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Chapter I: The Scotch Monasteries

I doe love these auncyent Abbayes.
We never tread within them but we set.
Our foote upon some reverend historie.

IN the heart of the busy town of Paisley stands the Abbey, its venerable appearance contrasting most strangely with its surroundings. Many chimneys—so many that it seems impossible to count them—pour forth their smoke on every side of it; crowds of operatives jostle past it; heavily-laden carts cause its old walls to tremble; the whirr of machinery and the whistle of the railway engine break in upon its repose; while within a stone's throw of it flows the River Cart, the manifold defilements of which have passed into a proverb. But it is not difficult, even without being imaginative, to see how beautiful for situation was once the spot where the Abbey rose in all its unimpaired and stately grace. It stood on a fertile and perfectly level piece of ground, close by the Cart, then a pure mountain stream, which, after falling over some bold and picturesque rocks in the middle of its channel, moved quietly by the Abbey walls on its course to the Clyde. Divided from the Abbey by this stream, rose wooded slopes, undulating like waves of the sea till they reached the lofty ridge called the Braes of Gleniffer, from the summit of which the lay brother, as he herded his cattle or swine, could get views of the Argyleshire hills, the sharp peaks of Arran, and the huge form of Ben Lomond. To the north, on the other side of the Clyde, were the fertile glades of Kilpatrick, and, beyond, the Campsie range. Gardens and deer park girdled the Abbey round; few houses were near except the little village of dependants on the other side of the stream; and no sound beyond the precincts broke the solitude, save the wind as it roared through the beech forest, the bell of a distant chapel, or, on a calm evening, the chimes of the Cathedral of Saint Mungo, seven miles away. It was a well-chosen spot, answering in every way the requirements of the Benedictines, who, we are told, “preferred to build in an open position at the back of a wooded chain of hills.” [1]

The Abbey of Paisley is one of those fragments of monastic architecture which are scattered throughout Scotland, and which, even in their most ruined state, are sufficient to carry the mind back to the splendours of an earlier day. The hand of time has been more gently laid on Paisley than on most of its sister abbeys,—but even the most ruined of these is full of suggestions of former grandeur, and within none of them can we “tread,”—so associated have they been with the public life of Scotland—

“but we set
Our foote upon some reverend historie.”

None of them can, for extent and magnificence, compare with Fountains, or Glastonbury, or Saint Albans; but yet the line of Border Abbeys—Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh, and Kelso, Arbroath—rearing its gaunt walls on the wild headland overlooking the German Ocean,—Lindores, on the lowlying shores of the Forth,—or the last founded of them all, lovely Sweetheart, embosomed in its wooded glen by the Solway, are certainly not without an interest and romance of their own, and for so poor a country as Scotland was in the olden time, were wonderfully great and powerful.

[1] Ecclesiastical Art in Germany during the Middle Ages, by W. Lubke.