Overshadowed by Glasgow, inhabitants of Scotlan'ds largest town are discovering that they live in a place of consequence and beauty.
Paisley has a horizon of domes and spires and one or two factory chimneys from which smoke never rises. You can see it if you look south from the motorway or from a plane landing or taking off at Glasgow airport, which lies at the edge of the town. A traveller by train has a closer view. He sees the abbey and a row of interesting old buildings perched above the railway on a ridge. They include several churches, an elegant Victorian school, and an unexpected thing: a Victorian observatory. With a population of just 76,000, Paisley is said to have the highest concentration of listed buildings of any place in Scotland other than Edinburgh, but few passengers on their way to and from the Clyde coast interrupt their journeys to get off and have a look.
Paisley to Glasgow is as Croydon is to London or Stockport is to Manchester: a big town in the shadow of a great city, the last station that fast trains halt at before the terminus 10 minutes down the line, a prompt in a more careful age to stand up and tidy one’s hair and take the luggage down from the rack. Mills gave it an economy and an identity. Paisley had several palatial ones that survived into the 1970s and 1980s, supplying thread to a shrinking market that had once been half the world.
Can “culture”, meaning tourism and its associated businesses, replace them? Paisley hopes so – that its name will be on the shortlist of candidates for UK City of Culture 2021, published in May or June. The previous winners – Derry/Londonderry in 2013 and Hull this year – are unquestionably cities, as are Paisley’s likely rivals on the shortlist: Sunderland, Cardiff, Coventry, Hereford, Perth and Stoke-on-Trent. Paisley, as Scotland’s largest town, qualifies under rules that include any settlement with a “clear central urban focus”.
People in Paisley were incredulous at first. “Cities of culture” meant Paris, Barcelona, Athens. Glasgow, at a pinch. Paisley, even to its own population, had begun to seem no more than a catalogue of social problems. Out-of-town shopping centres have killed the high street; its housing estates contain some of the worst deprivation in Scotland. It’s a poor place, rich in history. A competition designed “to use culture as a catalyst for economic and social regeneration” can have no better test-bed.
It might work, too. Mark Macmillan, Labour leader of the council, says that what he calls the weary, ironic “aye, right” response has already been conquered. Rather than doubting their town’s worthiness, he says Paisley people are asking: “Why didn’t we do this sooner?” They’re discovering, those who had forgotten it, that they live in a place of interest and consequence – beauty, too, when the light is right. “It’s allowing people to be proud of Paisley again,” Macmillan says, referring to the £100m worth of building work, mainly enlarging the museum, to which the council is already committed. Naturally, municipal boosterism is an undertow to any official encounter, but the most casual conversation in a shop or a café suggests he is right.
I made a little tour of the town last week with Mhairi Black, who in 2015 won the Paisley and Renfrewshire constituency for the SNP to become the youngest MP for 350 years. She was 20 at the time and had yet to graduate in politics and public policy from Glasgow University. For people such as me, who knew her only from the papers, her reputation until that point had rested mainly on what the Daily Record called “a string of foul-mouthed internet rants”. They were tweets from a couple of years before and the most famous of them – “I really fucking hate Celtic” – suggested a mind clotted by ignorance and poisoned by Scotland’s sectarian divisions.
It turned out that the explanation was more complicated. Black’s background is Irish and Catholic; her hatred of all-conquering Celtic came out of her longtime support for its lowly rival Partick Thistle. In any case, public perception of Black changed utterly after the sincerity and eloquence of her maiden speech in the House of Commons, and I mention this only because her language was chaste throughout our walk, perhaps because she felt she was talking to her grandad.
First, we crossed the river, the White Cart Water, and went into the abbey, which was founded as a Cluniac priory in the 12th century, knocked about in the Reformation, and expensively restored thanks in part to the munificence of the thread manufacturers, the Coats and Clark families. The abbey has a Victorian window dedicated to William Wallace and a chapel dedicated to Saint Mirin, a sixth-century Irish missionary to Scotland who settled in Paisley and gave his name to the town’s football team.
We passed the Russell Institute, built as a children’s health clinic in the 1920s, which has bronze statues of plump infants placed at intervals along its facade, some signifying accidents or toothache by including a crutch or a bandage; the art gallery and museum, which has the world’s finest collection of Paisley shawls, a product once so ubiquitous that the name Paisley obscured the pattern’s origins in Persia and Kashmir. And we saw the Laigh Kirk, where a preacher called John Witherspoon baptised a little boy called Alexander Wilson in 1766, neither of them knowing that their destiny lay in America, where Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence, the only clergyman to do so, and Wilson became the first great American ornithologist, an inspiration to Audubon.
Cafuffals, Paisley’s “number one fun bar”, hoved into view. “You wouldnae want to be here on a Friday night,” Black said. It was lunchtime. I suggested we had a drink a few yards further on in the Bull Inn, which the Pevsner guide describes as “Scotland’s finest art nouveau pub”, which it is, and very little known. The Paisley architect WD McLennan designed both the building and the interior, which has some fine stained glass and dark woodwork that is almost decadently curved. A man in his 60s said: “Hello, Mhairi.”
Later, in her office, I asked how it was that so many underprivileged people in northern England voted to leave the European Union while those in Scotland voted to stay in. She said it was a matter of “political education – there’s greater political engagement here, people don’t fall for all that stuff about all these people [immigrants] taking our jobs”. As for Paisley as City of Culture, it was “partly a cry for help but it could be transforming. I’m a genuine enthusiast for it.”
I like Paisley. Its attractions deserve an audience and could be its salvation. The next day I climbed up a cobbled lane to the buildings, the spires and the domes that form the horizon you can see from the train. They’re connected by Oakshaw Street, which runs east-west along the ridge like a promenade, though the views are of houses. Down there, a few remnants of an older way of life survive: a shop that sells pianos, another dealing in old books, a tobacconist that repairs pipes.
The sun settled on the hills across the Clyde, ice-cream chimes to the tune of Colonel Bogey echoed up the hill, a train slid to Greenock. On it, perhaps, a man glanced up.
Source: The Guardian