Saturday, 14 March 2020

Coast to Coast. Glasgow to Johnstone

Glasgow to Johnstone

Over the space of several weekend runs, I have been trying to jog across Scotland, a proper cross-country run. Having now run from Glasgow, across to Falkirk, then into Fife at Kincardine, via Dunfermline and Glenrothes to St Andrews, it seemed only fair to turn my face the other way and head for the Ayrshire coast. Much of this has taken me through places that I have rarely spent much time, so it has given me a chance to find out more of the local history along the way.

On running through Fife I had come across the stories of women accused of witchcraft and executed in numerous towns and villages. Sadly these same stories were played out in Paisley also. On my way between Glasgow and Falkirk I saw the memorial to The Battle of Bonnymuir, where a band of working class radicals were captured, and later executed. In Paisley, Johnstone and Elderslie again I came across the Radicals' story. Where Dunfermline had the ruins of Dunfermline Abbey, Paisley Abbey dominates the centre of the town here.

Glasgow to Renfrew

As someone who has worked and lived around Glasgow and Renfrewshire over several decades I was on more familiar territory with the stretch between Glasgow and Paisley. Also when previously researching my family history I found many generations on both my mother and father's side that lived in this area over the past 400 years. I have ancestors who were fleshers (butchers) in Johnstone, farmers and hand loom weavers in Kilbarchan, muslin weavers, pub landlords and soldiers in Paisley.

Starting in Maryhill, where I headed off towards Kirkintilloch on a previous run, I ran the 13 miles to Johnstone on a slightly meandering route. To cross the River Clyde there are three choices. The nearest bridge to Paisley is the footbridge at the Glasgow Science Centre. A slightly shorter route can be taken by going under the Clyde through the pedestrian tunnel at Whiteinch, or the most scenic way is to go via the Yoker/Renfrew Ferry, which will cost you £1.90.

The cycle path and pedestrian tunnel runs underneath the carriageway of the road for the Clyde Tunnel. It used to have a reputation for being a bit dodgy, with urban myths about fishing line being tied across the tunnel to catch unsuspecting cyclists coming down the incline at speed. There are gates at either end of the tunnel and you have to buzz to be let in/out at either end, which is monitored on CCTV, so it's all very civilised nowadays.
Clyde tunnel, cyclepath and pedestrian walkway

 The Yoker/Renfrew Ferry
As a child I remember getting the ferry to Renfrew from time to time. My great-uncle Andy had worked in shipyards all his days and would tell us about the mechanics of the engine if he was taking us over. Before that my great-auntie Cathy had worked in the ticket booth on the Yoker side of the river. Only the foundations still survive of her booth, from the days before the Kingston Bridge, Erskine Bridge or Clyde Tunnel were built. The ferry was running back and forth 24 hours a day at that time. In those days it was f several car ferries that made the crossings "back and furrit", with a diesel engine that pulled it along the submerged chain. This old Renfrew Ferry is now moored underneath the Kingston Bridge as a venue, doing a busy trade in nights of tribute acts.

The ferry between Yoker and Renfrew has got smaller over the years, but still goes between the two points 7 days a week, carrying pedestrians and cyclists, and offering great views up the Clyde on a clear day. Plans have been approved to build a new road bridge here, ending the need for a ferry, but objections are ongoing whilst arguments about traffic congestion and whether this would be the final nail in the coffin for Clydebank Shopping Centre are sorted out. As some large ships still pass beyond this point on the river, the new bridge would need to open to allow river traffic to pass, in order to avoid a repeat of the 1996 incident when an oil rig being towed down the Clyde struck the underside of the Erskine Bridge.  

Renfrew town hall, at the end of High Street
Renfrew is a town close to Glasgow, but very much with its own history and identity. In the 12th century a castle here was home to the High Steward of Scotland, a hereditary title that eventually became the royal Stewart family. Convoluted royal shenanigans have led to the title of "Baron of Renfrew" being bestowed upon the heir to the British throne, at present Prince Charles. In 1315, Walter Stewart married Marjorie Bruce, daughter of King Robert the Bruce, and their son became the first Stewart monarch, Robert II, a line that continued to Mary Queen of Scots (who took the French Stuart spelling) and beyond.

Numerous industries have come and gone in this area. The India Tyres factory at Inchinnan is now closed, and the sign outside the former employees social club on High Street is a reminder of that. Glasgow's first commercial airport was at Renfrew, on a spot that now lies under a housing estate and the M8 motorway. Its distinctive concrete terminal building was a thing of beauty, but by 1966 the runway here was too short for the new jet engine powered planes. Simons and Lobnitz shipyard in Renfrew specialised in dredgers and barges, but closed in 1964, and from 1946 until 1982 Braehead Power Station stood on the banks of the Clyde near here. 

