Paisley Abbey in Scotland is a medieval monastery that has withheld a secret from archaeologists since the early 1990s when an underground tunnel built in the 1300s was discovered at the site. Now they know exactly where it leads.
First built in the 12th century to honor an Irish monk known as Saint Mirin, the monastery had to be rebuilt in the 14th century after King Edward I of England ordered it burned down. During that rebuilding, a tunnel known as the Paisley Abbey drain was added.
Perhaps the most famous Scotsman to have ever stepped foot in the abbey is the legendary William Wallace, who received part of his education there before going on to fight for Scottish independence from England.
Several fires destroyed part of the Paisley Abbey again during the 15th and 16th centuries and the tunnel had been forgotten until the last decade of the 20th century.
Ever since archaeologists found the tunnel, they’ve found many interesting artifacts, including the oldest example of polyphonic music in Scotland marked on a slate stone, imported cloth seals, chamber pots from the 1500s, tweezers, carved bone handles, and pottery fragments.
Guard Archaeology dig leader Bob Will remarked in a press release by the Renfrewshire Council: “We found more than I was expecting and it is really exciting.”
But what hadn’t been found until now is where the tunnel ends. It turns out that the tunnel, which is 100 meters long, once drained into the River Cart. It stops just 3 meters shy of the present-day White Cart river, which used to be much wider, explaining why the tunnel only stops 3 meters short of the riverbank today.
“We found the end of the drain and what was the boundary wall of the monastery,” Will continued. “The river was wider and shallower in those days – much more than in the last couple of hundred years, as the walls now surrounding it are artificial. The main parts of the drain date back to the mid-14th-century and are incredibly well preserved. It goes as least as far as the road in front of Renfrewshire House.”
The drain is also rare because they are not usually built in urban areas.
“Often these types of drains are in rural areas not urban ones where there will have been pressure on the land above it – but considering the amount of buildings on that site over the centuries, the condition of the drain is quite incredible,” Will explained.
The excavation at the site has provided new insights about the monastery grounds and where old buildings used to be.
“What we have uncovered has helped us see what could be done with any future excavation,” Will said. “We now know much more about the medieval ground levels and have a good idea where some of the monastery buildings were.”
And now that they know more, it’s possible the tunnel will be more accessible to historians and archaeologists as well as to the public someday.
“Ideally there would be more permanent access to the drain at some point in the future and what we’ve uncovered here makes that much more feasible,” Will said.
With its stone archways intact, Historic Environment Scotland has designated the drain as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Renfrewshire Council leader Iain Nicolson has praised the work being done.
“Paisley is already on the map as a key visitor destination within Scotland and we are already delivering on ambitious plans to use our unique heritage to drive new footfall to the town centre,” he said in a statement.
“We would be keen to explore any opportunities to build on that by opening up more permanent access to the Abbey Drain at some point in the future – and the findings of the Big Dig mean we now know more than ever about this incredible feature beneath the town centre. The Big Dig was a really great community project which has created a lot of interest in Paisley town centre and its history over the past couple of months. We would like to thank our funders for helping make it happen, and all who have been involved in the projects – particularly the local volunteers who came out in all weathers to take part.”
The tunnel would be a great place for people to learn about 14th century architecture, as well as the history of the monastery grounds. As more new technology becomes available to archaeologists, it’s likely that even more secrets can be discovered there. For now, however, archaeologists will settle for the mystery of the Paisley Abbey tunnel having been solved.
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