Paisley is a large town on the southern fringe of the Greater Glasgow urban area. It lies on the White Cart Water, a tributary of the River Clyde, and is the largest settlement in Renfrewshire. Paisley’s best-known landmark is the impressive abbey which developed from a priory founded in the 12th century by Walter FitzAlan, High Steward of Scotland and forefather of the Stewart dynasty. The abbey has connections with the Stewarts and Bruces, and with the great Scottish hero William Wallace. Among its treasures is a sculptured tomb said to be that of Princess Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce of Bannockburn fame. Marjorie married into the House of the Stewards in 1314 and was the mother of Robert II, the first Stewart king. A more recent addition to the abbey’s monuments is the Barochan Cross, carved c.900, a fine example of sculpture from the old kingdom of Strathclyde. It formerly stood in an exposed position at Barochan five miles to the northwest before being brought to Paisley Abbey for protection.
The abbey reputedly stands on the site of a church founded by Saint Mirin in c.600. Mirin, also known as Mirren or Murrin, was an Irish monk who came to Scotland as a missionary. Little is known about him but he presumably preached among the Britons of Renfrewshire. Today he is commemorated in Paisley by a modern statue and the name of the local football team ‘St Mirren’. Inside the abbey his carved image can be seen in wood and stone.
Older forms of the place name Paisley include Passaleth (1157), Paisleth (1158), Passelet (1163) and Passelek (1296). Although the suffix –ley is reminiscent of Old English leah, ‘a clearing’, the medieval forms belong to a period when Celtic languages were spoken in the area. The dominant speech around c.1100 was Gaelic but its arrival in this part of Scotland was fairly recent at that time and most people in Renfrewshire had previously spoken Cumbric, the language of the North Britons. The shift from Cumbric to Gaelic began in the second half of the 11th century after the Scottish king Mael Coluim III conquered Strathclyde and deposed its native rulers. Mael Coluim and his fellow-Scots spoke Gaelic but the place name Paisley did not originate in their language. Its early recorded forms show it to have been formed in Brittonic, the language group to which Cumbric belonged.
The consensus of opinion sees Paisley deriving ultimately from Greek basilikos, ‘royal’, a word borrowed into Latin as basilica which in Christian times came to mean ‘church’. From Latin the term basilica passed into the Brittonic languages where it evolved into forms such as Old Welsh bassalec. The latter is still preserved in Wales as the village-name Bassaleg, written as Basselek in medieval documents. Paisley, too, is generally assumed to mean ‘basilica’. The change from initial B to P may have been due to local dialect and is not unknown in Celtic borrowings from Latin, e.g. Irish peist, ‘monster’, from Latin bestia. In Paisley’s case, the 12th-century forms Passaleth and Passelet probably arose from mistranscription of -ec by medieval Scottish scribes, perhaps under the influence of Irish baslec which also meant ‘basilica’. Passelek, recorded in the 13th century, might be a fairly close rendering of how the original Cumbric name was pronounced.
Basilica is actually very rare in place names in the British Isles. It occurs in Ireland only twice, at Baslick in County Roscommon and Baslickane in County Kerry. The former was originally Gaelic Baisleac-mor, ‘Great Basilica’; the latter derives from Baisleacan, ‘Little Basilica’. In Britain the only examples are the Welsh village Bassaleg and, if we accept the conventional view, Paisley itself. In places where Brittonic speech survived until quite late (i.e. to the 11th century) we might expect native ‘church’ names to contain eccles (from Latin ecclesia) or the prefix llan-, ‘enclosure’ (i.e. ‘monastic enclosure’) rather than basilica. The latter’s rarity in place names is consistent with its specialised use in Continental Europe where it denoted an important relic-church containing the bones of a major saint. Did the original church at Paisley hold the remains of such a person? By this definition the tomb or shrine was unlikely to commemorate a local or regional saint such as Mirin but one of international renown like a famous martyr or even an Apostle. It may seem surprising, then, to find no folklore at Paisley comparable to the elaborate foundation-legends of St Andrews which claim that the eponymous Apostle’s bones were brought from Constantinople to Fife. If Paisley did indeed have an early basilica, and if the latter term is usually associated with an important saint, why is there no local tradition of major relics being enshrined? The absence of such lore may seem, at first glance, to cast doubt on the usual derivation of the place name.
Or maybe the term basilica was not used so narrowly in the British Isles? Perhaps the Britons and their Irish neighbours associated it with any category of saint, even a minor local one? When we look at Baslick in Ireland, for instance, we find stories about St Sacell, an obscure disciple of Patrick and hardly a figure of international importance. At Bassaleg in Wales we find a similar picture: tales of a local saint (the female hermit Gwladys) but nothing about anyone of major significance. To me, this raises the possibility that the Irish and Britons regarded basilica as simply another word for ‘church’. Its occurrence (or survival) in only a handful of place names suggests that it was well down the list of preferred terms, perhaps being seen as exotic and pretentious. If Baslick and Bassaleg are the relic-churches of Sacell and Gwladys respectively, then maybe Paisley is in fact St Mirin’s basilica and the place where his bones were venerated.
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* Alternative Brittonic origins for Paisley from Welsh pasgell llethr, ‘pasture slope’ or pas lle, ‘exit place’ have been suggested (by James Johnston and William Oxenham respectively).
* Although basilica is usually associated with churches of the highest status in Western Christendom this appears not to be the case in Eastern Orthodox areas.
* William Oxenham makes the following interesting observation on Paisley: ‘Kuno Meyer the originator of the suggestion that the name is a corruption of Latin Basilica later withdrew it as being based on unsatisfactory evidence.’ (Oxenham 2005, 210) Having not yet tracked down Meyer’s text I’m not sure what reason he gave for withdrawing the basilica idea.
Stephen T. Driscoll, Oliver O’Grady and Katherine Forsyth, ‘The Govan School revisited: searching for meaning in the early medieval sculpture of Strathclyde’, pp.135-58 in S.M. Foster & M. Cross (eds) Able Minds and Practised Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century (Leeds, 2005) [see p.151 on Paisley as an early relic-church]
James B. Johnston, Place-Names of Scotland. 3rd edition (London, 1934)
William Oxenham, Welsh Origins of Scottish Place-Names (Llanrwst, 2005), pp.210-11
William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926), p.194
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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: