Paisley Abbey Drain


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

Paisley Abbey Drain  (This website page is in progress. Please excuse any errors)

The Abbey Drain was known to have existed but its exact location was a mystery. It was known that a Mr. John Crawford of Ellis Lane had fallen into a tunnel under his garden in 1829, and that workmen, during preparation for the building Bridge Street Bridge in 1879, fell into a stone tunnel 100 feet long.

Interior of the drain

The drain was rediscovered in 1990. Since then Renfrewshire Local History Form has had a keen interest in Paisley Abbey Drain and has participated in investigations and excavations. Andrew Eadie has been the Forum’s driving force in maintaining our interest and involvement, liaising on our behalf with GUARD (later GUARD Archaeology, Ltd.), Renfrewshire Council, Paisley Abbey, and the University of the West of Scotland. Over the years he also has been a keen volunteer in excavations at the site of the Drain, and also in passing on his knowledge to the public at excavations held on Doors Open Days.

Rediscovery and Archaeological Investigations, 1990-96

In 1990, Renfrewshire Council funded a number of archaeological investigations to determine the exact location of Paisley Abbey Drain, but with no positive results. However, help was at hand. While John Maldon of Paisley Museum was in discussion with a Council official near the Abbey, a member of the public approached them. This man, who worked for Strathclyde Sewerage Department, was Frank Snow. He said he was interested in the Drain and could show them its exact location. He led them over the grassed area to the south of the Place of Paisley and removed some turf to reveal a manhole cover, which Frank had helped to repair when he was a young apprentice. This manhole was an access to the Drain.

Frank’s interest in the Drain has never waned. He has been an active and valuable participant in all the excavations since his “rediscovery” of the Drain in 1990. Following its rediscovery the interior of the Drain was photographed.

Frank Snow overviewing the finds tray, Guard Excavation 2011

In 1991 Renfrew District Council funded the removal of a 60 centimetre deep layer of compacted mud and silt, from a 90 metre long section of the drain, clearing the drain to reveal its paved stone floor. The resulting enormous spoil heap was stored for future artefact investigation off-site at Strathclyde Sewerage Laigh Park works.

At the time numerous artefacts had been discovered among the silt, including an intact large pottery chamber pot, buckles, coins, a knife handle, a tuning peg, slate fragments and thousands of pottery sherds. During an examination of the artefacts Frank Snow noticed hand writing on a piece of slate. This led to an examination of all the slate fragments and one was found with the earliest example of polyphonic music ever recorded in Scotland.

An investigation of the drain by Guard was carried out in 1992 resulting in a report, Paisley Abbey Feasibility Study of Archaeological Potential (GUARD 39.5), detailing possible follow-up work, and in 1996 Gavin Walker & Associates carried out a structural survey, but these reports were not acted upon at the time.

(Further information on the above available in The Monastery and Abbey of Paisley, ed. John Maldon, published by Renfrewshire Local History Forum (2000) pp173-180)

Archaeological Investigations, 1999- 2010

Renfrewshire Local History Forum organised The Abbey and Drain Conference which was held in September 1999 in Paisley Town Hall. This excellent conference revitalised interest in the Abbey resulting in the publication of The Monastery and Abbey of Paisley in 2000. The book includes the lectures delivered at the conference with some additional papers, and remains the most recently published book giving a comprehensive account of Paisley Abbey. The conference and publication also revitalised an interest in the Abbey Drain.

However, things did not move forward until 2009 when Renfrewshire Council, with the support of Renfrewshire Local History Forum, organised a new Paisley Abbey Drain Excavation carried out by GUARD, under the project management of Bob Will. Forum members were active volunteers in this twelve day excavation which was a significant part of Renfrewshire’s Doors Open Day. Part of the exterior of the mediaeval drain was exposed and the presence of mediaeval deposits associated with the drain and the precinct were recovered. Walls of the nineteenth century tenements built over the site were also exposed. Being in the centre of Paisley, the dig aroused considerable interest among the general public.

