Paisley Abbey sits some eight miles from Glasgow. Nearby lies Elderslie, believed to be the birthplace of none other than Sir William Wallace. Legend has it that Scotland’s great freedom fighter received his formal education from the monks at the abbey. But what else is the abbey famous for? I’ve visited here a few times and each time discovered more about this fascinating area. To be honest, it is not the prettiest place but its history makes it a worthwhile place to explore.
Around the sixth century, it became a place of pilgrimage after miracles were associated with a Celtic saint, St Mirin. Several hundred years later, a family of well-to-do knights, originally from Brittany in France, came to the attention of Henry I and gained land in the Oswestry area, probably to keep the Welsh under control. A third son of the FitzAlan family, Walter by name, befriended King David I of Scotland, and was granted lands in the Renfrewshire area of Scotland and given the hereditary title and administrative role of Steward. Over time, this family of pious knights donated land for the building of a Cluniac monastery on the banks of the White Cart River. Around 1245, the priory was raised to the status of an abbey.
The High Stewards were an influential family in Scottish history and during the first War of Independence supported both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in their efforts to achieve Scottish independence. Even before this, the abbey had received royal patronage and was a centre of learning, as well as a commercial centre with trading links with Europe. But the war with the English saw it damaged by fire in 1307, and later rebuilt to its former glory.
Some notable people are buried here, including Robert the Bruce’s daughter by his first wife, Isabella of Mar.
Princess Marjorie had the misfortune to be captured and from the age of eleven spent eight years in solitary confinement in England. For a brief while, she endured life in a cage on the walls of the Tower before being placed in a nunnery at Watton. Bruce’s success at the Battle of Bannockburn allowed him to regain his daughter, and other female kinfolk in similar situations, and have them repatriated to Scotland through the ransoming of captured English knights. Marjorie married Walter Stewart, one of the High Stewards. Her death following a riding accident nearby saw the posthumous delivery of her son, Robert, who later became Robert II: his wives and that of his son, Robert III, are buried in the abbey as well as many of the High Stewards, but only Marjorie’s tomb survives – and even that was the result of a later reconstruction. The reformation saw the destruction of many of the great abbeys, and the tombs within. With the monks’ departure, Paisley Abbey became a Protestant church which flourishes to this day.
In its heyday, this establishment would have housed a large community with a chapter house, cloister, refectory and kitchen as well as a dormitory for the monks. These big institutions needed other basics like a bakehouse and brewhouse, laundries, fish ponds and a grange or farm. An abbot’s house would have stood nearby perhaps with its own orchard and deer park. A granary as well as barns, to store produce and house animals, would have made the abbey an ideal target in times of social upheaval when armies lived off the land. No doubt, Wallace and Bruce would have visited it for support and aid as the war ensued.
As you would expect, Paisley is a much different area in modern times and its medieval footprint would be hard to recognise beyond the abbey and grounds which survive today.
Some of the intriguing aspects of its later history include being the site of the last mass execution of witches in western Europe. In 1697, a group of witches were hanged and burnt to death after their ‘convictions’.
In the 1800s, a remarkable weaving and textile industry – its focus, the pretty Paisley-patterned shawls – grew up here and later, produced radical protests about industrial conditions and changes in the world markets.
Moving onto the 20th century, the Luftwaffe dropped its bombs, missing the abbey thankfully, but causing death and destruction, though to a lesser extent than that endured by Glasgow with its critical ship building industry. One interesting fact that jumped out at me pertained to the use of decoy ponds or mock airfields used by the RAF, to confuse German spies. Another war! Another time!
I wonder what Sir William might have to say about his former school? He would be proud, I imagine, to see it still standing some seven hundred years on – despite many perils – testament to the strength and determination of its Scottish community.
References: paisleyabbey.org.uk; renfrewshire.gov.uk