Mills, Monks & Radicals

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Mills, Monks & Radicals

A Snap Shot of Paisley’s History by Claire Casey

Whenever Paisley is mentioned, thoughts automatically turn to mills, weaving and the world famous Paisley Pattern. The origins of the town can be traced back to at least 1163, with the founding of what would become one of the most powerful and influential monasteries in West Central Scotland. The monastery was founded by Walter Fitz Alan, who was the first High Steward of Scotland and the ancestor of the Stewart dynasty.

Fitz Alan’s great-great-great grandson, who was called Walter Stewart, would go onto marry Princess Marjory, the eldest daughter of Robert the Bruce. It was the son of Walter and Marjory, who would go on to become Robert II, the first of the Stewart kings of Scotland. Local tradition states that Marjory, while heavily pregnant, was thrown from her horse on the Renfrew Road and fatally wounded. She is said to have been rushed to the monastery, where a crude caesarean was performed in order to save Marjory’s baby. Even though the baby survived, Marjory died and she was buried in the grounds of the monastery.

Marjory Bruce's burial tomb.

Paisley’s royal connections have continued through the centuries. A number of the Stewart kings have been buried within the walls of the town’s monastery, while members of the present Royal Family have visited the town on a number of occasions, which has included visiting the Abbey in order to pay homage to their forebears. Local tradition also states that Sir William Wallace spent at least some of his childhood being educated within the walls of Paisley’s monastery.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the monastery has been lost and hidden by the expansion of the town of Paisley. The only part of the monastery that can still be found today is the town’s famous Abbey, which still dominates the town’s landscape. Over the past twenty years, archaeological investigations have been carried out on the Abbey’s Great Drain. As well as shedding light on the everyday lives of the monks, through the numerous artefacts that were removed from the silt, it is hoped that a detailed understanding of the drains route may highlight the locations of other monastic buildings. This will obvious give use a greater understanding of the monastery, especially as so much of what was once monastery grounds have been lost under the urban sprawl of Paisley.

The Abbey can be visited from throughout the week, except for Sundays, when it is still used for regular services. The Abbey is known throughout Scotland for its massive French organ, as well as its choir, and the main church building is regularly used for exhibitions and concerts. This shows that building such as Paisley’s Abbey can still form the hub of the community. There are plans in the pipeline that work will be carried out to rebuild the west range of the Cloister. This new range will house a new visitor centre, which will include a new shop, cafe and interactive displays. It is hoped that all of the work will be completed by 2013, which will be the 850th anniversary of the founding of Paisley’s monastery.

As has already been mentioned, Paisley is also famous for its weaving and mill heritage. Remnants of this industrial past can be clearly seen with the Anchor Mill, which is now predominantly flats, and the Mile End Mill, which is used as office space by a variety of local companies. The Mile End Mill is even home to the Paisley Thread Mill Museum, which is run completely by local volunteers. The museum opens its doors on a Wednesday and a Saturday (12-4pm), from April until September each year. You will find that all of the artefacts and items on display in the Thread Mill Museum was once made or used in one of Paisley’s mills. All of these items have been donated by a member of the public, who either worked in the mills, or who are related to someone who worked in the mills.

Another hidden gem of Paisley industrial past includes the Sma’ Shot Cottages, which can be found on Shuttle Street. As with the Thread Mill Museum, the Sma’ Shot Cottages are only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from April until September. Despite this, this complex of weavers and workers cottages are certainly worth the visit if you want to step back into the lives of the men and women who made Paisley famous the world over for its weaving. It also has to be remembered that the Sma’ Shot Cottages are the only buildings of their kind that can still be found in Paisley. This gives these cottages an important role in the architectural history of the area. Therefore, there are things of interest that can be found in Paisley for those with a passion for Scotland’s architectural history and heritage, without just focusing on the grandeur of the Abbey.

“The weavers of Paisley were known at the time for being well educated”

The weavers of Paisley were known at the time for being well educated, well read and radical. It was mentioned in The Edinburgh Annual Register of 1823 that just after the 1st April of that year, a large group of men and boys gathered on Saucel Hill and could be seen marching around the summit of the hill in close column formation with flags. It was recorded that the actions of this mob led to the cotton mills of Johnston being shut up, at least for a short while. Benjamin Disraeli has also been quoted as saying “keep an eye on Paisley”. This quote from Disraeli has its roots in a fear that Paisley would be the source of riots or revolution.

Each year, on the first Saturday of July, the people of Paisley commemorate the struggle of the Paisley weaver for a fair price for their product; a dispute that they won. Sma’ Shot Day, as the day is locally known, begins with a march that starts in Brodie Park and which ends in the Abbey Close about 12pm. The main part of the afternoon is taken up by a dramatisation of the Sma’ Shot dispute, which is performed by the children from PACE Theatre Company, which leads onto the burning of the Cork. The Cork is an effigy that represents the manufactures who the town’s weavers had been in dispute with over the payment for the sma’ shot thread, which gives its name to the celebrations.

The dispute had its origins in the agreement between the weavers and the manufactures that the weavers would be paid by the number of threads that were used in the cloth that they produced. As the sma’ shot thread was a binding thread, it became invisible once it was woven into cloth and shawls, so the manufactures refused to pay for it. The weavers fought back, demanding payment for the sma’ shot and in the end, they won out over the town’s manufactures.

In recent years, Paisley has suffered from a decline in its fortunes. This can be clearly seen with many high street shops moving from the town centre to out of town shopping malls. But if we are to learn anything from Paisley’s history, it is that the town has tottered on the brink in the past, and it has always bounced back. It cannot be denied that Paisley has a brilliant past, but it is this past that has to be built on in order to make sure that they town has an even better future.

All information was supplied to Paisley on the web by Claire Casey.

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