Saturday, 18 May 2013
Paisley. Past,present,future? The Paisley Witches.Renfrew.
The wind vane above is a perfect example of that. It sits on top of Renfrew town hall, so high up that its finer details are practically invisible to nearly everyone passing by on the streets below yet someone has taken an obvious pride in its construction knowing its merits would remain largely unsung. The main centre of Renfrew, an ancient riverside royal burgh and barony on the wide banks of the River Clyde, has had a million pound makeover and transformation recently. It has a real life Baron. Guess who? Believe it or not Princes Charles is the current 'Baron of Renfrew' as it,s a hereditary royal title. You couldn't make it up. He's also the current Duke of Rothesay and 'Lord of the Isles' a title originally given to Somerled, who held sway over much of Western Scotland with his prodigious fleet of fast moving war galleys in the 12th century. He was defeated and killed between here and Paisley during the battle of Renfrew around 1164. Renfrew itself as an entity came into being when lands here were granted to Walter Fitz Allan for the purpose of defence against Viking raiders and the threat of attack from the land grabbing and much feared Somerled who dominated and held the entire west coast in his life time from the far flung Outer Hebrides as far down as Cumbria and the Isle of Man. In the present day, against all the odds, Renfrew has held onto its own independent local dairy, its local character, shops and the last remaining passenger ferry across the River Clyde. Which is why I was here. I needed the ferry as my short cut into history.
First stop after Renfrew was the cycle track up onto Saucel Hill near Paisley Canal railway station. This viewpoint has a great panorama over the whole town. For many generations Paisley was the largest town in Scotland, a title now fought over by new towns East Kilbride and Livingstone.
From the trig point its still obvious where the money and power in the town once came from. Two great mill buildings catch the eye. The photograph above is the Abbey mills business centre complex, formerly the Anchor mills. This is a side on view of one gable end. Length wise it's much more impressive.
Nearby stands the equally massive Coats thread factory. Clark and Coats are two family names at the heart of Paisleys growth and lasting legacy. When they became a partnership and joined forces it created the worlds largest thread factory that went on to dominate the British, American and overseas markets for decades, employing over 25,000 people at its height. Coats are still a major worldwide brand and actually employ over 35,000 people now but the work force in Scotland has shrunk dramatically as cheaper labour markets and business conditions in places like India make it far more economical to work from there.
Some of the main employers now in the town are connected to service industry providers like the University of the West of Scotland seen above which has a large scattered campus throughout the town and the Renfrewshire council buildings which are situated beside the historic abbey and scenic central plaza with its colourful flower beds which are always a delight in spring and summer.
Here we get to the crux of this post. Although some parts of Paisley are run down and dilapidated and money for any improvements is tight in the current financial climate I always think Paisley as a tourist attraction has so much untapped potential. Its high street has seen the usual hard times and closing shops, not helped by the massive Braehead retail park sucking footfall away but it has a beautiful river flowing right through its centre and has some incredible historic buildings that are worth saving for future generations. The Abbey is a gem. Seat of the Royal Stewarts and resting place of Robert the Bruce's eldest daughter. This central open plaza around the Abbey is a fantastic peaceful feature with the White Cart Water snaking through its heart.
Looking in the opposite direction you see the much loved Hammils, the spot where the river tumbles over this volcanic sill beside the mill where in the early days of weaving two large waterwheels on both banks here once used to power the cottage industry set up beside them. From tiny acorns...
I always remember I was fascinated by this place and a trip here to the pictures to see Disney's 'Song of the South' or 'The Jungle Book' was a magical adventure. Popular Tourist towns like Annecy in France have capitalized on a similar, water rich central district, with less historic interest yet are rightly busy with visitors and holidaymakers.
It must be a lack of money, vision, market forces, our poor, unpredictable, weather and a despondent
general outlook to blame. There is so much to admire here yet on my cycle around I observed many once great buildings lying empty and abandoned to their fate that in more money rich areas ( like Edinburgh's Dean Village say) would be saved and converted into stylish riverside apartments. I know we cant save them all but it just seems so wrong to tear them down or, although listed, let them fall into decay. The photographs shown are the ones that have been saved or are safe at present but many more not shown here are in limbo, awaiting an uncertain future.
Incidentally, The American singer Prince is reputed to have named his hit single 'Paisley Park' and his own recording studios after the distinctive Paisley pattern motif which became very popular during the swinging psychedelic 1960's. Paisley in turn was inspired to create this iconic, twisted teardrop, design on shawls, table clothes, fabrics and wallpaper by studying Indian and Iranian craftwork of the period.
A detail of the ring of walrus heads. This is Paisley's answer to Glasgow's Doulton Fountain in Glasgow Green outside the Peoples Palace, a fountain which also lay dry, derelict and unused for many years but which is now restored.
Naturally the Coats Family are well represented up here too. The Observatory is still in action today with current weather reports being used by the media and a local night sky appreciation society. The Coats Family are also responsible for the masterpiece in stone that is Dunselma, their former sailing lodge that still overlooks Strone Point near Dunnon and looks like something out of a gothic fairy-tale. Coats Land in Antarctica is also named after them as they sponsored a prominent expedition there. Clark and Coats were the Rockefeller,s and the Vanderbilt,s of Paisley.
Enthusiasm and a positive outlook will get you far in life and he had both.
At the other end of the street is a second notable domed building, The John Neilston Institute, once a fee paying school now converted into upmarket prestigious apartments. On the left hand side of this is a steep cobbled lane leading down off the hill towards St Mirren football club's ground.
From up here you can also look west across the roof tops towards the Gleniffer Braes.
The reason I bring this up is I've been watching Mary Portas with interest and her attempts to save the nations High Streets recently. So far she has offered some good innovative ideas but its going to be a tough struggle to reverse the decline, as she admits herself, because few individuals have the time, patience or inclination to go round separate shops in a high street setting nowadays. Especially with city centre parking restrictions compared to the relative ease that out of town shopping facilities offer. Paisley was also the original home of a childhood favourite of mine. As a young child I had a treasured collection that is now considered out of favour. Don't remember where they actually disappeared to but being innocent of any underlying issues involved I loved them deeply and just though of them as wonderful works of art. Probably nicked by my youthful mates as we all collected them avidly back then along with football cards and bird's eggs.
Its a shame the high streets are fading because it does rip the heart out of any town or city centre if all you see are boarded up shop fronts. Paisley has been hit like a lot of similar sized towns, especially as it is so close to neighbouring Glasgow and Braehead. Even Glasgow's famous Style Mile is not immune to the relentless bulldozer advance of the mega store.
Rediscovered Paisley? You betcha! Discovering the history and odd corners of towns and cities is as much fun for me nowadays as discovering new mountains.
Below is one of the strangest and most infamous periods in Paisley's long history. I read a local book on this many years ago. Isabel Adam's excellent book 'Witch hunt.' The last collective burning of witches in Western Europe. Were they guilty? You decide. Worth a read for its grim depiction of human nature and mutual class distrust as its worst in a climate and era of superstition so alien to us now in these enlightened times.
Or are we?
Even today if you're rich, famous or powerful your word seems far more likely to be believed by the courts than the poor in society. A horse shoe still seems to hold power as even in recent times it was replaced, just in case, to keep their malice at bay. But whose malice? Or did the real culprit live on to become an upright citizen and creative designer in the town.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paisley_witches. A cautionary tale of burnings, spite and ignorance.
Enjoy... and be really grateful you did not live or die then. Or steal a drink of milk from a rich family.