THERE IS a story in my family I’d never heard before researching this article. Apparently my grandfather used to enthuse about Queen Victoria’s visit to Paisley in 1888, to celebrate the town’s 400th anniversary as a burgh. Despite being a very young boy he remembered it vividly. Not for the crowds lining the streets, or even the Queen herself, but because he could see his face reflected in the polished black carriage in which the monarch was being transported. My grandfather would have related this story as a blind man, having lost his sight later in life, which only sharpens its impact.
But will my home town’s illustrious past bear any reflection on its bid to be named UK City of Culture 2021?
Paisley used to be grand. Queen Victoria’s links with the town date back to her ancestor Walter Fitzalan, High Steward of Scotland, who built Paisley Abbey in 1163 and was a progenitor of the Stewart royal dynasty. His son married Marjory Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce, and their son became the first of the Stewart monarchs, so Victoria was descended from the Royal House of Stewart.
The monument to Marjory Bruce, erected where she fell from her horse and died, evokes a school-girl memory: we would climb its crazy-paving structure while waiting for the bus home from school, the now demolished and largely forgotten St Margaret’s Convent on Renfrew Road. Along with the school, where my mother was an art teacher, went the walled garden, the nuns’ cemetery, the playing fields, and the tree-lined avenue that led up to them.
Local folklore has it that Victoria eventually turned her back on the town: her statue in Dunn Square, erected in 1901, faces away; her gaze goes downhill towards the South.
A sense of fading significance has long undermined Paisley and engendered a pervasive lack of self-confidence. There are many today who feel the effects of the neglect and misfortune that over time have been visited upon the town, the largest in Scotland whose population of 76,000 qualifies it to apply for the lucrative city of culture title. Certainly, the scale and quality of its public buildings is usually found only in cities.
Post-industrial decay has been rife since the Coats thread industry finally petered out in the 1960s, followed by the closure of the Chrysler car factory, Stoddards carpet factory in nearby Elderslie, and the more recent closure of the Ordnance Survey plant in Bishopton, job losses at Babcocks in Renfrew; and now the Chivas whisky bottling plant is moving out. Last year, the Ferguslie Park housing scheme – within walking distance of the town centre, upon which the Paisley 2021 bid is focused – was identified as one of the most deprived places in Scotland: one in three children live in poverty.
One of the main criteria for the UK City of Culture 2021 bid is demonstrable need, and the making of a sufficiently convincing argument that winning will help make a distinct transformational “step change”.
The MP for Paisley, the SNP's Mhairi Black, describes the bid as “a cry for help”. Paisley 2021 bid director Jean Cameron, who grew up in Ferguslie Park, endorses that. “We really need this,” she said. “We’ve had real challenges, and recent times have been grim. This is about giving people much-needed hope, but it’s also about laying firm foundations for the future.”
The final bid was lodged yesterday and if it wins come December, Paisley could host prestigious national cultural events and attract millions of pounds from a variety of sources: Hull, the current title-holder, has already seen £1bn investment.
But it faces competition from 10 rivals, including Perth. The challenge has been to bring the people with it, to shift an “aye, right” attitude to a “oh, right” one, as the outgoing Renfrewshire council leader Mark Macmillan puts it, admitting that when he first mooted the idea of applying he feared he’d be “laughed out of town”.
That hasn’t been the case. More than 200 businesses have signed up. Coats – still a multinational sewing thread and supplies manufacturer though largely producing in Asia – is backing it.
And after previously dissing the town, the singer Paolo Nutini has joined actor Gerard Butler in publicly supporting it. Nutini said: “The bid is about building a structure that can tackle the more deep-rooted problems and it’s important we get behind that.”
For having the courage to see itself as others see it, I reckon that if anywhere deserves to win, it’s Paisley.
