For years now, any sci-fi film buffs who have visited Paisley Abbey in Scotland may have been startled by an unnervingly familiar sight. You see, one of the decorative carvings on the centuries-old building’s exterior bears a striking resemblance to an all-too-recognizable movie monster. Now, however, the mystery of how the gargoyle came to be looks to have been resolved once and for all.
Paisley, in the Scottish county of Renfrewshire, is situated seven miles away from Glasgow. But while it has a population of more than 77,000 citizens, it’s still officially classed as a town. Even so, that did not stop the locals from organizing a campaign for Paisley to win the U.K. City of Culture title for 2021. And while ultimately unsuccessful, the bid did reflect the regeneration that the area is currently undergoing.
Regardless of what happens in the future, though, Paisley looms large in the history of Scotland. During the Industrial Revolution, for instance, the town became a hotbed for weaving – and it was the birthplace of the famed Paisley pattern design. Sadly, however, by the close of the 20th century, every single one of its mills had shuttered. Meanwhile, further back in time, in the 12th century, the town was also a significant religious center – thanks to the construction of Paisley Abbey, which still stands proudly today.
The first Christian use of the site was actually as far back as the 7th century, mind you. Yes, the Irish missionary Saint Mirin apparently established a community there. A chapel within Paisley Abbey is also dedicated to the saint, and the town’s soccer club is named in his honor, too. The abbey eventually became a prominent pilgrimage spot, though, following the building of a shrine to Saint Mirin sometime after his death. Then in 1163 a group of monks arrived and built a priory under a charter issued by the nobleman Walter fitz Alan, the first High Steward of Scotland. The current holder of that title is, incidentally, Charles, Prince of Wales.
In 1245 the priory then rose in prominence to become an abbey; 62 years later, however, the invading King Edward I of England ordered that the structure be burned down. Nevertheless, by the end of the 14th century, Paisley Abbey had been reconstructed – although not well enough: some 200 years later, the central tower of the abbey collapsed, destroying several parts of the building.
For centuries, then, much of Paisley Abbey lay in ruins. However, restoration work eventually began on the tower, transepts and choir in the late 19th century. This has proved to be a continual process, too, with the latest round of refurbishments having started in 2002. And aside from physical changes to the structure down the centuries, the abbey has also been witness to significant history.
For example, William Wallace, the Scottish hero portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film Braveheart, is believed to have been educated in the abbey in the 13th century. Noblewoman Marjorie Bruce, meanwhile, is said to have given birth by cesarean section to the Scots King Robert II there in 1316. Unfortunately for her, though, this was centuries before anesthetics were used in surgery. And Bruce is now buried at the abbey along with Robert II’s wife. Yet while plenty is known about Paisley Abbey’s history, one mystery has eluded people for quite some time now – a mystery concerning that strange yet familiar stone gargoyle.
It was as late as 2013, though, that a photograph of the out-of-place detail on the 600-year-old structure became hugely popular on social media. But there was good reason for its worldwide renown. Indeed, as many internet users instantly picked up on, the gargoyle in the photo bears an uncanny resemblance to a very famous movie monster. And yet despite the abbey having been built centuries ago, this particular vile filmic nemesis only dates back to 1979.
Yes, sci-fi horror movie fans recognized the sculpture straight away. Why? Because the carving is a dead ringer for the Xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s Alien. Since the terrifying creature first stalked the starship Nostromo in the late ’70s, the film has, of course, birthed sequels, prequels, video games, comic books and tons of merchandise.
In spite of a mixed critical reception upon release, the original Alien starring Sigourney Weaver became a commercial smash, and it is now thought of as one of the greatest movies ever made. For example, the American Film Institute ranked it seventh on a 2008 list of the best sci-fi movies ever. And in 2002 the Library of Congress picked the film out for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry.
Not discounting such accolades, it is, though, the hideous black Xenomorph that’s undoubtedly among the movie’s most iconic elements – despite it only being glimpsed fleetingly in the dark shadows of the Nostromo’s interior. The creation of Swiss painter H.R. Giger, the creature had an impact on audiences and insiders alike, winning the movie’s special effects team an Academy Award. But how did its likeness end up on the side of an abbey constructed some six centuries ago?
Well, as it turns out, there may be a simple explanation for the mysterious monster work after all. At least, that’s according to the story given by Reverend Alan Birss, minister of Paisley Abbey. In an article on the BBC News website in August 2013, Birss explained all about the abbey’s gargoyles. Apparently, in spite of their highly decorative qualities, gargoyles on a building once served a very practical purpose. Specifically, they functioned as run-offs for rainwater from a structure’s roof in the days before gutters and drainage pipes became commonplace.
Now as well as being renowned for a great many other things, Scotland is famous for its rainy weather. And over the centuries, these frequent downpours had eroded most of Paisley Abbey’s gargoyles – until, in Birss’ words, they “had crumbled and were in a very bad state.” So, in 1991, as part of the building’s ongoing refurbishment, 12 of the original gargoyles were removed. Then, on cue, a stonemason was commissioned to replace them with a dozen brand-new grotesque statues.
Subsequently, it emerged that this craftsman may have had a sense of humor. After all, who else would be responsible for the incongruous statue’s stark resemblance to Giger’s Xenomorph? Reverend Birss certainly thought as much, telling the BBC, “I think it was a stonemason having a bit of fun.”
“Perhaps the film was fairly new when they were carving this, and if he was thinking of an alien, perhaps the alien from the film was his idea of an alien,” Birss continued. However, seemingly for fear of provoking the Xenomorph’s copyright holder, the reverend was also quick to claim that the design was still original. Birss said, “I’m sure [the stonemason] wasn’t deliberately copying the alien in the film. It was just a concept of an alien.”
In fact, though, 2013 was not the first time that someone had recognized the gargoyle’s familiar features. Indeed, Birss told the BBC that he had conducted a sweep of the internet and found that an abbey visitor had posted about the resemblance way back in 1997. Yet those were the relatively early days of the world wide web, and not as many people would have been able to access this information back then. As the minister said, “It obviously did not pick up and take off then like it has now.”
Meanwhile, Matthew McIntosh, the church officer at Paisley Abbey, also spoke to BBC News. He said, “It is a beautiful building. Paisley gets a bad press, but the abbey is the jewel in the crown. People will be surprised and delighted by everything they see outside and inside.”
Indeed, Paisley Abbey still attracts many worshippers and other visitors today. The holy building has regular services most weekdays and weekends and even hosts the occasional concert. These musical offerings include guitar recitals and choral events. And, of course, the abbey is also used as a venue for christenings, weddings and funerals.
In early 2018, though, the world’s attention was once again drawn to the Alien gargoyle, this time by way of the Paisley 2021 Facebook profile. This community page was set up as part of the Renfrewshire town’s bid for the U.K. City of Culture 2021 title, and it featured the unique stonework in a promotional post. Sadly, Paisley lost out on that accolade to the city of Coventry in England; however, said English city cannot boast of an abbey with an extraterrestrial on board.
So, the sight of a Xenomorph protruding from the exterior of a historic and holy building might well once have come as a shock. But it transpires that there could well be a reasonable explanation behind its peculiar presence on Paisley Abbey after all. And it appears that a stonemason with a unique sense of mischief may have put the Scottish town on the map for fans of Alien everywhere.