The Paisley Townscape Heritage Conservation Area Scheme 2 (Paisley TH.CARS2) is a £4.5M regeneration programme led by Renfrewshire Council, with match funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) and Historic Environment Scotland (HES). Running since 2016, and due to conclude in 2023, the focus for investment is Paisley’s Town Centre Conservation Area, with the west end of the High Street, New Street and the area around Shuttle Street having particular priority. Paisley TH.CARS2 follows on from a previous regeneration project – Paisley THI/CARS – which focused investment around Causeyside Street.

As with Paisley THI/CARS, the majority of Paisley TH.CARS2 funding has been committed to capital works: repairing historic buildings; reinstating historic shopfronts; and upgrading the public realm. However, following the successes of Paisley THI/CARS, Paisley TH.CARS2 has also delivered an extensive programme of community engagement activities under the banner ‘The Making of Paisley’ comprising 42 projects, involving over 2,500 participants through more than 640 workshops, resulting in over 100 events which have reached audiences estimated at more than 40,000. Thematically, activities have explored the town’s textiles and architectural heritage through three programming strands: ‘Fabrication’; ‘Built Fabric’; and ‘Social Fabric’. And, with a specific emphasis on learning through making, the aim has been to actively engage young people and harder to reach groups.

The programme of engagement activities was originally developed through a consultation process, involving over 50 organisations and stakeholders, which took place between May 2015 and March 2016. This consultation had three primary aims: to identify, and get to know, potential delivery partners locally; to develop project ideas with those organisations which would explore Paisley’s heritage, including the town’s “untold stories”; and to design projects to fit with the plans and ambitions of those partner organisations. This desire to work collaboratively – to help build capacity of local organisations, encourage individual participation, support heritage learning, and showcase the town’s heritage assets – took place in the context of Renfrewshire Council’s long-term strategy of cultural regeneration, and, more specifically, the 2021 City of Culture bid, and the plans being developed for Paisley Museum Reimagined.

Sma Shot Weavers in Residence

During the delivery phase, collaboration with local organisations, especially third sector organisations, has enabled projects to engage effectively with our target audiences. The entire programme has benefited from the knowledge and expertise shared by organisations such as: Create Paisley; Disability Resource Centre; Mary Russell School; Tannahill Centre; Sma’ Shot Cottages; Paisley Thread Mill Museum; RAMH; and ReMode. The strategy has been to support and augment the offer made to clients by existing organisations and networks. Furthermore, the programme has sought to bring communities together to celebrate the town’s heritage by scheduling activities which encourage people to come into the town centre. This has included sharing project outcomes publicly as part of Paisley’s annual Events programme – working with partners to create content for Sma’ Shot Day, Doors Open Day and Renfrewshire Mental Health Arts Festival, as well as The Spree.

To find the best fit with partners, projects have typically followed a residency model, whereby an expert has been hosted by a local organisation, over a period of time, to undertake research with participants into a particular heritage topic. Following a series of workshops, the outcomes of their research would typically be shared publicly. An important aspect of finding the right fit has been to include project partners in the procurement process by which experts are appointed to deliver projects.

The residency model has allowed the programme to meet its funding outcomes with a level of flexibility and resolved one of the main challenges of NLHF’s (now superseded) Townscape Heritage Fund: how to continue to be responsive. To secure funding in 2016, there was a requirement to describe in great detail what engagement activities would be delivered. This presents an increasing issue as the programme progresses if what was agreed in 2015 is unable to respond to the changing context. The residency model has enabled themes to remain fixed, keeping the agreed heritage learning at the heart of projects, while allowing the process (and to some extent the media) through which these topics have been explored, to remain open to interpretation by the appointed experts, and reactive to participants’ needs. Typically, a level of flexibility has also been maintained around how outcomes have been shared. This has enabled partners and participants to discuss and agree with their resident expert on the best format for doing this. Over the course of the programme, many different types of experts have been attached to local organisations, for example, model makers, historians, printers, weavers, and architects. In total, over 140 sole traders and organisations (many of them Renfrewshire-based) have facilitated delivery of projects, and the Paisley TH.CARS2 team has worked in partnership with over 100 organisations from Renfrewshire and beyond.

