The Big Dig completed

The excavation was finished on Friday 19 July when the trenches were backfilled, the turf re-laid and the fencing with information banners taken down.  A small machine and dumper were used for the backfilling rather than shovels and wheel barrows which made a huge difference The excavation has been a great success and the results have been better than expected.

Trench 1 showing the stones of the arched roof of the drain

Trench 1 was located in the middle section of the medieval drain at a point where the medieval pointed arch of the drain meets a late nineteenth century concrete repair.  Here we investigated through a modern century tarmac surface which covered eighteenth and nineteenth century deposits that contained several large fragment of glass wine bottles including one with the stamp of the Earls of Dundonald, who owned the land around the Abbey at this time.

Below this were several garden type occupation layers that contained a number of artefacts including clay tobacco pipes with a distinctive late seventeenth century shape and style. As we got deeper, we had to step the trench sides for safety reasons which also meant extending the trench to enable us to have a good working sized trench as we got deeper. The structural stones that formed the arch of the drain were uncovered along with the slab or concrete that marked the start of the repaired section. Surprisingly it appears that the stones forming the roof were only one course thick and quite crudely shaped unlike the fine stonework visible on the inside of the drain. It may be that some of the structural stones were removed to make space to get in and pour the concrete.

Trench 2 showing end of the drain with the facing stones of the wall

Trench 2, was an extension to an evaluation trench that was excavated in 2009 to investigate the point where the medieval drain joins the River Cart. Here we had to partly remove the backfilled material filling the original 2009 trench but as we got through that and extended the trench outwards we were able to reveal the remains of the Medieval Drain.

The end of the drain from the inside

We uncovered the end of the drain which comprised a pointed arch with the facing stones of the exterior wall which continued on both sides of the drain. Exposing the  stones that form the face of the wall was exciting as it shows that this section of the wall was built to be visible and may have formed the precinct or boundary wall of the monastery. The interior of the drain was not investigated but several large blocks of masonry including architectural stones were revealed in the upper fill. These stones may have come from buildings that were built over the drain or the immediate vicinity.

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The Big Dig continues

Since we started a couple of weeks ago, many familiar faces as well as new local volunteers and students have joined the dig. Two trenches have been opened up. It has been a bit of a slog and the weather has not been kind but we are now beginning to see the results of their hard work.

Trench 1 is located in the middle section of the medieval drain at a point where the medieval pointed arch of the drain meets a late nineteenth century concrete repair. There are newspaper stories from  the nineteenth century that describe part of the drain collapsing and we want to see what the impact of this collapse and repair has had on the drain and any adjacent medieval buildings and later private buildings. Now that the initial recent landscaping and demolition material has been removed evidence for nineteenth century buildings are beginning to appear.

Trench 2 is an extension to an evaluation trench that was excavated in 2009 to investigate the point where the medieval drain joins the River Cart. We know from inside the drain that the drain has been blocked just beyond the modern access manhole. So far, we have been removing some of the backfill material from 2009 and are  defining the edges of the old trench and extending towards the river. We are now at the point where we can start the new dig into the area beyond the blocking.

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Paisley Abbey Big Dig Launch

The Paisley Abbey Big Dig was launched last week.

Press Launch of Paisley Abbey Big Dig

Council leader Iain Nicolson who joined the team at the start of the dig said, ‘Paisley has such a rich history and heritage, full of stories and mysteries, and the tale of the Abbey Drain has really captured the attention of the public. This is a project that’s of both local and national significance. It has really struck a chord with people who live here who have a genuine interest in Renfrewshire’s social and economic history and will provide us with information on a complex underground system which was operating hundreds of years ago. This could be the first step towards opening up the Drain as a permanent visitor attraction in the future – which would fit perfectly with the ongoing work to use Paisley’s unique heritage to make it one of Scotland’s key destinations for visitors and events.’

Bob Will from GUARD Archaeology, who has led several previous excavations at Paisley Abbey added ‘This is such an exciting project for us and for the community, and we’re pleased to be progressing with the next stage. Most of the work on the drain so far has been carried out from the inside and has told us a lot about the drain itself. What’s going on underneath the surface can also tell us about what once stood on the site, so by excavating the drain, we can find out about the drainage system which served what would have once been a bustling community. We’re looking forward to continuing the excavations and to finding out what else the Abbey Drain can tell us about life in Paisley hundreds of years ago.’

Paisley Abbey

The Big Dig also includes an extensive programme of activity to involve the local community. Students at the University of the West of Scotland will create a series of short films and a documentary on the drain, and there will also be school visits, volunteering opportunities, and free talks and workshops for the public.

Members of the public will not have access to the drain during the Big Dig – but there will be a chance for residents and visitors to go inside it, as in previous years, during the Doors Open Days weekend on 7 and 8 September.

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Unearthing the secrets of Paisley Landmark

Paisley Abbey Great Drain

The biggest-ever exploration of one of Renfrewshire’s most mysterious historical features is now underway and hopes to unveil some centuries-old secrets of Paisley Abbey’s Great Drain – a complex underground structure which links the town’s 850-year-old Abbey to the River Cart.

The 100m long underground passageway, thought to be more than 700 years old, was unearthed in the 19th century and rediscovered in the 1990s.

The Big Dig hopes to uncover more about the passageway – which, it is believed, sits underneath what used to be a monastery – and to reveal more about life in Paisley hundreds of years ago.

Initial excavations of the site unearthed the earliest polyphonic musical notation and the largest collection of medieval pottery ever found in Scotland – and it is hoped that this two-month long project will uncover many more secrets.

The dig is managed by Renfrewshire Council, run by GUARD Archaeology with help from Renfrewshire Local History Forum volunteers, and supported by funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic Environment Scotland. 

To keep an eye on Big Dig progress, visit

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