Ancient Monuments

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Paisley Abbey, drain 75m SSW of

A Scheduled Monument in Paisley East and Central, Renfrewshire

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Latitude: 55.8443 / 55°50'39"N

Longitude: -4.4206 / 4°25'14"W

OS Eastings: 248534

OS Northings: 663876

OS Grid: NS485638

Mapcode National: GBR 3K.4XV2

Mapcode Global: WH3P6.2C6K

Entry Name: Paisley Abbey, drain 75m SSW of

Scheduled Date: 9 August 2010

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM8078

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Ecclesiastical: precincts

Location: Paisley

County: Renfrewshire

Electoral Ward: Paisley East and Central

Traditional County: Renfrewshire


The monument is a large and impressive stone drain, constructed to carry waste water through the precinct of Paisley Abbey. The earliest portions were probably built between AD 1350 and 1400, the rest mostly between AD 1400 and 1500, although there have been modern repairs and additions. Much of the drain is built of dressed stone and parts have a roof carried on pointed or semi-circular ribs. Silts that date to the 15th century still lie within parts of the drain and these contain extremely informative artefacts and plant and animal remains. The drain lies beneath an area of level ground to the south of Paisley Abbey on the E bank of the White Cart Water.

The monument was not widely known until 1990, when Mr Frank Snow of the Regional Sewerage Department pointed it out to archaeologists working in the vicinity. Subsequently, researchers undertook an architectural evaluation of the drain, geophysical surveys (ground penetrating radar survey, magnetometry and resistivity), examined silts removed mechanically by the Sewerage Department and conducted a small controlled excavation at the monument's E end. Subsequently, archaeologist conducted a small excavation at the W end of the drain in 2009. These investigations show that the drain survives for at least 90m, extending from east to west towards the White Cart Water. Blockages have prevented further exploration and the total extent of the drain remains unknown. The portion that has been recorded follows an irregular course and comprises five relatively straight lengths extending between changes in alignment. The drain varies from 0.8m to 2m in internal width and from 1m to 2.2m in internal height, the roof mostly having a pointed profile.

At least six distinct forms of construction are visible. Close to the E end the drain has a modern flat roof and was clearly built in several phases. Here the lower part of the structure is only 0.5m wide but has been well constructed, whereas the upper part of the drain is wider and built of less regular blocks. To the west is a short section of drain 1.2m wide and 1.8m high with a shallow semi-circular arch. Beyond, the drain turns to the WSW where it is 1.2m wide and 2m high with walls of uncoursed squared sandstone and with a slabbed roof carried on pointed ribs or arches. After turning a corner to the west, the drain has random rubble walls and measures only 0.8m wide and 1m high, with a modern concrete slab roof. The walls here may have been constructed to revet an open ditch, the addition of the concrete roof later converting the structure to a culvert. The drain then turns to the WNW where it is 1m wide and 2.2m high, constructed of dressed stone built to courses with a slabbed roof carried on steeply-pointed ribs. At the W end of its known extent, the drain expands to measure 2m high and 2m wide, the roof taking the form of a wide arch. For most of its length the drain is floored with stone slabs, though there are parts where the floor seems simply to consist of the underlying river silts.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan, to include the remains described above and an area around within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. To the south-west, the scheduled area extends up to, but excludes, the iron railings on the bank of the White Cart Water. To allow for their maintenance, the scheduling excludes the above-ground elements of all street furniture, street lights, signage, walls and electrical installations. In addition, the scheduling excludes all modern structures, roads and other surfaces and deposits on the ground surface or that lie up to 0.5m below the ground surface. Also excluded are all modern buried utility services lying up to 1.2m below the ground surface and the soil that overlies them within their existing trenches.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

The variations in construction along the known course of the drain indicate that it is the product of several phases of rebuilding, repair and alteration. This adds considerably to the interest of the monument and means that it could support a programme of detailed architectural and archaeological investigation. Study of the drain would allow its history to be reconstructed and enable researchers to compare the different styles of construction used in different periods. The date of AD 1350-1400 suggested for the construction of the monument is based on the architectural style of part of the drain that has an exceptionally fine rib-supported roof. However, researchers have identified structural timbers that originally formed part of a tidal sill and these are probably the best potential source of a precise date for the drain's construction. The many episodes of alteration and repair are difficult to date on architectural grounds, but the stylistic dating of artefacts or the scientific dating of plant and animal remains may provide an understanding of when different elements were constructed and when the drain went out of active use. Initial studies suggest that the drain was kept clean in the 1300s, but was perhaps less actively maintained in the 1400s, when the overwhelming majority of the artefacts found in the drain silts were deposited.