Paisley is beautiful – if you look up. The town centre was named a conservation area in 2008. Topped at one end of the High Street by the magnificent Coats’ Memorial Baptist Church and the colonnaded Museum and Art Gallery, which contains the largest collection of Paisley shawls in the world, and at the other by the Town Hall and Abbey, it remains visually impressive with gargoyles, statues and decorative stonework – despite some leaking gutters, fallen roofs and greenery growing out of sandstone walls. And that’s not to mention the dire state of the shops at street-level (of which more later).
The High Street is overlooked by hilly, cobbled Oakshaw, with its observatory, Victorian villas and forest of historic church spires. Up here, it’s easy to conjure a monochrome snapshot of my grandparents in Church Hill. They would rent out a spare room for visiting actors to Paisley Theatre (long demolished, yet to be replaced), and I recall my mother’s stories: a lady who wore strings of beads that would tinkle as she climbed the close stair; a gentleman who never spoke but could be heard loudly rehearsing his lines as he paced his room.
Councillor Macmillan tells me he initially considered applying for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for Paisley town centre, which has more listed buildings to its name than any other Scottish town or city, apart from Edinburgh. Its built heritage dates back 1000 years – and is officially deemed to be in an “exceptional state of preservation”.
Yet as I walk around, I feel an overwhelming sorrow. At least 13 of the buildings in the town centre are on Historic Environment Scotland’s At Risk register, though some have been restored. The future of the magnificent red sandstone Thomas Coats’ Memorial Baptist Church, built in cathedral-size proportions in 1883, is uncertain: its dwindling congregation can no longer maintain it and plans to move out. Renfrewshire Council is trying to find someone to take it on, admitting the building is “of global architectural significance and cannot be allowed to fall into disrepair”. I wonder if a recent visit to the town by Rajiv Sharma, chief executive of Coats, might prompt an international fundraising appeal to save it.
Paisley was famous; now it’s infamous. Once Scotland’s richest town, it produced 90% of the world’s sewing thread, created over £1m worth of Paisley Pattern shawls and employed 6000 weavers, at its commercial peak in the mid-19th century. It traded with foreign markets and, says Dan Coughlan of Paisley Museum, “invented the term globalisation before the term ‘globalisation’ was coined”. My aunts worked in the Coats thread mills at Ferguslie, and I remember hearing gossip about women losing their hair when it got caught in the looms, and of going home with their eyes matted in cotton fibres. But their paternalistic employers were regarded as generous, sending staff on annual holidays and trips to Paisley Theatre – though the 1856 Weavers’ Revolt is still celebrated on Sma’ Shot Day. The Ferguslie Mills are gone; the Anchor Mills are now apartments served by a Morrisons supermarket and petrol station.
Walking round the town, the street names – Thread, Shuttle, Silk, Gauze, Cotton, Lawn – beckon me like phantoms to revisit the past. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that Coats’ global digital Colour Systems Team is based in the grounds of the old Anchor Mills. InCube, a cluster of design workshops using the Paisley Pattern tear-drop and architectural features of iconic buildings on soft furnishings and clothing has also taken root. There are signs that a food culture is springing up, with several independent restaurants and cafes replacing the McDonald’s that recently closed down; a farmers market and annual food festival are now part of the scene. But there are still no independent food shops.
In my youth Paisley was a shopping magnet for surrounding villages Johnstone, Howwood, Kilmalcolm, Kilbarchan, Lochwinnoch, Bridge of Weir, Linwood, Houston and Bishopton. It was a thriving network of upscale retail: there was a bespoke tailor, fur shop, corsetiere, haberdasher’s, dolls’ hospital, stationers’, grand restaurant and cafe, butcher, fishmonger, bakery, dairy and grocer. House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer, Boots the Chemist (where we all bought our first pop records) and Woolworths (ditto our first Evette eye-shadows), were just some of the names who had major branches. The Paisley Cooperative Manufacturing Society (PCMS) was the source of all our childhood Christmas toys. All that remains of the old High Street is an M&S outlet store.
The hammer blow of the construction, approved by Renfrewshire Council in 1999, of the out-of-town Braehead shopping centre, followed by the Glasgow City Council-owned Silverburn in nearby Pollok, means shoppers now simply drive past Paisley.