Queen Victoria, Dunn Square

Heritage and skills learning has been central to the engagement programme, with data demonstrating a 65% rise in awareness of Paisley’s heritage locally between 2018 and 2020. To facilitate heritage learning, an important aspect of the programme has been the organic connections which have come about with education institutions and wider research networks; University of West of Scotland, Glasgow School of Art, University of Glasgow, and West College Scotland have all been crucial collaborators, whose input has greatly enhanced projects. Academics and independent researchers have met with groups, delivered lectures and workshops, presented papers at public conferences and seminars, contributed to films, and led tours – generously sharing their knowledge.

Prior to the pandemic, some of the most affirmative feedback from participants came from our hands-on, traditional textiles projects, with many people reporting positive impacts on their mental health and sense of wellbeing. Such was the level of feedback, we scheduled a public seminar as part of 2019’s Renfrewshire Mental Health Arts Festival to explore the subject in more detail, with presentations from Prof Jacqueline Atkinson, Dr Alison Mayne and Dr Anna Fisk.

The start of the pandemic happened to coincide with a change in emphasis of the engagement programme from textiles themed projects to those focused on architecture and traditional building skills. For a programme designed to bring people together, this presented a clear challenge; though it did offer an opportunity to reconfigure some of the final projects, which wouldn’t otherwise have been an option. Some of the hands-on activities, especially those involving young people, struggled to adapt to online delivery. This was even more of a challenge where the young people had not previously met the project facilitators in-person. Projects involving adults tended to adapt better, particularly as people, out of necessity, acquired more digital skills.

At the start of 2020, theatre makers Civil Disobedience had been appointed to deliver one of Paisley TH.CARS2’s biggest community engagement projects, ‘Paisley Radicals’. This involved a partnership with the council’s Events team, students from UWS, a group of adults from STAR Project, and was supported by detailed research which had previously been undertaken by Paisley & District U3A, as well as the 1820 Society. Choosing to adapt, rather than delay, what had originally been conceived as a site-specific performance exploring Paisley’s role in the Scottish Insurrection of 1820, required a complete pivot. While Civil Disobedience appreciated the opportunity to keep the project going, they had to quickly devise new ways of collaborating online – which in practice proved particularly effective with STAR Project. In addition, they had to familiarise themselves with a new medium, as the final output was delivered as a dramatized multimedia tour, available for free, through the GuidiGo walking app. The final project met its targets in terms of heritage learning, directly engaging with far more participants than originally envisaged. Whether the tour can reach as large an audience as the live performance would have remains to be seen, but, in challenging circumstances, Civil Disobedience were able to create a high-quality, professionally produced digital resource which honoured the contributions of their collaborators, and which the public and schools will be able to access as an immersive experience for years to come.

Since the end of August 2021, most projects have been delivered in a hybrid way involving some face-to-face delivery. At the start of the first lockdown, two projects with Pachedu were about to begin: ‘Paisley Pattern’, a practical textiles project for young people comparing theories about the origins of the Paisley Pattern with the history of West African Ankara prints; and ‘Paisley Pioneers’ a film project exploring historical and contemporary stories of migration to and from Paisley and Renfrewshire. These were paused while Pachedu adjusted to online engagement, a process which ultimately expanded their reach and membership. While the return of face-to-face activities has allowed deeper personal connections to be made over the course of both Pachedu projects, retaining the option of remote collaboration has brought a flexibility to, for example, the scheduling of projects to better fit with participants’ availability.

Held Fast Exhibition Opening

In terms of building cultural capacity, developing audiences, adding value, making valuable connections for the future, and sharing opportunities and knowledge, Paisley TH.CARS2’s community engagement programme demonstrates the benefits of collaboration and partnership working. Some of the most interesting collaborations have been with third sector organisations who work in a holistic way. There’s an intersection between their approach, the methods many academics use in their research, and the way in which a lot of artists approach their practice, which fits well with the open process a residency model can offer. It’s partly about having a flexible attitude around the way topics are explored, but also an openness to finding the best fit within the given parameters of a situation; to question assumptions at the outset, and to enable everyone involved to find their place. And while the Paisley TH.CARS2 community engagement programme is definitely focused on heritage, it demonstrates the effectiveness of the arts as a vehicle for heritage learning. Artists with a community engaged practice – with a knowledge of how to connect on a personal level – are particularly effective at helping project participants express their ideas, and at finding strategies for making, at times obscure, historical material accessible to broader audiences.

Colin Begg is currently the Heritage Activity Officer with Renfrewshire Council and also works as a freelance artist, writer and producer.