The mechanical removal and sieving of some of the silts filling the drain has led to the discovery of a great range of domestic and monastic objects, including fragile organic materials such as leather and cloth. The range of this material is unparalleled in the west of Scotland. Similar silts still exist within parts of the drain and there is a strong probability that they contain a comparable range of artefacts. The material already recovered includes: copper-alloy objects such as hinges and buckles and a large fragment of a seal matrix, perhaps dating to the period AD 1400-1600; a silver long cross penny of Robert III (1390-1406); at least 16 lead seals representing one of the largest collections ever recorded from an archaeological site in Britain; lead from window frames; many slate fragments with incised writing (Middle Scots) or musical notation (apparently dating from the Middle Ages and including the earliest known piece of Scottish music); 83kg of bone that probably mostly represents food debris; worked bone including probable gaming pieces, pins, a knife handle and spoon; and 105kg of pottery, mainly dating from AD 1400-1600, including imported pottery from Germany and the Low Countries. The most common pottery vessels were jugs, chamber pots and skillets and finds included a complete chamber pot and the complete base of a German stoneware jug. This is one of the largest groups of late-medieval pottery known from the Glasgow area and could support a range of research, including work to establish whether different kilns were producing different vessel types. The material already found together with that still preserved below ground has the potential to provide crucial insights into the trade and economy of Paisley Abbey and its extensive hinterland.

Small-scale excavation at the E end of the drain demonstrates that the silts survive as discrete stratified deposits and that most of the artefacts come from a sealed layer that was probably laid down between AD 1400 and 1500 and has not been disturbed since. This greatly enhances the historical value of the finds. When silts were mechanically removed from the drain, little work was done to recover and identify macro- and microscopic plant and animal remains because of concerns about modern contamination. The excavation shows that uncontaminated medieval deposits exist and that they contain wood, leather, animal bone, fish bone, shell, burnt peat, seeds, grass leaves, root fibres and stems, and other carbonised vegetation. Taken as a group, the artefacts and plant and animal remains recovered from, and still existing, within the drain represent evidence of almost unrivalled importance for the study of 15th-century monastic and urban life in Scotland. They can tell us about the eating habits of those who used the drain and about the tools, dress accessories, building materials and other objects of those who lived and worked in the vicinity. There is the potential to reconstruct and understand the immediate landscape and environment of the abbey, and to explore its trading contacts and economy.

In addition, there is clear potential for buried remains of the medieval monastery to exist in close proximity to the drain. Geophysical survey suggests the possibility that the foundations of a large square structure exist immediately north of the central section of the drain, where it deviates to the south. Documentary sources also suggest that the E range of the cloister approached close to the drain at its E end and that the latrines may have straddled the drain at this point. The small excavation at the W end of the drain in 2009 revealed a masonry foundation around 1.3m below ground level and this may be part of a monastic building.

Contextual characteristics

The monastery at Paisley was founded around 1169 and became an abbey in 1219. It was one of only two Cluniac abbeys in Scotland, the other being Crossraguel. Its foundation as a Cluniac house in the late 12th century is surprising as the influence of the Cluniac order was already declining, but it gave Paisley a distinctive and unusual status in Scotland. Cluny had been founded as a reformed Benedictine house and developed a special emphasis on the liturgy at the expense of educational, intellectual and artistic pursuits. Like the Cistercians, the Cluniacs had exemption from episcopal authority and as late as 1516 the archbishop of St Andrews, who had powers of visitation in exempt monasteries, would not use these for Paisley or Crossraguel. Paisley Abbey was wealthy and in 1560 its annual income was exceeded only by St Andrews, Arbroath and Dunfermline. Documentary and cartographic sources allow the reconstruction of some elements of the monastery layout, providing a context for the drain. It probably flowed past the S end of a putative E range, adjoined by the dormitory and latrines.

Researchers have an imperfect understanding of Scottish monasticism and the remains at Paisley, particularly those associated with the drain, have considerable potential to contribute to a better knowledge of monastic life. Artefacts and ecofacts associated with the drain give the potential to examine whether a distinct Cluniac identity is discernible in the material culture and evidence for diet and economy. Such study is complicated because it is always difficult to be certain who the consumers of food on monastic sites were, and kitchens often had to cater for guests as well as monks. Nevertheless, there is the potential to compare the Paisley evidence with that from a range of other monastic sites. Animal remains from the Cistercian Abbey at Kirkstall in Yorkshire are particularly useful because they derive from a kitchen that supplied part of the monastic community and reflect consumption by monks. There are also informative assemblages of animal or fish bones from Norton Priory in Cheshire (Augustinian), the Dominican Friary in Chester, Westminster Abbey (Benedictine) and the Augustinian Friary at Leicester. Assemblages of plant remains are known from several monastic sites including the priory at Jedburgh and Waltham Abbey in Essex (both Augustinian).

