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Issue 22 - New life for Lanark

Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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New life for Lanark

New Lanark is now a tourist attraction and recognised internationally. But that wasn't always the case. Hannah Adcock reports

New Lanark is one of Scotland’s most impressive success stories.

Just over 30 years ago this historic village was on the brink of ruin, with the scrap metal merchants poised to move in.

Today, the village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which welcomes more than 400,000 visitors every year and employs around 200 staff.

Scotland now has four UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Edinburgh Old and New Town. So what makes Scotland’s most recent addition to the list so special?

Founded in 1785 as a cotton manufacturing plant, New Lanark rose to fame as a model community under social reformer Robert Owen. The community, located in a beautiful wooded gorge just south of Lanark, was the test case for a number of social and educational reforms pioneered by Owen.

Children under 10 were sent to school rather than to work in the mills and New Lanark claims the first infant school in the world.

However, the cotton mills finally closed in 1968 causing a crisis of confidence in the village – and the survival of all that fine Scottish history looked as though it might well disappear under the weight of economic upheaval.

But the New Lanark Conservation Trust came to the rescue, formed in 1974 and directed by Jim Arnold. The Trust has since made astonishing progress in carefully restoring New Lanark to give visitors an idea of what the community would have been like for cotton workers and their families.

New Lanark also thrives as a living community, with a population of around 200.

And if loyalty and commitment to the village is a feature of Trust members, it is more than matched by the staff – many of whom have been on board for years or have family links with the village. Marjorie Romer, guide and famed fudge maker, has worked at New Lanark for more than two decades whilst guide Karen Craig traces her New Lanark roots back for centuries. Her great grandmother was scalped by mill machinery and miraculously recovered.

It is refreshing to arrive at a place where staff stay on board for years, are genuinely committed to the community and multi-task as guides, fudge makers, shop assistants and walking history books.

If your sort of place is one that feels part museum, part modern entertainment, humming with helpful staff in a woodland setting, then New Lanark is for you.

“The exhibitions are designed to appeal to a wide range of visitors of many different ages and backgrounds,” says Lorna Davidson, deputy director of New Lanark Conservation Trust.

”In each area, we have considered how best to tell that part of the story, and we have used a variety of interpretive techniques. In some areas we have adopted a ‘low-tech’ approach, which we feel is appropriate to the theme. In other areas we have used audio-visual technology to provide an imaginative and engaging experience.” A reasonably priced passport ticket gives access to all indoor activities, including the futuristic ‘Millenium Experience’, a two seater pod whisks you into the dark for a visual introduction to both the future – the year 2200 to be exact – and the past.

Information is bite-sized and aimed at the younger generation, but the holograms should interest all age groups.

New Lanark’s more traditional offerings include two restored 1820s and 1930s millworkers’ houses.

Although the 1820s house is primitive to modern eyes, it is much cleaner than was usual for the time.

Owen favoured cleanliness – not for any relation to godliness because he distrusted religion – but for the sake of health. He employed ‘bug hunters’ to enter workers’ homes, with their permission, and reward clean homes with plants from his wife’s greenhouse. With foliage rather than threats of any kind, he kept his village clean.

Two restored shops complement the workers’ houses. I particularly enjoyed the 1930s village store, complete with ‘soor plooms’, the sweet of choice of that popular Scotsman, ‘Oor Wullie’.

The 1820s village store, although lacking confectionary, is now regarded as one of the seeds of the co-operative movement.

The most attractive building in New Lanark, recently developed, is the school or ‘Institute for the Formation of Character’ as it was known in Owen’s day. Despite the Big Brother style name, the Institute was the centre for progressive education, music and social gatherings. Don’t miss the huge light-filled classroom, complete with human-size globe.

For a breath of fresh air head out of the village to the spectacular Falls of Clyde: a 20 minute walk brought us to the majestic Corra Linn waterfall, the most impressive of the three falls lying on the Clyde walk-way – and watch out for the wildlife too. The Scottish Wildlife trust has a visitor centre in the village and keeps an eye on over 100 species of birds.

Ahuge café in mill three serves good, basic food, including sandwiches, soup and cakes. For something more substantial try The New Lanark Mill Hotel. The 38-bedroom hotel, which opened in 1998, welcomes conferences and individual guests. Although the hotel still feels new and rooms are fine rather than brilliant, the restaurant taps into the (admittedly quite recent) tradition of fine Scottish cuisine.

Quality Scottish produce, often locally sourced, is presented with flair and confidence. The citrus scented roasted Shetland Isles salmon, ordered by my companion, was perfectly cooked and pleasingly complemented by the creamy barley and mushroom risotto and clean gazpacho sauce.

Although bursting by the time we got to dessert we ordered anyway, such was the temptation on offer. My crannachan ice-cream was deliciously rich and creamy, cupped inside the golden crispness of a brandy snap. We finished off with coffee, before heading back to the waiting lights of Scotland’s capital.

But if you would like a change from old favourites, why not head to the quiet wooded gorge that is now officially recognised as Scotland’s latest place of “exceptional universal value”?

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