Nicola Meighan: Paisley Abbey is brimming with music history… even underground

Thursday 12th May, 2022

In the first of her series of fantastic blogs for Paisley.is, Nicola Meighan takes a look at the music history and heritage of the iconic Paisley Abbey.

In 2019, Paisley musician Michael Cassidy’s career went down the drain. Ordinarily, such a statement – and direction – would be a cause for concern, but in Cassidy’s case, he was celebrating a rich tradition of underground and enduring sounds that have shaken up the town’s identity and culture for centuries – from archaic subterranean tunes to folk rebellions, punk uprisings, and pop surprises.

An acclaimed singer-songwriter, whose star is soundly on the rise, Cassidy was involved in a project to breathe new life into one of Paisley’s most fascinating landmarks. It involved the town’s striking 12th Century Abbey, a subsequently-built medieval drain, and an archaeological dig that uncovered its ancient treasures.

Singer Michael Cassidy performs in Paisley Abbey Drain

The underground passageway held myriad hidden secrets, including a slate inscribed with a love poem – which is fitting for such a lyrical town – and another etched with a fragment of music, dated to the mid-15th Century.

A piece of carved slate recovered during the excavations in the Abbey drain

It’s considered to be the oldest surviving example of polyphonic music in Scotland, and hundreds of years later, in 2019, Michael Cassidy was tasked with reinterpreting the fragment, which inspired a new song, ‘Colour the Darkness’. He was quoted at the time as saying that the lyrics reflected on the mystery of the drain, how it had gone unnoticed for years in the darkness, and that finding out more about what’s underground has added colour to our knowledge of Paisley.

Cassidy connects his home town’s historic legacy with its industrious and innovative spirit. He received the inaugural Gerry Rafferty Prize for songwriting in 2012, and his father, John, was a founder member of Paisley ‘70s trad-folk trailblazers the Tannahill Weavers. They named themselves in tribute to the town’s original 18th Century weaver poet, Robert Tannahill, whose statue stands proud outside Paisley Town Hall.

He also carries this heritage forward, and in addition to the Paisley drain project, Michael Cassidy has worked with local communities and young songwriters, using the town’s fertile past as a jumping-off point for new voices and songs.

The Abbey, too, rings out with new and original music in the 21st Century. Alongside a programme of classical and choral events, it’s been the backdrop (and centrepiece) for incredible performances from artists like Paolo Nutini, Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, Idlewild, Roddy Hart, Del Amitri’s Justin Currie and King Creosote, often joining forces with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as part of the Spree festival.

Paolo Nutini concert at Paisley Abbey

It’s become a landmark venue on the Scottish music map, alongside Paisley’s nearby Town Hall, which hosted three years of the Scottish Album of the Year Award, and the new incarnation of the Bungalow Bar, a few streets away, which offers upcoming talent a stage, and local music fans a world of world of adventure that can be traced back in time – through pop, punk, folk and poetry, to a hidden drain, to Paisley Abbey, to its space, and light, and dark, and voices: to the sound of the past, the future, the underground.

Nicola Meighan is a music and arts journalist and broadcaster (The Herald, STV, BBC Scotland). She presents the Afternoon Show on BBC Radio Scotland, every Friday, 2-4pm. 

A nod to our past / we built things to last…

Michael Cassidy
Song - Colour the Darkness

More great blogs from Nicola

Find out more about Paisley Abbey and the town's rich music history