The Paisley Abbey drain can itself be compared with water management features at several monasteries across Britain. All monastic rules require a basic level of hygiene and from the 12th century it is clear that monasteries were very concerned to secure both a water supply and drainage to remove waste water and sewage. Functional considerations were usually the main factors in the layout of monastic buildings and the cloister was usually positioned so that a constant flow of water could be delivered to the latrine drain. A pair of 12th-century drawings illustrates the complex water system at Canterbury Cathedral priory. Building work in 1946 revealed part of the main drain, which measures about 1m wide by 1m high with a barrel vault. Settling tanks are unlikely to be found by archaeologists because of their location far from the centres of monasteries, but parts of filters have been found at Westminster Abbey and Fountains Abbey. Lead pipes commonly distributed water to areas such as the cloister lavatory, where monks washed, and archaeologists have frequently found short lengths of lead pipe on monastic sites. At the Carmelite friary in Aberdeen the lead piping was set in clay-filled trenches to guard against leaks. Latrines were usually built alongside the dormitory at first floor level, with the latrine seats as much as 7m above the monastic drain. The drain would serve to remove the sewage efficiently from the heart of the monastery, and it seems certain that the monks understood the importance of efficient sanitation, despite an imperfect knowledge of precisely how disease was transmitted. Drains could be provided with sluice gates that would allow the periodic release of a rush of water if a steady flow was not available. It is not unusual for a monastery to have a well-constructed main drain. The drain at Melrose Abbey was 1.2m wide and 1.5m deep and ran for 450m, with an arched roof where it passed beneath buildings and flat lintels elsewhere. Important remains of drainage systems survive elsewhere in Scotland, for example at St Andrews, Dunfermline and Dundrennan. Nevertheless, the Paisley Abbey drain is particularly impressive and its importance is enhanced by the deposits that it contains. Artefacts and ecofacts from the silts make clear that Paisley was a major ecclesiastical and economic centre. Their study can add considerably to knowledge of the economy of the abbey, as well as shedding light on Paisley's trading links, including its trade with Europe.

Associative characteristics

A remarkable collection of documents relating to Paisley Abbey survives, arguably of better quality than that available for any other Scottish monastery. The documents have particular potential to inform the financial and legal history of the abbey and its fate after the Reformation. Key documents include The Paisley Register, The Register of the Great Seal, and The Auchinleck Chronicle. As well as providing general historical context for the abbey drain, these documents can help researchers to piece together a tentative reconstruction of the layout of monastic buildings. Cartographic and pictorial sources can provide further information. These include Slezer's View of Paisley dated 1693 and Lumsden's Plan of the Town of Paisley from 1781.

Paisley Abbey Drain was widely publicised after its rediscovery in 1990 and gained a place in the national consciousness, enhanced by the 2010 celebrations to mark the 1100 year anniversary of the Cluniac order. The Abbey Drain has the potential to play an important role in the regeneration of Paisley.

National Importance

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of the past, particularly the monasteries of the late Middle Ages. The buried remains of the structure and the silting deposits inside are unusually well preserved and have been little disturbed by modern development. The drain is clearly of multiphase construction and can support future detailed study of the construction sequence, techniques and materials. A very significant and wide-ranging collection of artefacts has already been recovered from the drain, but similar material remains buried beneath the ground. Of even greater significance is the potential of the remaining silts to contain a diverse assortment of fragile organic remains. Such remains are rarely encountered intact and can shed light on the diet, economy and trading contacts of the monastery. Paisley was one of only two Cluniac Abbeys in Scotland and this rarity further enhances the significance of the drain. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand the development, complexity and economy of monastic houses in Scotland.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland



RCAHMS records the site as NS46SE 2.5. The WoSAS SMR records the site as WoSASPIN 12080.


Butler, L and Given-Wilson, C 1979, Medieval Monasteries of Great Britain, London: Michael Joseph.

Cowan, I B and Easson, D E 1976, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, London: Longman.

Dilworth, M 1995, Scottish Monasteries in the Late Middle Ages, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gavin Walker and Associates 1996, Paisley Abbey medieval drain; structural report (unpubl client report).

Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division 1991, Paisley Abbey investigations 1991; geophysical survey, analysis of silts recovered from medieval drain and trial excavations in the drain (unpubl client report 39).

Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division 1991, Paisley Abbey; feasibility study of the archaeological potential (unpubl client report 39.5).

Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division 2009, Paisley Abbey Drain excavation; data structure report (unpubl client report 2773).

Green, JP 1992, Medieval Monasteries, Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Malden, J 1992, 'The monastery of Paisley', Glasgow Archaeol Soc Bull 28, 10-12

McBrien, J H 1991, 'Abbey Close, Paisley', Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 70.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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