New Lanark: Falling for Scotland’s Model Mill Town

Guest Post by Colin McAlpin

In the eternal search for self improvement, COLIN McALPIN travels to a unique Scottish World Heritage Site.

LOOKING ACROSS TO NEW LANARK WORLD HERITAGE SITE, SOUTH LANARKSHIRE © VisitScotland

Looking across to New Lanark UNESCO World Heritage Site, South Lanarkshire
© VisitScotland

You know you have arrived at somewhere very special when you are immediately confronted by a sign proclaiming The Institute for the Formation of Character. Is someone trying to tell me something?

Such is my introduction to the hidden Scottish gem that is New Lanark, one of the country’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites. New Lanark is actually a beautifully preserved small town that nestles in a valley through which flows the River Clyde, a mere quarter-mile from Lanark and 40 miles from Glasgow.

The rows of imposing gray stone buildings, once the mills and workers’ houses of a thriving cotton industry, are on the banks of the Clyde’s only waterfalls, surrounded by the valley’s tree-covered slopes.

Waterfall at the Falls of Clyde. VisitScotland / Kenny Lam, all rights reserved.

Waterfall at the Falls of Clyde. VisitScotland / Kenny Lam, all rights reserved.

But the story of New Lanark is a remarkable one of 18th and 19th century enlightenment and social justice of which the Scots can be proud.

In 1786, David Dale and several business associates set up a cotton spinning mill on the site. In the early 1800s, they sold it to a partnership, one of whom was Dale’s son-in-law, a Welsh philanthropist by the name of Robert Owen, who became the mill manager.

New Lanark Visitor Centre. VisitScotland / Kenny Lam, all rights reserved.

New Lanark Visitor Centre. VisitScotland / Kenny Lam, all rights reserved.

Owen was a uniquely enlightened man, for he did not believe in exploiting his workers. He even set up the mill’s own store when he discovered local traders were over-charging his people. Nor did he, as was the general rule, exploit the workers’ children. Rather, he set up The Institute in 1816 as New Lanark’s social centre where the children were educated in spacious, well-equipped classrooms.

The Village Store at New Lanark Visitor Centre. VisitScotland / Kenny Lam, all rights reserved.

The Village Store at New Lanark Visitor Centre. VisitScotland / Kenny Lam, all rights reserved.

At its height, New Lanark employed 2,500 adults and had 500 children. So advanced was the venture that crowned heads came to see for themselves, and even the Tsar of Russia wanted Owen to come to Moscow to set up a similar Institute.

Owen had, sadly, to battle other mill owners – even some of his New Lanark associates – who did not approve of his Utopian ideals. Eventually, discouraged, he left to attempt to establish a community in Indiana in 1825, called New Harmony.

The mill operated until 1968 and slowly headed towards dereliction until the New Lanark Conservation Trust set about its mammoth rescue act in l974. By 2006, the restored site was off and running, including Owen’s home (which he is said to haunt).

Inside Robert Owen's house at New Lanark Visitor Centre. VisitScotland / Kenny Lam, all rights reserved.

Inside Robert Owen’s house at New Lanark Visitor Centre. VisitScotland / Kenny Lam, all rights reserved.

Today, it is a hands-on site of tours, lectures and exhibitions, a virtual flythrough, tracing what it was like for the mill workers. There is a village store, a modern shop, and a luxury hotel and hostel, all owned and run by the Trust. It is more than an historic relic for around 300 people living in the village in restored, modernised apartments, but all remains in keeping with the original design.

The Mill Hotel was established in one of the abandoned mills, not without great effort, for the building had no roof and several floors had collapsed. As well as offering a fine restaurant, a friendly bar and lounge, a health and fitness club and conference centre, there are 38 stylish bedrooms and a selection of multi-bedroom, self-catering waterhouses.

IF YOU GO

www.visitscotland.com

New Lanark Mills: http://newlanark.org or contact: 01555-661345

Mill Hotel: http://www.newlanarkhotel.co.uk or call: 01555-667200.

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