The organ of Paisley Abbey dates from 1872 when the famous French builder, Aristide Cavaillé -Coll, designed a two-manual and pedal instrument in the nave, the only habitable part of the Abbey at the time.
The Grande Orgue was complete with 16ft and 8ft reeds and a III-V rank mixture. The enclosed Récit was typical of French instruments of the time, with a preponderance of 8ft tone 9including reeds) and with no diapason chorus.
In 1902, when the crossing of the Abbey was restored, the instrument was moved and placed against the new eastern wall where it stood on a platform until the restoration of the choir in 1928. At this time the instrument was greatly enlarged to fill the greater volume of space and the work was undertaken by the British firm of Hill, Norman and Beard. All of the Cavaillé -Coll pipework was incorporated, although some of its tonal identity was altered.This instrument had four manuals with Great, Swell, enclosed Choir and Solo. There were 66 stops including some extensions on the Pedal organ and the action was tubular-pneumatic. Added trombas and heavy-pressure reeds thickened the texture despite the narrow-scale mutations of the Choir organ.
Part of the case designed by Sit Robert Lorimer was incorporated when the instrument was totally rebuilt in 1968. The work, under the supervision of the great British organ architect, Ralph Downes, was entrusted to J. W. Walker of Ruislip. The manual departments were rearranged behind the choir case (Swell over Positive, over Great) and the fourth manual controlled the 16ft-based Bombarde division speaking through the arch into the south transept. To assist further with the tonal egress into the Abbey, acoustic reflectors were put behind the Bombarde, Great and Positive soundboards. The reeds regained their original French quality on light wind pressure, whilst the flue-work, voiced on the open-foot principle, had more of a Dutch flavour.
In 2009, the instrument was completely restored by Harrison & Harrison with the winding completely re-modelled. A Bombarde 32ft was added to the Pedal department, where one of two 8ft trumpets was transformed into a 4ft Clarion. Tremulants were also added to the Great and Pedal divisions.
The instrument today is regarded as one of the country’s finest and is capable of reproducing the music of all periods of composition. The unique French reeds radiate brilliance, while the foundation stops blend with characteristic warmth. These French characteristics, particularly those of Cavaillé –Coll, are explored on the CD ‘Grand Chœur’, in a widely-based programme from French composers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.