Paisley High Street has become the universal – if, to my eyes, rather tired – symbol of retail decline. The Guardian newspaper recently dubbed it “Tumbleweed Town”, the Financial Times said it is “the byword for drugs and decline” and the New York Times noted its pawnbrokers, thrift stores and boarded-up shop fronts.
Which understandably rankles with Macmillan. “Paisley has been the poster boy of UK-wide retail decline for years. I was on the Tube in London recently, reading the Metro about a shop closure in Clapham and they used that iconic image of Paisley High Street with all its shops closed and the museum in the background,” he notes.
“It’s true that Braehead and Silverburn dealt Paisley a brutal blow, together with the more recent surge in online shopping. Some residents haven’t set foot in the High Street for years. Its dire situation is in the top four things they mention during election campaigns.
“Turning that around is going to take time. We can’t influence retail. We can’t pull levers and magic up a shop – though if a large store wanted to come in of course we’d say ‘yes’.”
Meanwhile, Paisley’s historic roots will be emphasised and brought up to date. A £49m revamp of the Coats-built Museum and Art Gallery (where I used to attend art classes on a Saturday morning, and still cherish the child’s dictionary I won as a prize for my drawing of a catwalk show) is underway to create a glass-fronted extension containing a new Museum of Fashion, Textile and Design. The famous Jacquard looms – currently hidden at the back of the museum – will be to the fore, original Paisley patterns will be shown for the first time, and there’s talk of a resident weaver being installed. At present only 3% of the museum’s treasures are on show.
To create more space for the expanded exhibitions, the adjoining oak-lined public library – another haunt of my youth – is moving to a vacant unit in the High Street to become what the ebullient Cameron enthusiastically describes as “a state-of-the-art digital resource centre”. The beleaguered former Littlewoods store opposite, currently a Bargain Buys, is soon to become the UK’s first high street Museum Store, similar to that owned by Glasgow Museums in Nitshill. The difference these moves could make to the heart of the town is almost too much to hope for – and may finally justify the maddening pedestrianisation which has long thwarted any chance of a return to retail.
The tear-drop Paisley Pattern is, of course, a massive identifier for the town, but it isn’t patented. I am deeply heartened to discover that talks are underway with Harris Tweed Hebrides to find a way for Paisley to “own the brand”, as it were.
There are historic links between the two. Harris Tweed was created by two sisters from Harris who were sent to Paisley to learn how to weave and use the looms. The cloth now has the protection of an Act of Parliament, preventing it from being given the famous Orb trade mark unless it’s been woven in the Outer Hebrides; how thrilling if Paisley could do the same for its famous pattern.
Given retail’s notoriously fickle nature it makes sense to focus on the culture in which Paisley is steeped. It used to be dubbed the Poets’ Town; the Paisley Art Institute, Philharmonic Choir and Photographic Society are all thriving, and its youth theatre is the largest in the UK.
Famous names, past and present, abound: Robert Tannahill (whose Gloomy Winter would be sung by Dougie Maclean as one of this writer’s Desert Island Discs). Sculptor Sandy Stoddart, folk singer Gerry Rafferty, actors Tom Conti, David Tennant, Gerard Butler.
The artist and playwright John Byrne, who was brought up in Ferguslie Park, told me in a 2009 Herald interview that “Paisley feels like someone has died, it’s a town of defeat … it has had its chips”. But last month he said: "Paisley is a remarkable place. I hope to be involved in the bid. I support it wholeheartedly.”
A different type of painter I meet just along from the statue of Queen Victoria is less enthusiastic. “They’ll no’ let us win, because they don’t want Paisley to have the power,” he opines from the top of his ladder as he glosses a Georgian window frame. “It’s all about stopping the transfer of wealth and keeping the people down.”
I wonder if my grandfather would have shared that vision.
* This feature was first published in The Herald Magazine in April, 2017.