Paisleys’ Medieval Past Project

We have been excavating on the site of the Medieval Drain of Paisley Abbey for several years.


Interior of Paisley Abbey Drain

Interior of Paisley Abbey Drain

IN both 2009 and 2010 Renfrewshire Local History Forum was instrumental in promoting the excavations of Paisley Abbey Drain.  Members of the Forum volunteered to assist GUARD in the ‘digs’. The Abbey Drain lies under the grassed area beside the Town Hall where the festive lights are displayed at Christmas. The excavations in 2009 and 2010 concentrated on examining the outside of the drain and both were popular venues on Doors Open Days.

The Abbey Drain was first discovered in 1879 and then forgotten about until it was rediscovered in 1991. The Drain is a large structure, two metres high in places, with an arched roof. Among the finds buried in the silt inside this medieval sewer were unique 15th century examples of polyphonic music incised on slate, tuning pegs for musical instruments, pottery and pottery shards, dice and Interior of Paisley Abbey Drain       gaming    tokens, and lead seals from cloth imported from the Netherlands and Italy.  This all had to be washed and sorted. Forum members assisted in a project to sort and match the pottery shards in 2009. The Abbey Drain was scheduled as a national monument by Historic Scotland in August 2010.

In September of 2011 our Forum volunteers assisted GUARD Archaeology Ltd. in a further excavation. Life was made easier for us this year by the use of an excavator to remove nearly 1m of early 20th century in-fill on the site. Two trenches were dug, one extending a previous trench and the other at a spot which was a possible site of old monastic buildings. The results of this excavation surpassed all expectation.

Trench 1 -  Medieval wall and cobbled paving

Trench 1 – Medieval wall and cobbled paving

Both trenches were dug to a depth of more than a metre. The first trench revealed a medieval wall beside some beautifully cobbled paving. This is likely to be the remains of a hitherto unknown ancillary abbey building, perhaps the abbey kitchen or a workplace.                                            

The second trench revealed a circular structure about two metres in diameter with a narrow break or opening at one side.  The top edge of the structure was covered by layers of carefully laid slates to a depth of about two inches. As the excavation was terminated at this level it was not possible to determine the depth of the structure or the materials used below the excavated level. Initially this feature appeared to be a well. However, on reflection it seemed more likely to be the remains of a bread oven or kiln used by the monks.

Trench 2 circular feature

Trench 2 circular feature


In 2012 a geophysical resistivity survey was undertaken by Guard to investigate the possibility of other related archaeological features on the site. We are still awaiting results of the survey. Also in 2012, some of our members visited Guard Archaeology where Bob Wills had a fascinating  exhibition of artefacts found in the Drain.


Some artefacts found in the Abbey Drain

Trench 2 circular feature

Inscribed slate

Mixed Artefacts

Mixed Artefacts

This page will host updates on the 2011 excavations carried out between the 2nd and 12th September, and reports on previous season.


Paisley’s Medieval Past Project is supported by Renfrewshire Local History Forum, GUARD Archaeology, Renfrewshire Council and the University of West of Scotland as partners in the project

Have a look at the RCAHMS site for some good images of the drain

2010 Update

Following the successful investigations carried out by GUARD with the help of Forum members and other volunteers in September 2009, the Forum organised a further dig in the week leading up to Doors Open Day on 11th September 2010. GUARD again played a lead role with Bob Will providing professional supervision of the many volunteers.

The Forum was grateful to receive funding for the project from:

Renfrewshire Council


The excavation took place on the line of the medieval drain not far from the 2009 dig with three main aims:
• To determine the external width of the drain and the condition of the outer fabric of the drain
• to investigate the survival of archaeological deposits over and adjacent to the drain that may also provide information regarding the construction of the drain and the medieval monastic precinct
• to investigate the later use of the site in terms of the development of the town of Paisley and the more recent tenements and streets

The site was scheduled by Historic Scotland earlier this summer as an ancient monument. Following Scheduled Monument Consent being granted, the aim was therefore to obtain as much information regarding the construction of the drain and the surrounding deposits, while causing the least amount of disturbance to these deposits.  A layer of geotextile was placed at the base of the excavation, over the drain prior to backfilling.

From the results of last year’s excavation and the RCAHMS survey of the interior of the drain we believed that the top of the exterior of the drain was approximately one metre below the present ground level. In addition the RCAHMS survey identified possible side drains running into the main drain and the location of a medieval manhole. It was therefore proposed we would hand excavate a small trench over the drain at the location of one of the side drains or culverts, to investigate the exterior surface of the drain and the location of the side drain. Similarly the excavation last year uncovered the walls and foundations of tenement building immediately below the surface and we intended to investigate these deposits too.

The remains of the tenement building were quickly revealed and finds including brick, pieces of roof slate, smoking pipes and china and other pottery (some possibly as early as late medieval) were recovered. It was also believed we uncovered the top of  a culvert. However as the excavation proceeded below the anticipated one metre depth this latter structure may have been part of early building foundations and evidence for the exterior structure of the drain could not be positively identified. Further consideration will now be given to the results of this year’s dig in relation to previous findings.

As well as many casual visitors during the week before, a total of 400 members of the public visited the dig on a sunny Doors Open Day. Fortunately extra volunteers were on hand to explain the process without disturbing the efforts of the workers!