What do you think when someone says Paisley? If you were a Scottish teen in the noughties, this town was associated with one thing: Paolo Nutini. For me, he was an example of how a humble background is no barrier to creativity and success. I remember listening to These Streets and wondering if Paisley was anything like my home town; a stark contrast to the big cities of Glasgow and London with their ‘millions of people with millions of cares’.
It might not have millions but Paisley is home to 76,000 people, making it Scotland’s largest town. Despite its size and rich history — at the heart of the bid for UK City of Culture 2021 — the town still has an unfair reputation that precedes itself (as I experienced when I told friends where I was heading for the weekend).
So as I slung my rucksack over my shoulders and joined fellow bloggers Neil and David for a day exploring the town, I was determined to set the record straight. I thought about Paisley and I thought about my hometown, a similarly modest part of Scotland‘s west coast. It’s easy to be pigeonholed by your birthplace, no matter how many cultural gems it’s got hiding in the coffers… Yet even in the most unexpected places, you can find treasure.
Admire Paisley Abbey
With the vein of the White Cart Water flowing past, this 12th century Catholic abbey is at the heart of Paisley town. Although much of the building was rebuilt in recent centuries, this impressive space — which became answerable to Rome in 1245 — still boasts areas of 1100s Transitional architecture.
Robin, our guide, walked us round the different sections of the choir and nave. This was an abbey that — by 1286 — served the whole southwest of Scotland. Yet following the volatile three hundred years’ war between the would-be rulers of Scotland and England, the abbey was both deliberately and accidentally set fire to, then left to the elements in the 16th century. Therefore, large parts of the building date from the past few hundred years.
That makes it no less beautiful, though. There are some incredible 19th century stained glass windows and a more modern variation by local artist John Clark as you wander towards the altar. And some of my favourite details can be found on the choir stalls: delicate carvings of animals, fruit, flowers and birds. Try not to touch them in wonder!
Don’t miss the historical timeline which guides you through the centuries, past possible links to William Wallace (who may have been educated in the abbey), the birth of Robert II (from who Queen Elizabeth II is descended) and finally to the mysterious unearthing of ‘The Medieval Drain‘, an arched tunnel network whose darkness has revealed priceless artefacts (these are exhibited in the Sacristy, including fragments of slate inscribed with Scotland’s earliest polyphonic music).
Visit the Paisley Abbey website here. Entry is free.
Discover Paisley’s textile history
Paisley has Scotland’s highest concentration of listed buildings outside Edinburgh and this museum is one of 111 of them. On our visit, we didn’t have time to cross off all the sights — like the Arbuthnott Missal, a rare medieval manuscript, and Audubon’s The Birds of America — but we did explore the museum’s star exhibit: the world’s largest collection of Paisley shawls.
Dr Dan Coughlan, the museum’s Curator of Textiles, showed us around the Paisley Pattern and Paisley shawl collections. The characteristic twisted teardrop design originates from Persia (Iran) but it was the Paisley weavers who — in the nineteenth century — really made this motif fashionable in the west. We got a sneak peek at the precious ‘Paisley Pattern’ books, full of delicate squares of cloth adored with the beautiful and iconic designs.
Dan also demonstrated how the weavers drafted and created their designs on the fully operational, one-of-a-kind, Paisley loom. It clattered, the arms of the machine jutting back and forth, but it’s an intricate piece of kit which creates this equally complex fabric. You can find out more about Dan’s research on the loom here.
Wander around town
There’s no better way to get a sense of a place than by taking a wander through its streets. Paisley is easily walkable, and during our time there we tried out a handful of eateries (I’d recommend Saporito’s and the Little Steak House), strolled past some stunning buildings (Europe’s biggest Baptist church, see below!) and experienced the friendly vibes of the town during the Christmas lights switch-on.
When you’re exploring, there are a few picture-perfect places you should watch out for. One of my favourites was the Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church, which is just a short walk from the centre of the town. As you approach, its red sandstone buttresses and Gothic Revival architecture burst out from the suburban background. Completed in the late nineteenth century in memoriam to Thomas Coats — who was one of Paisley’s philanthropists — it’s unexpected, but completely breathtaking.
Another gem that’s just a stone’s throw from the abbey is Paisley Town Hall. Again funded by a local, wealthy gentleman, this Victorian building is now used for meetings, weddings and social events. And if harking back to history is more your thing, head along to Sma’ Shot Cottages which are a perfectly-preserved time capsule of traditional 18th century weavers’ cottages.