Paisley Abbey

Paisley Abbey, Paisley
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Paisley Abbey, Paisley

Paisley Abbey, on the right bank of White Cart Water, was established as a priory in 1163 by Walter Fitz-Alan (d. 1177) and was created an abbey in 1219. Although much altered, it is said to be one of the finest churches in Scotland and is certainly one of very few Scottish Mediaeval abbeys still in use for worship today, serving as the principal Parish Church in the town of Paisley (Renfrewshire).

Fitz-Alan, who was High Steward of Scotland, brought thirteen monks from Much Wenlock in Shropshire (England) to build a Cluniac monastery on the site of an old Celtic church founded by St. Mirrin in the 6th century. With royal patronage, the abbey grew wealthy only to be destroyed by the English in 1307. Rebuilding started quickly but it was badly damaged by fire in 1498 necessitating further restoration. St. Mirren's Chapel or Aisle was created in the south transept in 1499, and this survives along with a series of carved panels illustrating scenes from the saint's life. The tower collapsed in 1533 destroying the choir and north transept but, with the Reformation dawning, there was no prospect of repairs and it was the nave alone which continued as the parish church for 350 years. Some restoration work was undertaken within the nave in 1789, but it was from 1859 that a programme of substantial restoration began, initially under James Salmon (1805-88), followed by Robert Rowand Anderson (1834 - 1921), Peter MacGregor Chalmers (1859 - 1922), Sir Robert Lorimer (1864 - 1929) and then John Matthew (1875 - 1955). The abbey is now A-listed for its historical importance. Lorimer was also responsible for the design of the furniture, including the choir stalls and communion table.

Other remaining fragments of the original abbey complex include a section of the cloister and a substantial Mediaeval drain. The cloister was converted into apartments for the Commendator following the Reformation and became known as the Place of Paisley. This was sold off and went on to become a drinking den and then artisan's cottages, although its western (older) section was pulled down in 1874. It was bought back by the church in 1907, restored 1961-64 and now forms the Abbey Gift Shop and Cafe. The Mediaeval drain was discovered in 1990. It was built of dressed ashlar and up to 2m (6½ feet) in height. This has given up various fascinating artefacts, including fragments of slate inscribed with the earliest polyphonic music ever discovered in Scotland.

William Wallace (1274 - 1305) is said to have been educated here and Marjorie Bruce, daughter of King Robert I, is allegedly buried here along with six High Stewards of Scotland, including Walter Fitz-Alan, the wives of Robert II and Robert III, and Robert III himself. The Commendators of the abbey included Archbishop John Hamilton (c.1511-71), Claud Hamilton, 1st Lord Paisley (1543 - 1621) and Robert, 3rd Lord Sempill (c.1505-72). Queen Victoria visited in 1888 and gifted a marble monument over Robert III's grave. Also displayed in the abbey is the 3.4-m (11-foot) high Barochan Cross, dating from the 8th century.

The splendid organ is the only instrument in Scotland built by the renowned French organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Constructed in the nave of the abbey in 1874, it was moved and enlarged in 1928, rebuilt once again in 1968, while retaining the Cavaillé-Coll pipework, and overhauled in 2009 with the addition of a new 9.75m (32 foot) Contre Bombarde. It now features four manuals, 65 stops and 5448 pipes. In addition to its liturgical use, the organ regularly features in concerts and recitals.

The abbey features some fine stained glass, including work by Douglas Strachan (1875 - 1950) and the award-winning James D. D. Shaw Memorial Window in the choir, executed in 1988 by Glasgow-based artist John K. Clark (b.1957).

The first recorded game of curling may have been when a monk here challenged a relative of the abbot to 'throwing stones across the ice' in 1541.

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