Although these industries have all gone several large employers still rely on workers from Renfrew. Glasgow Airport now lies just west of Renfrew and Braehead shopping centre sits on the former power station site. Other large employers near here include Vascutek, BAE Systems, Diageo distillers and the European headquarters of Doosan Babcock's engineering.

M8 motorway heading to Erskine

Renfrew to Paisley

As I jogged on through town, down Paisley Road, Paisley, the road crosses over the M8 motorway to mark the edge of Renfrew and after briefly coming though Gallowhill we approach Paisley. A cairn here marks the spot in Gallowhill where a heavily pregnant Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce was thrown off of her horse in 1316. She went into premature labour and delivered her son Robert before dying. After the death of Robert's childless uncle David II in 1371, Robert became the first Stewart king of Scotland. With a KFC and an Esso garage one way, a McDonald's in the other direction, and a council estate behind the cairn, I suspect that Marjorie may not recognise her old stomping ground if she were to return to this spot today. Other notable former Gallowhill residents include actor Gerard Butler, and former Partick Thistle player James Grady.

Cairn in Gallowhill marking the spot where Princess Marjorie fell to her death
Further along Renfrew Road sits the former administrative headquarters of Chivas Brothers, who produce one of the world's best selling whiskies, Chivas Regal . The company is now owned by French company Pernod Ricard, who are moving all their business from here to Dumbarton. Many whisky makers have had distilleries or bottling plants in the Paisley and Renfrew area, but global companies lack sentimentality and many changes have happened here in recent years.

Chivas headquarters
Chivas no more, despite the sign
Coming down Renfrew Road, Paisley, Scotland's largest town comes into view with the towers of Paisley Abbey, the town hall and Walneuk North Church visible in the photo below. The local football team take their name from St Mirin, the Irish monk who in the sixth century established a religious community that became Paisley Abbey. His statue stands outside St Mirin's Roman Catholic Cathedral in the town, waving on the Buddies.

Paisley skyline on approach from the Renfrew
Statue of Saint Mirren/ Saint Mirin in Paisley
In 1245 the priory at this site was raised to status of abbey, and with  the royal patronage of the local Stewarts, it grew in wealth and influence. It is believed that William Wallace was educated by the monks at Paisley Abbey and after Princess Marjory Bruce fell off her horse and died, she was buried in the abbey. As the mother of the first Stewart monarch, Queen Victoria provided an ornate cover for the tomb of her ancestor. 

In 1560 the monastery was disbanded with the Reformation, and much of it fell into ruin, a section being maintained as the local parish church. Extensive restoration over the past 150 years has returned it to some of its former glory. My favourite part of the restoration is among the gargoyles. As many had decayed away, in the 1990s stonemasons had to recreate them from scratch. They sneaked in a version of the xenomorph from the film Alien, who seems to fit in perfectly on a 12th century abbey.

Paisley Abbey
An Alien gargoyle in Paisley
With hand loom weavers from the early 1700s and then 100 years later with the start of shawl production in the town, Paisley has been synonymous with weaving, and with the distinctive teardrop of the Paisley pattern. The early shawl weavers were copying Kashmiri designs brought back from the British Empire. By 1850 there were 7000 weavers in Paisley, and the town became the biggest producer of these distinctive, expensive shawls. As fashions changed and cheaper versions became available from elsewhere, by 1870 shawl production fell away. 

The main output of the large mills in the town was cotton thread. First at the Clarks Mill founded in 1812, and then later Coats in 1826 (who took over the Clarks' works in 1896) they produced thread for clothing factories and domestic use all around the world. 

Former Coats Mill in Paisley, on the White Cart
Statue of the weaver poet Robert Tannahill
Two other things that Paisley is associated with are poets and radicals, and above is the statue of "Weaver Poet" Robert Tannahill (1774-1810) outside Paisley Abbey. 

Poetry and radical ideas come together in Radical Renfrew an anthology of poems collected by Tom Leonard. When working as a writer-in-residence at Paisley Library Tom gathered the works of over 60 poets from their archives to demonstrate that "anyone can use the public library to reclaim and reconstruct their own past". In the book he ties the local history to the poems, and gives fascinating brief biographies of the writers. There are concrete poems and political poems, laments and epitaphs, songs and rants. 

