Textile town turns back time to invest in its future
Paisley rising from the ashes of the past
Paisley has the highest number of empty shops in the high street of any town in the UK but it is now using its collective creativity to forge a new future.
On 9 June, one of the most darkly fascinating periods in Paisley’s history, the Renfrewshire Witch Hunt, will be re-enacted in the town centre. Far from wallowing in the past, this resilient university town is using its rich heritage to help restore its fortunes.
The Renfrewshire town which has produced everything from the classic Paisley shawl to musician Paolo Nutini, has seen a significant decline in its once thriving economy.
Delving into history is one of the most popular leisure pursuits in the UK, and The Paisley Development Trust, which is made up of local residents and business people, is determined to support the regeneration of their town by celebrating and building on its rich culture and heritage.
The Trust’s RWH (Renfrewshire Witch Hunt) 1697 (http://www.thepdt.org.uk/rwh1697/) project is a multi-generational marking of a major event in the town’s history which weaves in everything from witchcraft to the rise of the town’s textile industry.
The story of the Renfrewshire Witch hunt is the stuff of Hollywood screenplays and is not so far removed from Arthur Miller’s celebrated play, The Crucible, which is based on the story of the Salem witch trials.
In a nutshell, RWH 1697, stems from the time that 11-year old Christian Shaw accused a maid of stealing milk. When Christian started having fits as well as vomiting up pins, straw and coal, she further accused the maid of putting a curse on her.
Out of the 30 people who went on to be accused of witchcraft by Christian and her mother, seven were found guilty and garrotted and burned in Paisley town centre on 10 June 1697, with their remains buried under a horseshoe at Maxwellton Cross.
Following the horrors of that summer, John Shaw, Christian’s father died, and mother and daughter formed a tight-knit relationship. In later life,
Christian married an Ayrshire minister, but after a few months of marriage, during a visit to her mother at Bargarran, Christian’s husband became strangely unwell and died in the night.
The two women went on to tour Europe, where they found fine thread being spun in Holland, smuggled parts of a spinning jenny back into Scotland, and established Bargarran threads which was later bought by the Coats family.
Paisley’s textile industry blossomed from here and during the 18th and 19th centuries, Paisley became a boom town with the internationally renowned Coats mills and the Paisley shawl the most-wanted fashion accessory.
Superstition has it that if the horseshoe in Maxwellton was ever lifted, the fortunes of the town would decline, and in the 1960s it was lifted during road constructions. Not long after, Roots car factory closed, the mills shut down, the ancillary industries serving the textile industry disappeared, and unemployment rocketed.
Like the witch hunt, many of the stories from Paisley’s history are bleak, but can still be turned into assets. Funded by the Heritage Lottery, Renfrewshire LEADER funds and Renfrewshire Council, RWH 1697 is a project which involves local people carrying out serious research using primary sources to explore the phenomenon.
The project has created a touring exhibition which is visiting rural areas and schools to share the findings, as well as setting up online learning resources at both primary and secondary level to support the Curriculum for Excellence. Local people can find out more about the story by visiting the drop-in shop which has opened on the ground floor of the Paisley Centre.
At the invitation of Paisley MSP, George Adam, The Paisley Development Trust recently presented its Renfrewshire Witch Hunt 1697 touring exhibition to his MSP colleagues at Holyrood.
Commenting on the visit, Mr Adam said: “I was delighted to invite the Renfrewshire Witch Hunt organisers to the parliament to showcase the event they are planning for the 9 June.
“There has been such a lot of hard work involved by those organising the occasion, with wide community involvement, links to schools, providing pupils with experience of research, the arts and local history. This event is of national and international importance as well as local interest.”
As well as the Council, other partners in the project include Fablevision, Erskine Theatre Company and paisley.org.uk . Chair of the Paisley Development Trust, Alan Morris welcomes the invitation and the project manager, Liz Gardiner of Fablevision says: “This invitation gives grass roots community led organisations the opportunity to show, via the development of an area’s culture and heritage, the positive and long term sustainable regeneration outcomes from such activity.
“The project has already delivered two school learning packs, developed a website and carried out original research on the 1697 trials and the family histories of those involved. This month we are taking our touring exhibition throughout Renfrewshire and are looking forward to the culmination of the project, the re-enactment day on 9June.”
Taking it to the streets
The culmination of RWH 1697 takes place Saturday 9 June 2012, from 10am until 5pm, when Paisley town centre will return to 1697 and every citizen of Renfrewshire is invited to dress in historic attire, come into town and join in the restaging of events.
Renfrewshire Council hope that this will be an annual event that will attract tourists and visitors to the town. Adds Colin McLean, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland:
“The Heritage Lottery Fund is delighted to have been able to support this project which celebrates this fascinating side to Renfrewshire’s hidden history. The fantastic contribution from the volunteers has enabled them not only to expand their knowledge and learn lots of new skills, but it has provided a unique record of the past for others to learn, be inspired by and enjoy.”
Press & photographers are cordially invited to the Renfrewshire Witch Hunt 1697 Press Event on Friday 1 June from 11am am to 12 noon at Tannahill Cottage, 11 Queen Street, Paisley. The Tannahill Cottage is adjacent to the site of the Gallow Green where the accused were executed, their bodies burned and ashes buried at nearby Maxwellton Cross.