Saturday, 18 May 2013

Paisley. Past,present,future? The Paisley Witches.Renfrew.

This is a post about history, a lasting legacy, changing times, fortunes made and spent, and what we should keep, ignore or throw away in the future.
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.
Renfrew town hall with its weather vane. With the changeable weather recently its been a pick and mix bag of rain, wind, snow, and sunshine most days. A couple of Saturdays ago it was raining all morning but then brightened up around 1:00 pm. Not wanting to waste the sunshine I decided to cycle along the canal then take the Renfrew ferry across to here with the intention of exploring Paisley by bike.

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.
Which bring me to this. I only discovered this marvellous hidden treasure a couple of years ago on a previous cycle trip. The Coats Fountain which sits in the middle of Paisley's oldest park, The Fountain Gardens, near the Wee Barrel pub, donated to the people by Thomas Coats himself and now lying largely ignored but not forgotten in a down at heel suburb in one of the older parts of town. In its heyday with the jets working and the surrounding pool filled with foaming water this must have been something to see as no expense was spared in its construction. Walrus, sea lions, cherubs, aquatic plants and herons adorn its many levels as it sits here forlornly awaiting a time when it can be restored or relocated and then revealed in all its former splendour but for that to happen the surrounding district would need to be transformed and gentrified first or it would just be vandalized.

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.
The Coats Memorial Church. A gothic extravagance that can hold 1000 worshipers inside. Thankfully still in use today. This stands opposite the University.
Directly above it on a hog back hill is one of the oldest districts and its well worth a visit climbing up here for the views and the buildings. This is the view uphill towards Oakshaw Trinity Church which towers above its surroundings high above the more frequented Museum in the street below. Once you get up here you find a quiet flat street running along this summit with a variety of old buildings and houses either side.

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.
A view of the flat street. I met a guy in a mobility scooter up here from Blackpool who was exploring the history of the area too which was intrepid stuff given that it,s still cobbled streets in many places.
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.

At the other end of the street you can look east back towards the abbey and the clustered spires of churches and town hall tower. The 4:15 pm clock is the right time by the way. The other is not.
Paisley is a fascinating town with a long history. I used to know it fairly well as I grew up a short bus ride away and was taken on mid week and Saturday shopping expeditions here by my mum in the days before large supermarkets and family cars when it could often take half a day just to obtain half a weeks messages by the time you'd worked your way round all the shops. From what I remember, going back 50 years to my childhood, mostly it was the men of the household that worked full time then as the married women with kids needed more time just to obtain groceries in a thriving busy high street. After standing in queues to be served in butchers, bakers and candlestick makers  they then had to rush home to cook the ingredients and provide a meal for the hungry workers and children coming in at night from school and factory. I was drafted in aged five to twelve as a welcome extra bag carrier around the shops and on the bus during school holidays and weekends. When ordinary folk started getting cars and out of town supermarkets grew up, the same weeks shopping could be done in under an hour. All under one roof.
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.

 Another iconic building near Saucel hill and Paisley Canal Rail Station.  Russell Institute. Ground breaking architecture at the time and still a magnificent building decorated with numerous sculptures like this one here with an angel holding two infants. A Deo Salus translates as 'Health comes from God' as its original purpose was as a clinic for children and its still used for health care to this day.
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. 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.


Sue Hayton said...

Reminded me so much of teenage visits to Paisley MANY years ago!

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Sue.
Brought back memories for me too as well as finding new places to explore. I remember the Paisley Christmas lights hung around the Abbey and along the banks of the river always looked amazing in winter snow as the frozen falls were lit up with the different coloured lights. Probably still do.
If you are originally from the area another great internet site is 'Urban Glasgow' and its sister site 'Hidden Glasgow' both full of old memories and photographs of times past in the West of Scotland.
Its like opening a box of chocolates going into them though. Very addictive memory overloads can be. I spent six hours on the first site once when I'd only intended to check that some minor memory detail of my own was correct. Intended to be in and out in under five minutes:)
Discovered I grew up in the same street as singer Alex Harvey and his brother which up until that point I didn't know. I was only three at the time mind you.

Anonymous said...

Gail will be pleased Bob. She's got a caching trail around some of the town these days. I had a regular monday walk around the old town by the observatory with Chalky when Morven was dancing and it is well impressive up there. Off to Tayviallich at the weekend. Fancy it?


Carol said...

There's some superb architecture there - especially the fountain - I'm really surprised as I've only been to/through Paisley twice and didn't have a positive experience. The time we drove through we were just having to watch the traffic and look for junctions. Another time I wandered that way from Glasgow Airport when I had a few hours to spare waiting for my flight. The area on the outskirts of Paisley I ended up wandering into suddenly felt very uncomfortable and I left quickly!

I think the witch-hunt thing was just an anti-women thing. I'd have been burnt for sure for being an individualistic woman! Glad I wasn't alive back then (or was I? maybe that's why I'm so scared of fire?!)

blueskyscotland said...

Hi John.
Yeah its nice up on the hill. First time I was up there cycling was during an intense summer thunderstorm two years ago and the cobbles were running with water with gushing torrents flowing down all three lanes and forked lightning hitting the church spires. Very atmospheric. Almost biblical light. Lost all my photographs that time as the camera got soaked as well as me. Had some great lightning and wild dark sky pictures too. I was gutted.
Emailed you about trip.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Carol.
If you were walking from the airport it was either Ferguslie Park or Shortroods you would be entering so I don't blame you turning back. Shortroods is where the fountain is. Believe it or not Rod Stewart used to pop in for a pint there as I think his dad came from that area so that's two well known singers that know about Paisley.
Jerry Rafferty(Baker Street) came from Paisley . That's Three! Must be more. Oh and Palolo Nutini and Gerard Butler( This is FOXBAR!)The place is heaving with celebrities so if you had only kept going from the airportyou might have been living in a stately home by now:)

The Glebe Blog said...

There was a 57 year gap between my visit to Paisley as a ten year old and the Sons of the Desert Convention in 2011. I don't know where my dad took me, but it bore no resemblance to the fabulous historic town I saw in 2011.

As you say there is so much untapped potential and I only glimpsed it.

A great post for the P.T.B Bob