Paisley Abbey

Coordinates: 55°50′42″N 4°25′14″W / 55.84500°N 4.42056°W / 55.84500; -4.42056
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Paisley Abbey
Paisley Abbey and grounds
LocationAbbey Close
Paisley, Renfrewshire
DenominationChurch of Scotland
Previous denominationRoman Catholic
StatusParish kirk
Functional statusActive
Heritage designationCategory A
Architectural typeChurch
Years built7th century
Minister(s)Reverend Jim Gibson
Director of musicDr George McPhee

Paisley Abbey is a parish church of the Church of Scotland on the east bank of the White Cart Water in the centre of the town of Paisley, Renfrewshire, about 7 miles (11 kilometres) west of Glasgow, in Scotland. Its origins date from the 12th century, based on a former Cluniac monastery. Following the Reformation in the 16th century, it became a Church of Scotland parish kirk.


It is believed that Saint Mirin (or Saint Mirren) founded a community on this site in 7th century. Sometime after his death a shrine to the Saint was established, becoming a popular site of pilgrimage and veneration. The name Paisley may derive from the Brythonic (Cumbric) Passeleg, 'basilica' (derived from the Greek), i.e. 'major church', recalling an early, though undocumented, ecclesiastical importance.

In 1163, Walter fitz Alan, the first High Steward of Scotland issued a charter for a priory to be set up on land owned by him in Paisley.[2] It was dedicated to SS. Mary, James, Mirin and Milburga. Around 13 monks came from the Cluniac priory at Much Wenlock in Shropshire to found the community. Paisley grew so rapidly that it was raised to the status of abbey in 1245. Monks from Paisley founded Crossraguel Abbey in Carrick, Ayrshire, in 1244.

In 1307, Edward I of England had the abbey burned down. It was rebuilt later in the 14th century. William Wallace, born in nearby Elderslie, is believed to have been educated in the abbey for some time when he was a boy.[3]

In 1316, Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert I of Scotland and wife of Walter Stewart, the sixth High Steward of Scotland, was out riding near the abbey. During the ride, she fell from her horse and as she was heavily pregnant at the time, she was taken to Paisley Abbey for medical care. There, King Robert II was born by caesarean section, in a time when anaesthesia would not have been available.[4][5] She was later buried at the abbey. A cairn, at the junction of Dundonald Road and Renfrew Road, approximately 1 mile (2 kilometres) to the north of the Abbey, marks the spot where she reputedly fell from her horse.

In 1491, absolution was granted by Abbot George Shaw, representing the Pope and in the presence of the relics, to James IV of Scotland and others implicated in the death of James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn. By 1499 Shaw had had built a new, larger pilgrims' chapel and added the sculptured stone frieze which can still be seen today, showing scenes from the life of St Miren. It was originally brightly painted and may have been part of a rear panel of an altar before being put up as a frieze on the wall.[6]

Paisley Abbey from the south east

A succession of fires and the collapse of the tower in the 15th and 16th centuries left the building in a partially ruined state. Although the western section was still used for worship, the eastern section was widely plundered for its stone. From 1858 to 1928 the north porch and the eastern choir were reconstructed on the remains of the ruined walls by the architect Macgregor Chalmers. After his death, work on the choir was completed by Sir Robert Lorimer.[7]

Points of interest[edit]

Paisley Abbey is the burial place of all six High Stewards of Scotland, Marjorie Bruce who was the mother of Robert II, and the wives of Robert II. The Celtic Barochan Cross, once sited near the village of Houston, Renfrewshire, is now inside the abbey itself. The cross is thought to date from the 10th century. In the abbey's nave, the Wallace Memorial Window, which depicts the image of Samson, was donated in 1873.

