On Saturday and for the second weekend running we found ourselves exploring an urban landscape. Thankfully the Wee White Dug our trusty travel buddy was back in tow, as was The Teen who’d decided to delight us with her presence.
The New Lanark World Heritage Site, one of Scotland’s 6 World Heritage sites was our destination.
Planned and founded by David Dale in 1785-86 the cotton mill and village of New Lanark sit nestled in a lush green gorge on the banks of the River Clyde in Lanarkshire. Visiting is like stepping back in time to a bygone era.
It seems we’d picked the perfect time of year to visit too as the contrast of the industrial mill buildings sitting clustered amongst towering autumnal trees was stunning.
On this mild autumn morning it was difficult to imagine that this sleepy little village would once have been a thronging and noisy hive of activity and hard toil.
We learned from Annie that she had lived and worked in the village during the first quarter of the 19th century when the famous Welsh Philanthropist and social Pioneer Robert Owen managed the mill. Owen was the son-in-law of the mill’s founder David Dale.
Annie told us that back in 1820 when she was just ten-years-old she worked in the mill for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.
She spoke of industrial accidents and sometimes worse. It was a life of back-breaking labour for one so young but she also reminisced fondly about the free education she had received at the village school founded by Owen. She spoke of playing games with her friends, singing, dancing and close family ties.
Annie undoubted lived in an era when life was hard and leisure time scarce but you came away thinking that in New Lanark at least living and working during the Industrial Revolution wasn’t all bad.
After we said goodbye to Annie we got to see a real working cotton loom in action – it was fascinating. The hustle, bustle and noise it made really brought to life what it must have been like back in the hey day of the mill when the looms would have been working at full capacity from morning till night.
On the roof of the mill building we found a lovely rooftop garden. It was a pretty and peaceful oasis which gave a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the village below.
I also spotted a nice gift shop selling items made from New Lanark wool. I dropped some heavy Christmas present hints to Mr G. I’m really looking forward to Santa bringing me some cosy winter socks and a nice new hat – hint, hint!
The aroma wafting from the Mill Café smelt gorgeous and I felt my stomach rumble but we’d not long eaten breakfast and it was far too early for lunch so we’ll have to wait until our next visit to sample the food there.
Knowing that the wee dug is a big feardy when it comes to ghosts you’re likely wondering how he coped with meeting Annie?! Well, I should probably mention at this stage that while the village is dog friendly, only assistance dogs can enter the visitor centre buildings, so as Mr G and I enjoyed our ghostly encounter he went for a wander round the village with his big sis.
Next we took it in turns to visit the Mill Worker’s House. Inside we saw what would have been typical living conditions for mill workers in the 1820s and 1930s.
In the 1820s it wasn’t unusual to have 10 or more family members all living and sleeping under one roof in a sparsely furnished room. Imagine 10 people, who only bathed once a week living in a single room!
Although living conditions were basic, villagers were encouraged to keep their houses clean and tidy. Houses were regularly inspected by village committee members who residents called The Bug Hunters.
By the 1930s there was a vast improvement in mill worker living conditions.
Shared stairwell toilets had been installed and houses had electricity, running water and much more in the way of furnishings and ornamental trinkets.
I can still remember when I was a toddler in the early 1970s visiting my auntie and uncle who lived in a top floor tenement flat on St Mary’s Street in Edinburgh. They shared a communal stairwell toilet with neighbours as their flat didn’t have a bathroom. It’s hard to believe that even in my own lifetime some people in Edinburgh still lived in houses without a bathroom.
During his time as Mill manager Robert Owen founded a village store where villagers could buy quality goods locally at a fair price.
Today you’ll find a quaint little shop selling gifts and retro sweeties from jars as well as New Lanark Ice Cream.
There’s also a recreation of the early store showing the various items villagers could buy ranging from meats, vegetables, bread, cheese and even whisky.
Worried about overloading Mr G and The Teen on social history I suggested we broke up our visit and took the wee dug for a walk along the river to the nearby Falls of Clyde.
The river which was once used to make steam to power the mill now makes for a really nice riverside and woodland walk.
The boy was in his element and rooted around in the foliage, sniffing out each fallen leaf and new scent. He even seemed to consider a dook in the water at one point but apparently thought better of it.
The falls are a dramatic sight, even when they’re little more than a trickle like they were during our visit. Fringing one side of a deep, bowl like gorge they tumble down into a black pool of water. In full spate the power of the water and roar of the falls must be immense.
Inaccessible, but close to the viewing platform for the falls lies a cave where it’s rumoured William Wallace hid after slaughtering the English Governor of nearby Lanark Castle.
After a good walk we headed back towards the village to visit the school founded by Robert Owen in 1816. Owen introduced free education for boys and girls up to the age of 12. Uniforms were provided and freshly laundered 3 times a week.
The school also housed a nursery to care for the infant children of mill workers.
Owen’s belief that lessons should be fun and colourful to make them interesting and engaging was a concept ahead of its time. When you think of education in the 1820s colourful classrooms, singing, dancing and music rarely spring to mind. The school at New Lanark was the World’s first infant school – It’s amazing to think that a tiny little village in Scotland could hold such an accolade.
Sadly some families couldn’t afford the luxury of keeping children in school until they were 12 years-old as they were often needed to work in the mill to contribute towards the upkeep of their large families.
Fittingly we ended our visit at ‘The Big Hoose’ – this is where Robert Owen lived with his family during his time in the village.
It was unheard of for mill owners to live amongst their workers at that time but Owen was different and for a period of time under his management the New Lanark Village and Mill was a socialist utopia famous the World over for its pioneering new ways.
Workers here had access to free medical care and education. They attended dances and concerts in the village and could shop for quality produce on their own doorstep and while life would have by no means been a bed of roses they’d certainly have been envied by many other mill workers Worldwide.
The looms at New Lanark fell silent in 1968 and finally after a period of decline the village was saved and restored. Today with conservation status it’s now a desirable place to live and a popular visitor attraction.
We all thoroughly enjoyed our visit and will definitely return – hopefully for a longer visit to stay at the New Lanark Mill Hotel which is housed in one of the beautifully restored old mill buildings.
For those on a tighter budget there’s the Wee Row Hostel which has fully self catering kitchen facilities.
New Lanark isn’t as well known as Scottish favourites like Skye or Glencoe yet it sits in an area of great natural beauty. It’s steeped in history and is hugely atmospheric. It’s also very, very unique. For me it’s a stunning, not to be missed destination and a new-found favourite. If you ever do get a chance to visit, don’t miss it.
While we were very kindly given a free family pass to visit the New Lanark World Heritage Site all musings, opinions and reflections in this post are accurate and entirely my own.
Until next time …………