paisley abbey

The Tourist

“Hey man, slow down, slow down
Idiot, slow down, slow down”

—Radiohead, “The Tourist”

Paisley Abbey, Paisley, Scotland.

Today’s Day of Archaeology post is neither about video game archaeology (archaeogaming) nor Punk Archaeology, as I’ve largely written about for DoA for the past five years. Instead, on July 28, 2017, I was a tourist and traveler who opted to spend his discretionary pre-flight time in the town of Paisley (near the Glasgow Airport). I had come to Scotland at the invitation of the Merchant City Festival to talk about the Atari excavation and to moderate a panel on Punk Archaeology featuring four people who were in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Paisley in the late 1970s and early 1980s as musicians, as a record shop owner, as a record label “executive”. But seeing as these events were at night, I had my days to myself. So what did I do? I became a heritage tourist, visiting Dumbarton Rock, the Kelvingrove Museum, the Riverside Museum of transportation, the Govan Stones, the Necropolis.

On my last day, the Day of Archaeology 2017, I went to Paisley Abbey, a £3.50 train ride from Glasgow. I exited the railway station at Gilmour Street and immediately took a wrong turn, enabling the psychogeography of Paisley in which I generally spiral out from my point of disembarking to see things no other tourist will see. In this case, urban Paisley. I ultimately found myself in front of the old observatory (which was shut), and then wound my way back down into town along the main road, searching for signage pointing the way to one of Scotland’s most storied abbeys.

Paisley paving stones in Paisley.

Coming back into the town’s center, I found a large kind of macro-mosaic of a giant paisley pattern. As it happens, this town created the pattern which bears its name, and there is a textile museum (which I did not have time to visit) that features the story of Paisley and eponymous design. The town celebrates its heritage in subtle ways like this one, and as I crossed the river, familiar signage (posts with labeled metal arrows) pointed the way to things to see. But there was the Abbey, not 400 yards from the rail station, which I had missed by turning left instead of right.

Paisley Abbey was founded in 1163 by Walter Fitzalan, Scotland’s first High Steward. The Abbey is very much a living building, having seen several expansions, a fire, one major roof collapse, the addition of the central tower, the relocation of graves for the “new” edition of the north transept in the 19th century. I used my phone for photography only. There is no WiFi here. I did not burn my data on hunting for pocket monsters, either. I was drawn to the place on a recommendation from a friend, and needed no digital lure. I opted against the audioguide (which I’ve been told is quite good), instead choosing to speak to one of the volunteers inside the Abbey proper.

Heading in, one is not confronted with advertisements or any kind of gimmick. The shop (and cafe and toilet) is modestly marked and is behind a door that’s kept shut. The way in to the center of the Abbey is well marked and inviting, and I turned the iron ring to unlatch the door, and then gave a sizable push to dislodge the door. I was greeted warmly by two older gentlemen who immediately wanted to know where I was from, and invited me to leave my backpack in one of the pews so I could enjoy the space unencumbered. They seemed genuinely honored that I had chosen Paisley as my last stop. One of the men brought over a 3-ring binder containing historic drawings, maps, and photos of the Abbey over time to walk me through the history of the building, something he said he hadn’t done in quite a while. There was a photo of Queen Victoria’s visit to commemorate the historic Abbey, and we enjoyed finding her amongst the hundreds of people pressed together for such a unique visit.

The docent then gave me a laminated plan of the Abbey, annotated with snippets of information about various elements such as the “Wallace Window” at the back (William Wallace was educated at the Abbey in the 13th century), the tomb chest of Marjory Bruce, and the massive pipe organ installed in 1872, which still plays and is tuned by placing dents in the metal pipes. There is even a plaque of John Witherspoon, native of Paisley, who moved to Princeton, New Jersey (very near my house) and signed the Declaration of Independence. When the docent told me that, he added that he wished Scotland would become independent, too.

As I explored, I read everything on the walls, ancient and modern plaques, plus a wall of laser-printed pictures and signage that gave a running history of the Abbey and its royal guests. The interior space of the Abbey, the coolness of its stones, and the muted light entering its stained glass windows (including a modern one from the 1980s, which reminded me of Tiffany glass), required me to take my time to look and to explore. Paving stones inside the Abbey held names of notable people interred within (and without) the space. A “wee museum” in the sacristy held old stones and newer silver patens. There is a giant stone cross in the back of the Abbey said to have been found near the first construction site, where people of the 11th and 12th centuries would gather before a church was built.

I was admiring the pipe organ when the docent approached me again. He had an atlas, and it was open to a map of the United States. He said he didn’t realize how close New Jersey was to New York City and to Philadelphia. I pointed to where I lived, and he wanted to know if I’d been to Philly, if I’d seen Rocky. I had, and I told him that the film was very much a part of that city’s heritage, that there is a statue of Stallone’s character, and that there are even footprints at the top of the stairs of the art museum. He then said that Scotland has its own “Rocky” story, a 1955 film called Wee Geordie, in which an undersized Scottish lad refuses to give up on his dream to be a world-class hammer-thrower, and refuses to exchange his kilt for other attire when representing the UK in the Commonwealth Games.

At the end of my visit, I realized I had spent an hour here, typically longer than I spend when visiting historic churches, because I was fully engaged with the structure, with how its history had been organized, but more so because of the person I met who was willing to take the time to tell me things if I had the time to listen. I’d noticed this earlier with other Scots I’d met, both friends and strangers. Everyone seems willing to take the time to talk, to slow down, to enjoy a conversation, to learn about something or someone. I have missed that kind of connection in the urbanized East Coast of the US, but recall similar experiences when exploring the High Plains or the American West.

Even though I had a plane to catch, I did not feel rushed, and I learned a lot. There was nothing digital about the place at all (not even an introductory video), and that allowed me to engage with the space itself, and the people within it. My only regret is not remembering the docent’s name.

It felt good to be a tourist, and to slow down. Paisley Abbey reminded me how.

—Andrew Reinhard

PS: I want to extend a very special thank-you to Lorna Richardson and the rest of the DoA collective for allowing me to be a part of the team these past six years.