Paisley Abbey Drain[edit]

The earliest written record of a tunnel around Paisley Abbey dates from 1829, when workmen digging in the garden of one John Crawford in Ellis Lane, fell through into a tunnel. Early maps show Ellis Lane being in the region of the modern manhole leading to the drain. As the significance of this discovery was not realised at the time, access to the hole was quickly covered, and soon forgotten about. That was until 1879, when The Glasgow Herald mentioned the discovery of the subterranean passage. This was also forgotten about, and not ‘re-discovered’ until 1990, when a 90 metre stretch of tunnel was found running from the abbey to the White Cart. The drain is thought to date from AD 1350-1400 and is up to 2m wide and up to 2.2m high.[8] The drain contains stonemasons marks on the walls, and marks where gates used to be. Before accessing the drain, water has to be pumped out. Paisley Abbey Drain is designated by Historic Environment Scotland as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and has similarities to other monastery drains, such as Fountains Abbey, Dundrennan Abbey and Melrose Abbey.[8] A virtual tour of the drain is available on YouTube.

The grave of Robert III, Paisley Abbey

Archaeological investigations and excavations took place in 1996,[9] 3–16 September 2009, 2–12 September 2011 and 4 September 2013[10] and many items discovered.[11][12][13] Some of these are now on display in the abbey.

These include:

  • a slate with music marked on it - which is believed to be the oldest example of polyphonic music found in Scotland[14]
  • imported cloth seals[15]
  • chamber pots from c.1500
  • tweezers
  • carved bone handles
  • pottery fragments
  • slate fragments[16]

Events to involve the public in the archaeological investigation of the drain have been held,[17][18] with the Renfrewshire Local History Forum.


The main east window of Paisley Abbey by Douglas Strachan (detail)

A tomb in the choir incorporating a much-restored female effigy is widely believed to be that of Marjorie Bruce. Although there is no evidence that she is buried at exactly that location, her remains are thought to be within the abbey. The tomb is reconstructed from fragments of different origin - the base, is likely to have originally formed part of the pulpitum of the Abbey (a stone screen separating nave and choir), such as survives at Glasgow Cathedral.[19]

Opposite Marjorie Bruce lie the tombs of Robert III of Scotland and Simon fitz Alan. A Latin inscription commemorates the three children of Margaret Seton and Claud Hamilton, 1st Lord Paisley who died as infants; Margaret (1577), Henry (1585), and Alexander (1587).[20]

Stained glass[edit]

Stained glass (removed in the Reformation) began to be replaced in the 1870s. Major works include a window by Edward Burne-Jones and the huge east window by Douglas Strachan.[21]

The dramatic memorial window to James D. D. Shaw dates from 1989 and is by John Clark.[22]

Abbey organ[edit]

The choir, organ, and great East Window

The Abbey organ is reputedly one of the finest in Scotland, and was originally built by the most distinguished of all 19th-century organ builders, Cavaillé-Coll of Paris in 1874. This is one of only six in the UK.[23] Since 1874 it has been rebuilt and extended four times. The organ as rebuilt by Walker in 1968 has 4 manuals, 65 stops and 5448 pipes.(National Pipe Organ Register; "The Organ at Paisley Abbey", booklet pub. Paisley Abbey) In 2009 the instrument underwent a major restoration by Harrison and Harrison of Durham. The work included major cleaning and servicing, the provision of a new wind system and the addition of a 32 ft contre bombarde. The latter was part of the 1968 scheme by Ralph Downes but not included in the work actually undertaken.

Internal architectural details[edit]

The twelve angel corbels and stone communion table are by Pilkington Jackson, sculptor of the iconic Robert the Bruce statue at Bannockburn. The ceiling bosses are designed by Sir Robert Lorimer and carved by James A Young. The choir stalls, with their wealth of carved animals are by William and Alexander Clow.[24]

External architectural details[edit]

One of the abbey's dozens of gargoyles, famous for its resemblance to the xenomorph creature from the film Alien. Erected in the 1990s.

Paisley Abbey has been rebuilt and its original design modified as a result of the building being destroyed in 1307, its tower's collapse in the 16th century, and general disrepair that occurred as the result of time and weather.[25] During a restoration project that took place in the 1990s, a stonemason from Edinburgh hired to replace twelve crumbling stone gargoyles erected one bearing a strong resemblance to the space creature from the 1979 science fiction film Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver.[26][27] A picture of the gargoyle went viral in 2013, though a photograph of the statue first surfaced on the internet in 1997.[28] In 2002, it was confirmed the abbey would be subject to a 10-year-long restoration project.

