Anybody researching the long history of Paisley Abbey might well start with the distinguished author and Church of Scotland minister the Very Reverend James Cameron Lees. His writing in The Abbey of Paisley, from its foundation till its dissolution (pub. 1878) painted a wonderfully evocative picture of Paisley and its magnificent abbey.
Lees said, “In the heart of the busy town of Paisley stands the Abbey, its venerable appearance contrasting most strangely with its surroundings. Many chimneys – so many that it seems impossible to count them – pour forth their smoke on every side of it; crowds of operatives jostle past it…”
Paisley, which lies around 11 miles from Glasgow, began as a small settlement on the banks of the River Cart. Historians can point to a Roman occupation of the area, indeed if Ptolemy is to be believed Paisley was the site of the Roman station Vanduara.
It was the arrival of St Mirin (Mirrin), today embraced by Paisley as its patron saint that marked the introduction of Christianity into the area.
The Aberdeen Breviary a 16th century account of Scottish saints tells us Mirin was a pupil of St Congal, the Abbot of Bangor, a man described as one who, “kindled and lighted up an unquenchable love of God in the hearts and minds” in those he taught.
Imbued with this missionary spirit St Mirin left his Irish home and came to Scotland, perhaps landing at Dumbarton c.580 before traveling to Paisley where he built a small and simple Celtic church.
St Columba, Iona
As a contemporary of St Columba, it’s likely the two would have known of each other and may have met. It is also entirely possible that Mirin visited Iona.
Paisley Abbey was founded, as a priory, possibly on the site of St Mirin’s earlier church, in 1163 by Walter Fitzalan (c.1110-1177), the hereditary steward of Scotland, with monks coming from the Cluniac priory of Much Wenlock in Shropshire. One of their number Osbert became the first prior.
Harriet Mahood from the University of Reading described the Cluniac order as a, “reforming order that sought to return to a ‘purer’ form of monasticism and adhere more rigidly to the Benedictine rule than other monasteries.”
The Abbey of Cluny was founded in France during the 10th century and until the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome in the 16th century the monastery at Cluny was the largest building in Europe.
Walter Fitzalan, his family originating from Brittany, entered the service of David I, around 1136 and was given the heritable position of dapifer, or steward, from which his family later took their surname (Stewart).
In the medieval world founding and supporting a monastery, was an accepted way for a family to increase their influence with the crown and Walter Fitzalan clearly understood the opportunity his position gave him. We know his royal service was well rewarded, with grants of extensive lands and other privileges and as his wealth grew the wealth and status of the monastery increased too.
Academic Mathew Hammond said, “Walter’s endowment to the monks outlined the kind of monastery he expected it to be. In comparison to Melrose and Kelso, Paisley would be rich in churches, not in land.” This meant that Paisley Priory had a “well-formed foundation” by the time of Walters’s death.
As dapifer to King William the Lion, Walter’s son Alan continued his father’s work confirming his gifts to the priory while adding a number of other rights and privileges. During this period the priory’s interests continued to expand, extending into Argyll and the Isles acquiring “the church of Kingarth on the island of Bute, with all the chapels and the whole parish of that island.”
It was Walter, the sixth hereditary High Steward of Scotland (c.1296-1327) commander of one of the Scottish brigades at Bannockburn in 1314 who changed the family’s fortunes forever when he married Marjory Bruce, daughter of Robert I (the Bruce), a man who was no stranger to Paisley having appeared at the church to receive absolution for the murder of the Red Comyn at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries.
The children of Walter and Marjory had a direct blood-line claim to the throne of Scotland and it was their son (Robert II) who became the first of a long line of Stewart (Stuart) monarchs. Today the abbey is known as the, “cradle and the spiritual home of the royal house of Stewart.”
With continuing royal patronage came further privileges including protection against, “vexing, molesting, hindering and troubling by justiciars, chamberlains, sheriffs, provosts and their bailies.” Despite all this it was, as a priory, still regarded as being in the second tier of religious houses.
Alexander II, almost certainly encouraged by his steward applied to Pope Honorius III to appoint an abbot at Paisley. He pleaded that the monks,” had not been able to make regular professions, to the great danger of their souls the destruction of order and the loss of their property.”
In response, on 15 July, 1219, Honorius asked the Bishop of Glasgow and the Abbots of Kelso and Melrose to inquire into the circumstances of Paisley. Although the convent of Wenlock had no objections to the proposal, the Abbot of Cluny, still determined to enforce his discipline, refused to allow the promotion of Paisley to abbey status. It meant that the Pope was only able to grant the request conditionally. It wasn’t until 1245 that Paisley was finally elevated to full abbatial status. As an indication of its status an interesting assessment of the abbey’s wealth in 1275 rated Paisley’s value at £2,666 (about £24m today). By 1300 there were 25 monks living and working there.
The Wars of Independence
The Wars of Independence brought destruction to many parts of Scotland and it seems Paisley didn’t escape the advances of Edward I. Sadly no substantial detail of this event seems to exist. Fordun said simply, “In this year 1307, the English burnt the Monastery of Paisley.”
Paisley Abbey: William Wallace
The great hero of Scotland’s fight for independence was William Wallace, today remembered in Paisley Abbey thanks to a memorial window named in his honour. We know he was executed in London In August 1305 and while the Cartulary of Paisley tells us of a close association between the Wallace family and the abbey, details of William’s life are frustratingly scarce. However, it’s thought he was born c. 1270 in Elderslie, only a few miles from the monastery where he was educated by the monks.