After the collapse of a weavers' strike in 1813, wages plummeted. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars destitution and poverty was widespread and some men returning from the war wanted to take up arms against the government. In England the military broke up a demonstration in 1819 calling for parliamentary reform, killing 11 people at Peterloo Fields near Manchester. A month before the 'Peterloo Massacre' 30,000 people had gathered at Meikleriggs outside Paisley. With Radicals organising across the country, Paisley was seen as a potential flashpoint. Curfews were imposed after rioting followed several meetings, and 1000 troops descended on the town to break it up. 

In 1820, again revolt was in the air, but despite a planned insurrection there was no mass rising across the country. When Baird and Hardie attempted to march on Falkirk, and James Wilson led the Strathven Radicals marching in the Cathkin Braes, they were quickly rounded up and the leaders later executed. In Woodside Cemetery in Paisley, lower down the hill from the monuments to members of the Coats family, a memorial was erected in 1867, to the memory of the executed radicals. The poem carved on the side of it reads 
Our heath-clad hills and lonely mountain caves
Are marked by battle-fields and martyrs' graves,

This stone records the last embattled stroke
Which Scotchmen struck at vile oppression's yoke.
At Bonnymuir, they trod their native heath,
And sought a warrior's or a martyr's death,
Sad choice! for their they found their enterprise
To claim or force Reform, by arm'd surprise,
Was circumvented and betrayed by spies,
And, thus ensnared in Treason's feudal laws,
Their personal honour in the people's cause
Compelled the fight which claims our pity and applause.
I don't copy that down here because of any great poetic quality, but because it illustrates how much this whole uprising, or insurrection, in Scotland in 1820 has so fallen from the public consciousness. Writing in 1969 in the foreword to a book on the subject, Hugh MacDiarmid complained that the people of Scotland knew nothing of the country's radical history, neither of John MacLean in the 20th century, nor of the radical uprising of 1820. He complained that " Scotland, where owing to the educational system scarcely anything of value in relation to our literature, history, national biography, or economic facts gets through the filter." In 1867 it merited a memorial, raised by ordinary people, but on the 200th anniversary barely a whisper. This is particularly surprising after the bloody events that followed the uprising, outside a prison in Greenock, when troops fired into an unarmed crowd, killing several people, but more on that as I head into Greenock on the next stage. 

Martyrs Memorial, to the Radicals executed after the 1820 uprising
There are numerous interesting memorials and sculptures in this Paisley cemetery, including to Covenanter martyrs, and to Belgian refugees who came to Paisley during World War 1. A particular favourite of mine is the one below with an organ carved atop, which I imagine being played on certain moonlit nights.

Memorial stone in Paisley cemetery

Paisley to Johnstone

On a day that had me sheltering from hailstones one minute, and shading my eyes from the sun the next, I got back on track with my route to Johnstone. I ran along the Sustrans "Lochs and Glens North" cycle path to Johnstone, and as this route uses A-roads to get to Largs beyond there, I plan to switch along to Route 75 which stays off road all the way to Greenock.

National cycle path number 7 near Paisley Canal train station
Cycle path from Paisley to Johnstone
One more quick detour took me off the cycle path to the busy junction between Maxwelltown Street at George Street. This inauspicious site marks a dark episode in Paisley's history. Like the women accused of witchcraft I came across on running through Fife, the west coast fell under the same madness. Peaking in the 17th century well over 3000 people, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft in Scotland, and many of them tortured and executed. In Paisley one famous trial resulted in seven people being found guilty of witchcraft, and executed. 

Paisley Witch Trial

In 1696, three years after the Salem witch trials in America, the eleven year old daughter of local landowner the Laird of Bargarren accused a servant of stealing a drink of milk. On being dismissed the servant cursed at the girl, Christian Shaw. A few days later she developed mysterious seizures and trances. When no medical explanation could be found and the child's behaviour persisted week after week the servant, Catherine Campbell, was accused of witchcraft. Shaw's accusations ballooned and eventually 35 people were accused. Of these seven were found guilty at trial and condemned to death. They were four women and three men, the youngest aged eleven and fourteen years old. One of them hanged himself in prison, the rest were publicly garroted at Gallow Green, their bodies burned and their ashes buried. Even after death they were defamed. To prevent post-mortem witchcraft they were buried at a crossroads, where sacrifices could appease the devil (Maxwelltown Cross at the bottom of Gallow Green) and a horseshoe laid to mark their grave, another lucky charm. 

After roadworks led to it being removed in the 1960s the horseshoe was relaid in 2008. A new memorial citing "Pain Inflicted, Suffering Endured, Injustice Done" marks the burial spot of the Paisley witches. I risked life and limb to have a quick look at it, the very brief green man at the traffic lights not designed for any lingering, but I can't help feel there may be a better way to commemorate this injustice.