In August 2009, volunteers from the Forum assisted at Glasgow University in washing and sorting the pottery recovered from the Drain. These pottery finds had been kept in storage for almost two decades until masters student, Sabina Gillman, adopted the topic for her thesis.

Historic Scotland’s scheduling team had visited many Renfrewshire sites from the prehistoric to the modern period, with a view to updating those which are formally ‘Scheduled’ as ‘Ancient Monuments’. Prior to the fieldwork two Forum members, Derek Alexander and Stuart Nisbet, presented to Historic Scotland in Edinburgh on the background to Renfrewshire’s archaeology and gave suggestions for additional sites, including Paisley Abbey Drain, to be considered for scheduling. Paisley Abbey Drain was scheduled in 2010.

In 2009 the Forum also sent a proposal to Time Team suggesting that they could do an investigation around Paisley Abbey. This proposal was unsuccessful, as was a subsequent proposal in 2010.

Following the successful 2009 investigations, a follow-up excavation was carried out by GUARD in 2010. This excavation was again timed to coincide with Doors Open Day in September, and engendered wide public interest.  The project was developed by Renfrewshire Council together with the Forum, and numerous of our members volunteered for the ten day excavation. The excavation took place on the line of the mediaeval 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 provide information regarding the construction of the drain and the mediaeval 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 exterior of the drain was uncovered and a trench 6m x 2m revealed masonry structures that might represent the feeder drain identified in a previous interior survey (1991). What appeared to be the top of a culvert was uncovered. However, as the excavation proceeded below the anticipated one metre depth, it became apparent that this latter structure may have been part of early building foundations and therefore could not be positively identified as part of the exterior construction of the drain. The remains of later tenement buildings were uncovered and finds including brick, pieces of roof slate, china, smoking pipes and pottery (some possibly as early as late mediaeval) were recovered.  A report on the excavation was issued by GUARD, in Nov. 2010. 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.

 Archaeological Investigations, 2011- 2016

In September of 2011 Forum volunteers assisted in a further excavation by GUARD Archaeology Ltd. Life was made easier for us that 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.

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

Trench 1: Mediaeval wall and cobbled paving

 The second trench revealed a circular feature 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 slate bread oven or kiln used by the monks.

Trench 2 circular feature

Trench 2: circular feature

Trench2 : detail of above

Additional images of this excavation can be viewed on the Website Gallery.

In 2012 a geophysical resistivity survey was undertaken by GUARD Archaeology Ltd. to investigate the possibility of other related archaeological features on the site.

Geophysical resistivity survey, 2012

A group  of Forum members visited GUARD Archaeology where Bob Will had on display a fascinating collection  of artefacts found in the Drain.

Inscribed slate

Mixed artefacts

On Doors Open Day, Saturday 8th September, 2012 the Forum hosted a stall in the main hall of Paisley Town Hall. An early draft version of the DVD, Down the Great Drain, was shown at the event.  The DVD was produced by University of West of Scotland and funded by Renfrewshire Local History Forum and the University. The Forum received the final version of the DVD in 2013.

A further Excavation by GUARD Archaeology Ltd. in 2015 was organised by Renfrewshire Council, with assistance and part funding by the Forum. From 31st August to 7th September, 2015, twenty members of the Forum acted as volunteers, assisting this fourth excavation led by Bob Will of GUARD on the grass area opposite Paisley Abbey. The excavation aimed to investigate the survival of other archaeological structures on the site.

Fortunately, the weather was fine. Our members were busy all week – digging, recording the remains of structures and washing finds – . and the excavation had an excellent response from an interested public. Visitors on the Saturday of Doors Open Day included more than two hundred children who visited the site with their parents.

