Big Dig Final Report

General view of the Big Dig
Some of the volunteers digging the Big Dig

The Big Dig relied on volunteers to carry out the excavation of both trenches and without their hard work and dedication, the Big Dig would not have been the success that it was, or have been able to achieve the results that it did. 59 volunteers took part in the Big Dig (amounting to 414 working days). 33 of the volunteers were from Paisley, nine came from Glasgow and several others were from the central belt and Ayrshire.

Many of the volunteers were from the Renfrewshire Local History Forum (who gained 18 new members over the course of the project) or the Inchinnan Local History Group. Volunteer numbers were constant throughout the excavation (averaging about 10 a day) with many splitting their time over the course of the excavation. On the last day a large number came along to complete the backfilling and lay the turf, which was greatly appreciated!

The report for the Big Dig is now available to download. The main discovery of the Big Dig was the archway that forms the exit of the Abbey Drain towards the river, along with part of the precinct wall that once surrounded the grounds of the Abbey. The Big Dig has shown that medieval deposits and structures survive along with post-medieval to modern deposits. These features all add to the history of Paisley Abbey and the town of Paisley itself.

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Doors Open Day

Last weekend (7 & 8 September 2019) was Doors Open Day in Paisley which included Paisley Abbey and the Drain. For the second year running Renfrewshire Council opened the Drain for guided tours for 50 lucky people who had entered the Council’s on-line ballot (over 850 people entered the ballot this year). We were very busy on both days as a number of ‘new’ buildings in Paisley were open on Saturday and the Abbey was open on Sunday afternoon (usually it is only open for Services on a Sunday).

Preparations started on Friday as the site had to be fenced off, the Drain checked to ensure that it was safe to enter, water pumped out and temporary lighting installed. When this was completed there was a test tour of the drain with Council members as ‘guinea pigs’ which went very well. Then during a press call in the afternoon we had a surprise visit when local singer song-writer Michael Cassidy went down the Drain with his guitar and sang three or four songs including one he had written inspired by medieval musical notation and poetry that was discovered in the Drain during investigations in 1990. This was filmed by the University of the West of Scotland as part of the Big Dig project and by Paisley FM.

On Saturday and Sunday the fencing round the Drain access point was decorated with murals created by local community groups based on elements found in the Drain, the history of Paisley Abbey and the Town. We also had some of the artefacts recovered from the Big Dig excavation from the summer on display and a sand pit where kids could try their hand at being archaeologists. The Council also provide tablets with an app that shows the architectural detail of the Drain for those not able to access the Drain. GUARD Archaeologists and members of Renfrewshire Local History Forum were also on hand to answer questions and provide information on the Big Dig, the Abbey and other interesting archaeology and history of Paisley and the surrounding area.

In addition, in the Abbey DVDs and podcasts made by students and staff at the University of West of Scotland’s School of Media and Culture were shown in the afternoon including a new DVD of the Big Dig.

On Saturday visitors also got the chance to see how medieval people lived and worked as a re-enactment group demonstrated spinning, weaving stone carving and leatherwork and other crafts in tents next to the Drain.

On both days five tours of five people each were escorted into the Drain through a manhole with appropriate safety equipment. Each group was then able to spend 20-25 minutes in the Drain in the first section with the pointed gothic arch and there were lots of questions and discussion about the architecture, use of the Drain, monasteries and the mason’s marks visible within the Drain.

Overall the weekend was very successful with a steady stream of interested visitors on both days. Very big thank you to Renfrewshire Council, Renfrewshire Local History Forum and WI & A Gilberts for their help and support.

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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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