully sued him following publication of a libellous poem. A permanent display of Wilson’s life and works, including some of his poetry, is on show at the Cottages.
Food came quickly and although the café doesn’t offer a wide choice it prepared it well and the prices proved reasonable. In good weather, visitors can enjoy their afternoon teas and home baking in the weaver’s cottage floral garden. During the summer, the famous Paisley Pinks – flowers cultivated by the Paisley weavers –bring a spectacular dash of colour to the garden.
The Cottages, at 11-17 George Place and 14 Shuttle Street, are open every Wednesday and Saturday from noon until 4pm during the summer. Admission is free.
The Paisley Town Hall (originally George Atiken Clark Town Hall) presents a nice view to three different sides. If it looks familar to anyone from Northern Ireland - the architect also did Belfast central library.
Popular for weddings and concerts, it sometimes takes the notion of bigger name acts to play just for a new town on the tour - Morrisey played here late in 2004
- Arts and Culture
Father of American Independence
This is the statue of the Reverend John Witherspoon, formerly of the Laigh Kirk in Paisley, now the Arts Centre. It is on the High Street at the entrance to Paisley University.
As alluded to in my introduction to Paisley, not only was he a signatory, but it was he who took the Scotttish Declaration of Arbroath to the American colonies in the 1770s and cribbed it for the Declaration of Independence
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Museum & Art Galleries
The Paisley Museum & Art Galleries shares the marvellous Hellenic looking building which dates from the 1870s with the Central library.
Filled with curios it has never been in a position to compete as an art gallery, but the collection of antique shawls is arguably the finest in the world. Visiting exhibitions always worth a look.
Hours usually 1000--1700 Monday to Saturday.
- Arts and Culture
- Museum Visits
Baptist Cathedral of Europe
The Thomas Coats Memorial Church began construction in the late 1800s, and is the biggest Baptist church in Europe. The Coats, like the Clarks, were mill owners who produced thread and helped make the Paisley pattern (originally from India) a world wide favourite to this day. it is known as 'the Baptist Cathedral of Euroe'
No More Monk-ey Business
Presumed near to the original Paisley Abbey circa AD550 built by St. Mirin, the abbey dates to the mid 1200s AD, where Sir William Wallace had his monastic education later that century. Has been rebuilt in part over the centuries, much of the current building being less than 200 years old. Another feature of Paisley that could compete comfortably with towns that have bona fide 'tourists' - Paisley only has visitors-there is a coffee shop open for passing trade which is well worth a visit. Still a working place of worship although the monks are now long gone.
- Historical Travel
The Car Park in the Sky
This is the local wags'name for the car park for the Robertson Park, Sergeantlaw Road up Gleniffer Braes, just to the South of Paisley (on the back road to Ayrshire border with Renfrewshire)
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