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The Paisley Shawl and the People who made it
Chapter VII - Influence of the Town and Surroundings


PAISLEY was not a large town, nor a rich town, nor a town of noisy traffic and movement. There were few of those temptations to vice and dissipation, that are presented in all large cities. The terrible squalor and wickedness, which, alas, seem to follow everywhere the steps of wealth, and hang like a retribution upon it, were little observable in Paisley. Neither would one meet with the allurements, the flaunting vice, and the coarse manners of a seaport town. Paisley streets were quiet and uninviting. The population was employed indoors. But if the town had few temptations, the neighbourhood had many attractions. All around, Nature presented herself in some of her loveliest forms. There were the Gleniffer Braes, the Birks 0' Stanley Shaw, the Bonnie Woods of Craigielea, with their dark waving plantings, their flowery leas, their milk-white thorns, and whinny knowes.

In a few minutes' walk, the weaver could be beyond the sound of the shuttle and the voice of man, and in presence of all the attractions of the country. No wonder, then, that these sweet influences awoke the poetical feeling, and that Paisley produced a long roll of minor poets, who

"Sang amid the shuttles' din,
The music of the woods."

So much was this the case, that it was a common saying at that time, that in Paisley every third man you met was a poet. We may at least say that the poetic instinct was widely spread in the town. It is noticeable about all these Paisley poets, that they avoid dealing with the sterner passions, or of depicting tragic scenes. The sublime they never attempt, nor the heroic. There is nothing of Byron or of Milton about them. Their models are to be found in Allan Ramsay's "Gentle Shepherd," or in some of the sweeter lyrics of Burns. They excel in painting natural scenes and quiet domestic life and love. There can be no doubt that the influence of Burns was very great upon the weavers at this period. The freshness and vigour of his poems, the wit and humour, and the delightful descriptions of nature, made them very attractive. The weavers also were better able than some of us now are, to understand the language used by Burns, much of which has since fallen out of use.

Robert Tannahill was the most celebrated of those weaver poets. His writings, although lacking the fire and force of Burns, are models of purity and sweetness, and his songs, many of which were set to music by his friend, R. A. Smith, who was precentor of the Abbey Church at that time, have long been much admired. Many of the weavers were good musicians, and glee and quartette parties were numerous, and their long winter evenings were often enlivened with agreeable melody. Others of them took to the cultivation of natural science. They were great in collections of birds' eggs, and they were bird fanciers to a man. Canaries, larks, and mavises, were in every house, or their cages were hung near the looms, to enliven the weavers at their work. Alexander Wilson, the ornithologist, was a product of this taste.

Botany was also a favourite study, and many of the weavers attained considerable proficiency in this science. Floriculture was successfully followed in their little gardens. The Paisley Florist Society has existed since 1782. Entomology was another of their studies, and not a few of the collections in natural science which enrich our local museum, are the results of the labours of those early Paisley weavers. Fishing was also one of their recreations, and the practice of the "gentle art," accorded well with their love of poetry and of nature. Many were the happy days they spent where-

"'Neath the brae the burnie jouks."

They were provident too, these thrifty men. The Old Weavers' Society was incorporated in 1702, and is one of the oldest benefit societies in the country.

It is to be noted specially, that the tastes of the weavers were generally for recreations of a quiet and meditative nature. Perhaps the sedentary character of their occupation indisposed them for violent exercises. Certain it is, that although there was a racecourse in Paisley, and a set of Silver Bells given as a prize by the Corporation since 1620, the weavers were not at all "horsey." They might go with the crowd, mostly composed of Glasgow visitors, to the Saint James' Day Races, but no one ever heard of a weaver ruining himself on the turf. Horse racing and betting were somewhat out of their line. You might more readily find them taking a stroll round the racecourse grounds, or wandering in the Moss woods, than greatly interested as -to who should win the Silver Bells.

They enjoyed a game at bowls on some of the numerous Paisley greens, or on the one at the Renfrew Ferry, and it was a group of these quiet men, wandering down by the banks of the Cart to the "Water Neb," who founded the famous "Potato and Herring Incorporation," the annual festival of which at Renfrew, instituted in 1798, is still celebrated on the Wednesday nearest the September full moon, so that the diners might safely see their way home to Paisley.

The only sport of an active character to which the weavers were addicted, was the national game of curling. When the frost was keen, and likely to hold, then would the shuttle be thrown down, and not a web finished in Paisley for weeks. Then would the "roaring game" be in full swing, and "soop it up, soop it up," be heard from morn to eve, on the glittering lochs and ponds. Then would the "beef and greens," be reeking rarely on the groaning table of many a cosy "houff" to be followed by song and chatter over the tumblers of steaming toddy. Then would the "cork" forget his dignity for a time, and the minister, the weaver, the laird, and the bailie, be bosom friends—as long as the frost lasted.

Plate 9 - Reversible Shawl

These were the days when men were happily ignorant of railways and telegraphs. They were content to take time to live, and were perhaps better able to learn the noble lesson of human brotherhood.

Many of the weavers' wives were not behind their husbands in intelligence. They were more noted, however, for sound practical sense and good household management. None of them ever aspired to be poets or politicians, and women's suffrage was unheard of then. They seem to have thought that one genius in a family was enough. If John was to busy himself with the affairs of the nation, Jeanie must attend to the affairs of the house, and many a family was brought up in comfort, mainly by the thrift and capacity of the mother. The younger women found ample employment in winding the yarn, in fringing and hemming the shawls, in preparing the details of the harness, and in tambouring.


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