Current congregation[edit]

Paisley Abbey from the west, including St Mirin's chapel and the Place of Paisley. On the distant right is the Anchor Mills building.

Paisley Abbey is used for worship services every Sunday. Since the Reformation the Abbey has served as a parish church in the Church of Scotland. In 2002 the congregation had 823 members. The minister (since December 2022) is the Reverend Jim Gibson.[citation needed]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Historic Environment Scotland. "ABBEY CLOSE, PAISLEY ABBEY (Category A Listed Building) (LB38910)". Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  2. ^ By, Undiscovered Scotland. "Paisley Abbey Feature Page on Undiscovered Scotland". Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  3. ^ "Paisley Abbey website". Archived from the original on 28 February 2015. Retrieved 30 September 2008.
  4. ^ "The Tragic Life Of Marjorie Bruce, Princess Of Scotland". Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  5. ^ "Women in History of Scots Descent - Marjory Bruce". Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  6. ^ "Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland" by Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland 1999
  7. ^ "Paisley Abbey website, ibid". Archived from the original on 28 February 2015. Retrieved 30 September 2008.
  8. ^ a b Historic Environment Scotland. "Paisley Abbey, drain 75m SSW of (SM8078)". Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  9. ^ CANMORE. "Archaeology Notes". Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  10. ^ CANMORE. "Paisley Abbey, Drain". Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  11. ^ Malden, John (2000). Archaeological Overview: The Discovery of the Drain. In: Malden (2000), pp. 173-80.
  12. ^ Dickson, Camilla (2000). Food, Medicinal & Other Plants from the Drain. In: Malden (2000), pp. 213-24.
  13. ^ Dickson, Jim (2000). Some Especially Noteworth Plants from the Drain. In: Malden (2000), pp. 225-30.
  14. ^ Elliot, Kenneth (2000). Musical Slates: The Paisley Abbey Fragments. In: Malden (2000), pp. 205-08.
  15. ^ "Paisley Abbey :: 14 The Great Drain". Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  16. ^ Renfrewshire Council. "Paisley Abbey Drain". YouTube. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  17. ^ CANMORE. "Excavation". CANMORE. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  18. ^ Renfrewshire Council (28 August 2015). "Archaeology enthusiasts invited to join team at historic Abbey Drain dig". Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  19. ^ "Visitor Attractions in Paisley". Paisley 2020. Archived from the original on 2 April 2016. Retrieved 14 August 2016.
  20. ^ Charles Rogers, Monuments and monumental inscriptions in Scotland, vol. 1 (London, 1871), p. 423.
  21. ^ "Paisley Abbey :: 3 Burne Jones Stained Glass Window". Archived from the original on 29 August 2017. Retrieved 29 August 2017.
  22. ^ "Paisley Abbey :: 9 Shaw Memorial Window". Archived from the original on 29 August 2017. Retrieved 29 August 2017.
  23. ^ On the website, which has almost 1800 albums of organ music (as of late 2018) only four organs are listed outside France: in Argentina, Denmark, the Netherlands and Paisley
  24. ^ Paisley's Public Sculpture
  25. ^ "Restoration of Paisley Abbey". HeraldScotland. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  26. ^ BBC News Scotland 'Alien' gargoyle on ancient abbey, 23 August 2013
  27. ^ Did You Know ? (30 March 2018), The Mystery Of Why There's An "Alien" Gargoyle On A 12th-Century Scottish Abbey May Have Been Solved, archived from the original on 21 December 2021, retrieved 11 April 2018
  28. ^ "'Alien' gargoyle on ancient abbey". BBC News. 23 August 2013. Retrieved 11 April 2018.


  • Malden, John. (Edr), (2000). The Monastery & Abbey of Paisley: Lectures from the Renfrewshire Local History Forum's Conference 11 / 12 September 1999, with additional papers. Renfrewshire: Renfrewshire Local History Forum. ISBN 0-9529195-7-5.

External links[edit]

55°50′42″N 4°25′14″W / 55.84500°N 4.42056°W / 55.84500; -4.42056