The Paisley Witches Memorial, sits in the middle of a busy road junction
Horseshoe at the burial site of the Paisley "witches". Remembered with lucky charms


Leaving Paisley the cycle path ran briefly alongside a train line before skirting the north of Elderslie. Elderslie is known as the birthplace of William Wallace. Born around 1270 he went on to lead the Scottish forces in the Wars of Independence against England in the 13th century. After defeat in 1298 at the Battle of Falkirk he evaded capture for several years before being caught, and taken to London where he was tried for treason. After execution his head was placed on a pike at London Bridge. 

Cycle path to Elderslie
I did not know that there was a monument to Wallace in Elderslie so I veered off my path to follow the brown tourist signs that brought me to it. No tourist trail flags up the former site of the Stoddart's carpet factory, which was a later arrival to Elderslie than William Wallace. They produced the carpets for the Cunard liners built at John Brown's in Clydebank; The Queen Mary, The Queen Elizabeth and the QE2. My great uncle Andy worked on all three of them, and any suggestion that my granny's hall carpet came from this Elderslie factory is pure speculation.

Building remains at the site of William Wallace's birth
The memorial to William Wallace was erected in 1912, modeled like a Mercat Cross with panels at the base showing episodes in the life of Wallace. Archaeological investigations at this spot have shown evidence of an early castle being here, with ditches and suchlike uncovered. From the 15th century Wallace has been viewed as a national hero. The writing at that time by "Blind Harry" of The Wallace, a long poem extolling his virtues written 170 years after his death, has given us a romantic, idealised version of Wallace that lives on to this day in popular imagination, and in Hollywood depiction. An ancient oak at this spot is described in the poem as a place where Wallace hid from his enemies, and the oak was still standing in 1839 when it was depicted on an engraving. "The Wallace Yew" is the olde tree that still stands here, protected by a wee fence, although it is believed to be only about 300 years old. Unfortunately due to an arson attack in 1978 and subsequent storm damage and a fungal infection, it is slowly dying. The foundations beside the memorial are from a 17th century building, so about the same age as the yew.

Wallace Memorial, Elderslie
"The Wallace Yew"
The Wallace oak gets a mention in the history of the Radicals in this area. On 1st November 1819 the Radicals rallied in Johnstone against the government in London. Contemporary newspaper reports tell that they were led by bands, and carrying banners proclaiming "For a nation to be free, it is sufficient that it wills it", "Liberty the object, reason our guide" and "Against tyranny and oppression our lives we'll spend our rights to gain". William Wallace, thistles and Irish harps featured in banners and it is clear that many saw independence from England as the route to gain their rights.

The demonstration marched to Elderslie, where they halted beneath the "Wallace tree". The band played Scots Wha Hae and people fired pistols into the air and marched onwards to Paisley, probably along the cycle path as it avoids the busy A761. The authorities in Paisley were ready for them, with cavalry stationed on the High Street, sabres drawn. When news reached the Radical leaders of this, the crowd spread down the side streets of Paisley and dispersed.


Former art deco cinema in Johnstone
Johnstone was established as a planned town in 1782 by the Houston family, who owned the land here. Coal mining, and then cotton industries grow up in the town, with mills powered by the Black Cart Water which runs to the north of the town. One of the prominent companies was WM Paton Ltd, a shoelace and twine manufacturer. Paton's mill was possibly the first machine factory mill in the world, pre-dating the mills at New Lanark by four years. The factory stood until very recently, demolished to make way for a drive-through Starbucks. There is a wee local history museum which is proclaimed as the world's only history museum housed within a supermarket (Morrisons on Napier Street if you are interested).

At the end of my day's run I headed to the station to catch a train back to Glasgow, only to find we were having a train-replacement-bus day. The bus which just left the car park as I came into the station. Excellent. Hopefully the trains will be running when I return to continue onwards to Port Glasgow and Greenock. 

Johnstone "train" station
That'll be the train replacement bus heading off...
(The books referenced above are pictured below. The one on the Scottish Insurrection was first published in 1970, and little has been produced on the topic since. This year with it being the 200th anniversary of the 1820 uprising a couple of new books have emerged, although I haven't had the chance to read them yet. Kenny MacAskill has just produced a book called "Radical Scotland: Uncovering Scotland's Radical History", and Maggie Craig has "One Week In April: The Scottish Radical Rising of 1820" coming out in April 2020.
  • Radical Renfrew. Poetry from the French Revolution to the First Wold war. Edited by Tom Leonard
  • The Radical Rising. The Scottish Insurrection of 1820, by Peter Berresford, Ellias and Seumas Mac A'Ghobhain

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