Trench 2: volunteers at work

Trench 3: foundation walls of building in Abbey Close

Trench 1: recording and drawing

Forum members washing finds

Three trenches were dug on the site and we reached the foundation level of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings in Abbey Close. Unfortunately, time did not allow for further excavation. At the foundation level of the houses, pottery finds from the mediaeval period were found. These included (from left to right) glazed tiles, plain roof tiles, ridge tiles; a coin possibly dated from the sixteenth century and part of a handle from a Mediaeval pot. These finds confirmed that the Abbey Close houses had been built directly on top of the mediaeval abbey buildings.

Medieval pottery roof tiles

Mediaeval pot handle

The Wee Dig, 2017

A further investigative dig was held in September, 2017, as part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017. This was The Wee Dig, led by GUARD Archaeology Ltd., and funded by Renfrewshire Council. Again Forum volunteers assisted at the dig and pupils from local schools were actively involved in .Two trenches were dug.

Down the Abbey Drain, 2018

In 2018 Renfrewshire Council organised this event. Forty members of the public were chosen by ballot to view the interior of Paisley Abbey Drain. Five of our Renfrewshire Local History Forum members, who have been involved as volunteers in the numerous excavations of the Abbey Drain, were privileged to be included in this exciting experience.Each lucky participant was supplied with a hard hat and fitted with a safety harness before descending by a long ladder down into the drain.


Anne signing up to go down the Drain

Maimie, having safety harness fitted

Over a period two days. Bob Will of Guard Archaeology nine groups, including ours, on a tour of the Drain. For reasons of safety the number in each group was limited to five. This was an exciting experience for our group and for the balloted members of the public who were privileged take part.

After signing up and being fitted with helmet and harness; we carefully descended the long ladder down into the Drain. On entry to the drain we found it was dry and well lit. The interior was amazing – high enough to walk through, perfectly built stonework. Bob led us through the Drain tunnel, pointing out areas of interest  –   arches along the tunnel, masons’ marks, points where sub-drains entered the tunnel, and  more.

Images below show our group returning to the surface after this most exciting experience.






Good images of the interior of drain are available on the RCAHMS site at

The Abbey Drain  –   Sequence of Events

1990    The Drain re-discovered

1991    Artefact recovery and survey by RCAHMS

1992    GUARD Dig

1992    Paisley Abbey Feasibility Study of Archaeological Potential (GUARD 39.5), detailing    possible follow-up                      work

1996    Structural survey, by Gavin Walker & Associates

1999    Abbey and Drain Conference organised by Renfrewshire Local History Forum

2000    Publication of The Monastery and Abbey of Paisley edited by John Malden , by Renfrewshire Local History                  Forum

2009    GUARD Dig ,organised by Renfrewshire Council with support from RLHF (Paisley’s Mediaeval Past Project)

2009    Pottery Study, organised by Renfrewshire Council, with support from RLHF, discovering “Paisley’s Mediaeval               Past”

2010    Paisley Abbey & Place Building Survey by Simpson & Brown (Tom Addyman) for Paisley Abbey

2010    GUARD Archaeology Ltd. Dig, organised and funded by RLHF

2011    GUARD Archaeology Ltd. Dig

2012    GPR Survey, GUARD Archaeology Ltd., organised and funded by RLHF

2013    Production of DVD Down the Great Drain, by University of West of Scotland (Dr. Tony Grace)

2014    Artefact research by GUARD Archaeology Ltd. on behalf of Renfrewshire Council

2015    GUARD Archaeology Ltd Dig, organised by Renfrewshire Council with assistance and part funding by RLHF.

2015    Filming of inaccessible part of Drain by Renfrewshire Council

2017 The Wee Dig, GUARD Archaeology Ltd., funded by Renfrewshire Council

2018 DOWN THE DRAIN, Access to the Abbey Drain led by GUARD Archaeology, and organised and funded by Renfrewshire Council

2018 A second Forum Visit to GUARD Archaeology

2019 The Big Dig, funded by Renfrewshire Council (a report will be added in due course)

Good images of the drain are available on the RCAHMS site at: