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Issue 82 - Pioneers of the Modern Age

Scotland Magazine Issue 82
August 2015


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Pioneers of the Modern Age

Rosemary Gallagher investigates the appeal of New Lanark

There aren’t many one-stop destinations where visitors can stroll through a World Heritage Site onto a wildlife reserve past badgers and otters, see traditional textile machinery in action, enjoy a lunch of local produce, spend the night in the hotel with a relaxing spa. And, if that’s not enough, the romantics out there can even get married.

Some may have already guessed the Scottish location being described – New Lanark on the Falls of Clyde, one of only five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. Now one of Scotland’s most unusual tourist attractions, New Lanark has been wooing people for centuries. In 1812, poet William Wordsworth immortalised Corra Linn, the largest of its waterfalls, in verse, and it has been painted by numerous artists, including the renowned JMW Turner.

New Lanark has a rich and unique past and was a social enterprise long before they became business buzzwords. It was founded by David Dale and Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the water-powered spinning frame, in 1785. But it was the work done by Robert Owen, who married David Dale’s daughter and bought over the mill in 1800, that earned New Lanark its place in the history books and draws visitors from across the globe today.

Owen was an enlightened philanthropist who saw the value in caring for the welfare of his workers and educating them through his ‘Great Experiment’. Good homes were built to create a village and New Lanark became a ‘centre of social, moral, educational and workplace reform’.

While visitors to New Lanark can see what Owen created and soak up its history, it is much more than a museum. Jane Masters, heritage manager at New Lanark Trust, which runs the site, sums it up perfectly. “New Lanark is a living and working village not just a museum dedicated to the past,” she explains.

While New Lanark has been developed into an enticing tourist attraction, it stays true to its roots. “Our ethos is to keep running New Lanark in the same way as it was run by Robert Owen as a social enterprise. He was ahead of his time, for example with his education programme. We offer new opportunities for employment and skills development, including the ongoing recruitment of a number of volunteers.”

Today, more than 100 people live in New Lanark in the same properties as mill workers would have stayed all those years ago, and a lot of residents are still employed in the village. With around 150 people working across the site, it is also one of the biggest employers in the area.

By now the reasons why New Lanark attracts so many visitors – more than 350,000 last year – should be clear to anyone with an interest in heritage and social history.

And with Robert Owen having many descendants in North America a lot of visitors to the site travel across the ocean to trace their roots. A relatively recently developed archive is now open to anyone wanting to delve into the origins of New Lanark. Masters says, “There’s a huge mixture of items in the archive, including thousands of historic pictures of the people and the village, artefacts such as machine parts and cotton samples, architectural drawings, tenants’ rent books and even the Deed of Fue signed by David Dale.”

But an interest in the past is not a pre-requisite for taking a trip to the village in the heart of Lanarkshire. As Jane Masters says, “New Lanark is a unique historic site which offers a spectacular setting, fascinating history, accommodation, activities and events for diverse audiences.”

A good starting point for people of all ages wanting the story of New Lanark brought to life is to pop into the award-winning visitor centre and try the Annie McLeod Experience Dark. Annie, a former mill worker, magically appears to travel back in time to describe the amazing story of New Lanark in 1820. A must-see is the working textile machinery and from there visitors can go to the Historic Classroom, Village Store, take in Robert Owen’s house and reach the heights of the Roof Garden, the largest of its kind in Scotland to enjoy a spectacular bird's-eye view of the surrounding natural scenery.

Before venturing any further, those with a penchant for retail therapy shouldn’t miss the recently-refurbished New Lanark Mill Shop. As well as stocking New Lanark wool and textiles in an array of colours and designs, the shop offers a superb range of clothes, contemporary gifts, books and Scottish produce.

“You can see our wool being spun on the historic machinery which clearly illustrates the textile origins of the site and then buy some in the shop. The shop is in line with our ethos in supporting local producers who supply quality goods,” says Masters.

A well-earned rest is surely now deserved and the family-friendly Mill Cafe offers a delicious selection of lunches, home baking and, of course, New Lanark ice cream, a recent addition to the Trust’s portfolio of on-site businesses, which is made locally.

Children will love the recently opened Clearburn Play and Picnic Area, featuring a giant willow storytelling dome and a secret hideaway tree house, largely developed by pupils from nearby schools and volunteers. It received a High Commendation Award at the Scottish Civic Trust’s My Place 2015 Awards.

As well as the wide range of permanent attractions, New Lanark now hosts a number of visiting exhibitions, family events, concerts and outdoor plays. Literary lovers should ensure they get themselves to New Lanark in early October for the inaugural book festival – a nod to Robert Owen’s prolific writing and reading. Such was his love of the written word that he established a village Reading Room some 200 years ago.

All the experiences offered by New Lanark deserve to be sampled in more than a day, so book into the Mill Hotel and Waterhouses or the Wee Row Hostel. Anyone with an interest in the environment will be pleased to know that the hotel and the rest of the site is powered by hydro electricity generated by the Falls of Clyde. Masters says, “It’s historically appropriate that hydroelectricity still runs the site.”

After a peaceful night’s sleep and a hearty Scottish breakfast, take a walk along the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s reserve on the Falls of Clyde before you leave, to enjoy the same spectacular view as Turner and Wordsworth many years ago

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