Willie Shand delves into Paisley’s history as a textile town
Willie Shand weaves a fascinating story about Scotland’s textile town.
FLOWING down from Eaglesham Moor in East Renfrewshire on its way to join the Clyde, the White Cart Water makes its dramatic entrance to the town of Paisley by spilling over a set of rapids known as the Hamills.
A lot of water has flowed this way since the town’s patron saint, St Mirin, founded his wee chapel beside the river.
According to legend, St Mirin came to Scotland with St Columba in the 6th century.
If he were to return today, I doubt he would recognise that spot, as it now lies at the very heart of Scotland’s largest town: the town of Paisley.
He’d maybe be happy that the local football club still takes his name.
I’ll never forget my first visit to the town. I’d been invited to an evening at Paisley Photographic Club, at the end of which I set off for home, only to do a huge circle – taking in much of Glasgow and passing the venue again an hour later!
The town’s most prominent landmark is its spectacular abbey, which was founded in 1163 by the then High Steward of Scotland, Walter Fitzalan, an ancestor of the Royal House of Stewart.
With its colourful, often turbulent history interwoven through not only that of the town, but also that of the nation, the abbey well deserves its recognition as the “Jewel in Paisley’s Crown”.
The high, stone-ribbed roof, intricate wood and stone carvings and beautiful stained-glass windows will surely take your breath away. Just look at the detail in the masonry to the Great West Doorway.
The Wallace Memorial Window celebrates wellknown Scottish historical figure William Wallace, who is said to have been educated here by the
monks of Paisley Abbey.
Beneath the window is the Barochan Cross – if you think the abbey’s old, this carved cross is a good few hundred years older!
One thing you might overlook is in the North Transept – a wooden vestibule used for storage.
I was amused by the guide’s story that this is a relatively recent addition, designed as a mock-up of the entrance to Westminster Abbey for the filming of 2008’s “Stone Of Destiny”.
Just to the north of the abbey is a statue to one of Paisley’s greatest sons, the weaver poet Robert Tannahill.
You’ll probably know several of his songs, for example, “Jessie, The Flower of Dunblane”, “The Braes o’ Balquhidder” and “The Braes of Gleniffer”.
A short walk beyond the high street takes us to the cottage where Robert lived from infancy until his death in 1810. A brass plaque outside the property reads: “He sang amid the shuttles’ din,
The music of the woods.” If you’ve walked as far as his cottage, you may as well go the extra wee bit to where George Street crosses Maxwellton Street.
Right in the centre of the busy crossroads is set a bronze tondo featuring a stainless-steel horseshoe and bearing the inscription Pain Inflicted, Suffering Endured, Injustice Done.
It remembers one of Paisley’s darkest days, when, in 1697, seven people accused of witchcraft were taken to the Gallow Green to be burned at the stake.
They were buried at this spot, and the horseshoe is in place to prevent their spirits from returning to trouble the living.
It’s said that so long as the horseshoe remains, the town will prosper.
It’s a very busy intersection, and any photograph of the shoe has to be carefully timed to that brief moment when both sets of traffic lights are red.
It’s not for the fainthearted – if the lights change, you’re a goner!
As you walk around the town, you can’t help but notice a common thread running through some of the street names, like Cotton Street, Gauze Street and Silk Street.
Some would say Paisley made textiles; others, that textiles made Paisley. Both are equally true.
In the late 1700s there were as many as 6,800 looms in the town, working to produce an annual output of around two million yards of linen.
The quality of that linen was such that it could command prices higher than any made in London or Paris.
The name Paisley is, of course, known throughout the world for the famous “Paisley pattern”, an ancient teardrop pattern that goes back more than 2,000 years and which actually originated far from our shores.
It was first found on the shawls produced in Kashmir, but after the East India Company brought some of these garments back to Britain in the mid 1700s, the design was soon being tweaked to suit the European market.
No-one could have foreseen how popular it would be, with products bearing the pattern in such demand that they kept the mills’ order books full for more than a century.
You can’t go far in Paisley without meeting the name Coats. There’s the Coats Observatory, for example, which is Scotland’s oldest public building of its kind.
There’s also the Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church, an enormous red sandstone, neo-gothic building that’s so grand it has been dubbed the Baptist Cathedral of Europe.
Prominent statues of one Thomas Coats and his brother Peter can be found near the Town Cross, above Dunn Square.
When James Clark established his cotton thread mill in Paisley, he would have hoped for it to go from strength to strength.
But I doubt he could have imagined that one day, in the late 1800s, it would join with another Paisley thread maker – J&P Coats – to become the world’s third largest company, with mills in all corners of the globe.
An old advert claims: “Whatever the material, whatever the colour, you’ll find a Coats thread to suit.”
The Paisley Thread Mill Museum is run entirely by volunteers.
One of the volunteers, Maureen Cassels, is happy to tell me all about the firm, and how well it looked after its many thousands of workers in Paisley alone.
They had their own tennis club, bowling club, photography
club – even their own sanatorium to cater for those suffering from the effects of the dusty factory air.
“And,” she adds, “it was one of the first companies to provide a pension for women.”
Education was always encouraged here, and talent was well rewarded through promotion.
There were many mills spread around the town, with the one now housing the museum originally an industrial finishing mill.
It would certainly be hard to imagine a world without thread.
Maureen shows me one of the one-mile pirns, and admits she’s tempted to run the thread out and see if it really does stretch the whole distance.
Three women are busy sewing. Mary Mckeown is working on a rather special project – one of ten or so tapestry panels being produced by a number of local sewing groups that will come together to form the “Renfrewshire Tapestry”.
This will relate the long and colourful history of Renfrewshire.
The threads being used are Clark’s “fast colour” threads, dated to the pre-war years, and made here in Paisley, of course.
Mary shows me a book containing lots of small, sewn teardrop panels, produced by dozens of other sewers, that will eventually be incorporated into the tapestry.
If you need a quick escape from the busy town centre, just a few steps and you’re into the gardens of Dunn Square, with its fine statue of Queen Victoria.
A slightly longer walk takes us to the Fountain Gardens, Paisley’s oldest park.
Like the town’s Museum and Galleries, the gardens were a gift from Thomas Coats, opening in 1868.
They’re well worth the walk, if only to see the centrepiece “Grand Fountain”.
Four tiers and almost 30 feet high, the fountain is painted brown, green and gold, and is decorated with life-size walruses, crocodiles, dolphins and herons.
It’s one of the best examples of a Scottishmade cast-iron fountain.
A statue of Robert Burns overlooks the fountain, standing with his pen and book in hand as he leans thoughtfully against his plough.
Beneath the pensive Burns is a scene from his poem “Tam O’ Shanter”, with the young witch dressed in her cutty sark – “o’ Paisley harn”, of course. ■
Pew detail in Paisley Abbey.
The White Cart Water.
Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church.
Robert Tannahill, the weaver poet.
The Grand Fountain and Burns Statue, Fountain Garden.
Working on a panel of the Renfrewshire Tapestry.