Paisley History Introduction
The first documented settlement at Paisley is said to be that of the Irish monk St. Mirin, who established a chapel close to a natural waterfall in the River Cart, in the sixth century.
Nothing more is heard of the area until David I granted the lands to Walter Fitzalan, his High Steward. In 1163 Walter decided that he wanted to establish a monastery on his lands, and thus negotiated with the Cluniac order.
They agreed to send thirteen monks from Wenlock to take over the site, close to Mirin’s original settlement, which Walter had chosen. The priory was soon doing so well that in 1219 it was promoted to the status of Abbey.
In the early fourteenth century the lands were still in the hands of the Fitzalan family, who had by now changed their name to Stewart in honour of their hereditary office.
At that time a Walter Stewart married the daughter of Robert the Bruce and, though Marjory herself died in childbirth at Paisley Abbey, their child survived to take the Scottish throne and found the line of the Stewart kings.
Paisley prospered under the Stewarts. James II created its lands a single regality, a status that was raised under James IV to Burgh of Barony, the charter being granted in 1488.
This gave Paisley rights to hold fairs and markets, rights which had been held locally only by Renfrew. This occasioned much dispute, culminating in the burgesses of Renfrew breaking down and carrying away Paisley’s new market cross!
After the Reformation Paisley, freed from ecclesiastical domination, began to thrive as a town. Mediaeval trades in the town were recorded as farming, weaving, dyeing, malting, masonry, woodworking, smithing, tavern keeping, cooking, tanning, shoemaking, tailoring, bleaching and baking. Professional men included doctors, notaries and lawyers.
The first school in the town (other than one ran by the monks) was established by the Town Council in 1577, and the first hospital was built in 1618. The main problems faced by the Council in these early years were preventing Sunday desecration, controlling trade and regulating the townsfolk’s morals!
Much improvement of the town was undertaken in the eighteenth century, new roads were made, others were made, others were improved, the river was cleared and new areas of houses were feued to the east of the Cart. Trade guilds were established for tailors, shoemakers, weavers, maltmen, wrights, merchants, masons, fleshers, hammermen, bakers and brewers.
By the early nineteenth century, weaving was the towns principal industry. It was a quiet occupation allowing the men time to think and discuss, as a result of which the weavers gained a reputation as radicals. Paisley was also a town of widely different religious opinions. By the mid nineteenth century the town boasted congregations of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Evangelical Unionists and Swedenborgians, as well as the first Catholic chapel of any size to have been built in Scotland since the Reformation.
There was also a reputation for literary ability. A story is told that at a public dinner in nineteenth century Paisley a toast was proposed to the ‘Paisley Poets’, and every man present rose up to answer it!
The textile industry had already become more important in the seventeenth century. A census taken for tax purposes in 1695 showed that the weavers already formed the largest group of tradesmen. Their products during the following century were lawns, silks and muslins, and the skills gained in the working of these fabrics laid the foundations for the intricate work required in Paisleys most famous nineteenth century product, the Paisley shawl.
This was an imitation of an Indian garment first brought into Europe by the east India Company in the mid eighteenth century. It immediately became fashionable but was extremely expensive, so imitations from Edinburgh, Norwich and ultimately Paisley were in much demand.
The shawl was to be the principal product of the town for almost three quarters of a century. Two by-products of the shawl trade were also to become important to the town. The first was thread. Thread had been made in Paisley since the eighteenth century.
So, during the Napoleonic War, when supplies of silk thread to make heddles for the looms were scarce, the Clark brothers experimented with a cotton substitute. It proved highly successful and was also taken up by local housewives as a sewing thread superior to the older linen thread. Clarks were followed by Coats, and there can have been few seamstresses throughout the world in the last 150 years who have never used the products of one or the other of these two firms. Another process in the weaving of a shawl required the use of a starch paste to strengthen the warp.
The starch was provided by the firm of Brown and Polson, who later further refined it and developed household corn flour.
One other nationally known food product originated in Paisley, when a grocer named James Robertson experimented with a glut of oranges and produced Golden Shred Marmalade.