Paisley’s key role in the history of Scottish trade unionism is the background to a new play by stand-up comedian and actor Bruce Morton.
Silver Threads, which opens on 3 July at the Paisley Arts Centre, tells of the struggle between the town’s weavers – who made the famous Paisley pattern (inset) shawls – and their employers.
The play tells the story of a Paisley couple whose relationship is tested when the man joins the “sma’ shot” weavers’ strike of 1856.
Sma’ Shot Day, which commemorates the weavers’ ultimate victory, is one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world. It has been held in Paisley on the first Saturday in July ever since 1856, with a parade led by a drummer with a Charleston drum of the kind used to summon the striking weavers.
Said Morton: “There is a lot of information in the play about what life was like for people in the textiles industry in Paisley around 1850.
“My play features an appearance by Frederick Douglass, the emancipated American slave turned author and orator, who spoke at meetings across the UK in the middle of the 19th century and visited and spoke to the weavers in Paisley.”
The play, produced by Glasgow-based arts production company FairPley, centres on a couple of weavers as they are pushed to the brink by long hours and poor pay to start demanding compensation. Paisley-born Morton uses comedy dialogue to tell their story as the weavers struggle for better conditions despite intimidation and bribes from their boss.
Silver Threads charts their battle to win recompense for having to buy the “sma’ shot”– a small piece of cotton thread that held the shawls together. Because this wasn’t visible on the finished product, the employers insisted that the weavers should pay for it themselves. .
Renfrewshire Council leader Mark Macmillan said: “Paisley has strong links with radicalism – having been a hotbed of early trade unionism.” It was, he added, the epicentre of the so-called ‘Radical war’ of 1820, an insurrection that led to the trial of 88 men for treason.
“Paisley is proud of its weaving history and heritage and the Sma’ Shot story had a significant impact on the town.” he said.
“This new comedy is a great way to showcase Paisley’s cultural offering and a huge boost as momentum builds on our bid for UK City of Culture 2021.”
Another new play to open next month in the town is From the Calton to Catalonia which tells the story of a family’s sacrifice, loss and idealism in Scotland’s part in the Spanish civil war.
Around a third of all British volunteers who went to fight Franco’s rule came from Glasgow.