While the work of many of Paisley’s abbots has been lost to history, two in particular have made a lasting impact, Abbot Thomas Tervas (1445-1459) and Abbot George Schaw (Shaw) (1472-1498).
Some of the early records remind us of the abbey’s “magnificence” under Abbot Tervas who travelled to Rome to buy suitable furnishings, “which the poverty of Scotland could not supply.” From the Eternal City came, “statlie stalls, for twenty-six monks, chandeliers of silver, a lectern of brass, mony other jowellies and at the high altar the stateliest tabernacle that ever was in all Scotland and the maist costlie.”
Battle of Sauchieburn
In 1491 James IV, implicated in the death of his father James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn received absolution, on behalf of Pope Innocent VIII, from Abbot George Schaw. Lees noted that he, “bitterly repented the share he had in his father’s death.”
During his visits to Paisley James IV would have seen Schaw’s on-going building work. Indeed, on a number of occasions between November 1498 and May 1512 the king left ‘drink money’ for the hard-pressed masons.
Schaw, who became a favourite of the king, was responsible for enclosing the monastery with a perimeter wall and inside the grounds he constructed a refectory and other buildings. In 1495 he became Lord High Treasurer of Scotland.
Reformation of 1560
In 1553 the church tower collapsed destroying much of the transepts and the choir but it was the Reformation of 1560 that changed Paisley Abbey forever. Although damage was less than some of the other Scottish abbeys, the “adornments of the church were broken down, the tombs of kings broken and the peaceful brotherhood scattered.”
Within the abbey the walled off nave became the parish church of Paisley and a private place of worship was created for the Hamilton family in the St Mirin Aisle.
With the demise of the abbey as a Catholic place of worship some of the monastic buildings were converted for use as a private house which became known as the Place of Paisley. This work may have been completed in time for the royal visit of Anne of Denmark, wife of James VI and I in 1597. It’s the description of that visit which gives us the earliest use of the term Place of Paisley.
Between the late 16th and late 18th centuries the house was occupied, for extended periods, by two of Scotland’s noble families. Its earliest resident was Claud Hamilton, nephew of Abbot John Hamilton and Commendator of Paisley, a man who had been with Mary Queen of Scots at the Battle of Langside and played a leading part in her escape from Lochleven in 1568.
The house remained in the Hamilton family (Earls of Abercorn) until 1652 when it was bought by the Earl of Angus who sold it within a year to William Cochrane, 1st Earl of Dundonald (1605-1685), a politician, soldier and loyal supporter of the Royalist cause during the Civil Wars. It was 1684 when his beautiful granddaughter Jean Cochrane married John Graham of Claverhouse (Bonnie Dundee), the scourge of the Covenanters, at the Paisley altar.
A surviving inventory of the house contents dated 1691 paints a picture of a house of grand proportions furnished in opulent style. Among the items enjoyed by the Cochrane family were: ane Japan cabinet and glass, gilded leather hangings, red damasse bed and 18 carpett chairs.
By the time it was purchased by the abbey in 1904, the Place of Paisley was in poor condition. Thankfully today it is much restored and serves in an administrative and visitor capacity housing the all important abbey shop and cafe.
The late 19th and early 20thcenturies were periods of considerable restoration work at the abbey. Sadly this single sentence cannot do justice to the hard work and dedication of the people involved in what was an immense undertaking. In 1888, during this period of great change, Queen Victoria visited the abbey and dedicated a memorial to Robert III.
Paisley Abbey: Great Drain Project
In recent times one of the abbey’s most exciting archaeological undertakings was the Great Drain Project. The monastery’s main drain would have been the first feature built acting as the “back bone” for all the other buildings which would have smaller drains running in to it. The section examined has been dated to around 1350.
Although a brief exploration was carried out in 1879 it wasn’t until the early 1990s that work started in earnest to sift through the layers of accumulated silt and mud.
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The range of objects found, a few of which are now displayed in the sacristy, were some of the most exciting ever discovered in a religious site in Scotland and allowed a glimpse into the lives of not only the monks who lived and worked there but also the pilgrims who visited the abbey to pray at the shrine of St Mirin.
Oldest example of polyphonic music
Among the pottery items, mainly fragments, included a complete chamber pot dating to about 1550, a slate with a love poem on it and another with a fragment of music scratched on it. Dated to around 1450 it is considered the oldest example of polyphonic music surviving in Scotland.
Metal brackets which may have come from boxes or books, a pair of tweezers perhaps from the abbey hospital and small fragments of glass were pulled from the silt. Dice and a French gaming token were also found, items which John Malden of Paisley Museum suggests were left by pilgrims to the abbey.
Of the small number of coins discovered most were 20th century but one was a groat of Robert III (r.1390-1406) minted in Edinburgh.
A number of items found clearly showed that the monks didn’t live in isolation but had access to goods from Europe and beyond. Seals which held bales of cloth were identified as coming from France and Germany but from much further afield came mace only available from Indonesia.
While the artefacts have provided a fascinating insight into medieval life the drain itself is worthy of mention. Dr Richard Oram of Stirling University described it as, “high quality stonework, first class engineering.” Historic Scotland went further by saying it was, “the finest medieval drain in Scotland.”
Perhaps the final word should go to James Cameron Lees, who reminded us that while bricks and mortar are an important element in the cohesion of our communities it’s the people who add the heart and soul.
Commenting on the aforementioned Abbot George Schaw, Lees said, he was “a good man, one of the best of his time, to whose wisdom and benevolence the town of Paisley itself owes its existence.”