2017 is the Scottish year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, and it’s definitely something we’re not short of. Not only is the country spoiled with a wealth of scenery, it’s also home to four UNESCO World Heritage sites. Ever since I was wee I’ve had a love of history and exploring, ably helped by my mum and dad taking us to castles, heritage sites, landmarks and museums around the country.
Thanks to this, I was/am/will always be a massive history nerd. I devoured any information I could read about historical landmarks, so that when I went I understood its relevance (fun fact: I made a documentary of my trip to Linlithgow Palace when I was nine, putting me way ahead of the vlogging game). It’s been a lifelong passion for me, which has shaped my interests personally and academically. Of course, I didn’t understand the importance of culture and heritage as a kid. I just knew that these places nurtured my imagination and brought what I’d read about to life, and none more so than New Lanark Mill.
New Lanark Mill is nestled in the Falls Of Clyde, less than an hour outside Glasgow. Like a lot of 18th century villages, New Lanark centred around its cotton mill. Its residents lived, learned and worked in the village. However, unlike many other villages of the same nature, mill owner Robert Owen believed that the most efficient workers were happy workers. Key to their happiness, he believed, was access to education, healthcare and good food. Owen was what you’d call a “Utopian philanthropist”, concerning himself with worker well-being at a time of industrial revolution.
At the time it was a pretty innovative notion (let’s face it, it’d be an innovative notion today). As a result of its legacy, the Mill was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 and the village still thrives today. I remember going as a child, but I don’t think I’ve been down that way in about twenty years. It was surprising how much of it I remembered (being a heritage site, there’s not a huge amount you can change, I guess). As soon as we got out of the car, the first thing that strikes you is the setting. The site is based within a conservation area, and the first thing you notice is trees for miles.
We were welcomed with tickets and a little passport which we had to get stamped in each of the five areas of the Mill. The first thing you come across is the Annie Macleod Experience: you hop aboard a pod that transports you through time, offering a history of the mill through the eyes of ten year old mill worker Annie. When the little girl’s voice came through the headsets asking “do you believe in ghosts?“, I remembered the shiver I’d gotten the first time I boarded the ride. It was strange, feeling like both a recent and distant memory. I’d forgotten the specifics of it, so it felt like a new experience watching the ghosts of the past swirl around us, bringing alive the stories of real people that could’ve easily been forgotten.
From then on we went into the mill room to see a real one in action, got a shot at hopscotch and learned some history behind Robert Owen and the establishment of the mill. In all honesty, I have no idea how a mill works but it was really interesting seeing one in action. The mill is still used to this day to make wool, which you can also take home. Textile production is a big part of Scottish heritage, and I found something quite reassuring about it. I think there’s some comfort to be found, in the time of fast fashion and mass production, that there’s still a demand for local, homespun, quality goods.
From then we took the lift up to the roof garden, the views from which were stunning. It was a bitterly cold day and we were short of time, so we didn’t get to take a trek along to the Falls Of Clyde but the views were enough to tick us over ’til next time. The Roof Garden is the largest of its kind in Scotland, contains over 70 different kinds of plants and is decorated with plaques featuring quotes by Owen. After the noise of the mill downstairs, the Roof Garden was like stepping away from the world.
After a quick refresh (the café is pretty decent, by the by) we made our way outside to the Old School House. For having such a large population at its peak, the village is fairly compact which makes it easy to navigate. Seeing the old classroom set up as it would’ve been was pretty cool, and I even had a shoddy attempt at cursive using the slates. Unusually for the time, the school was set up for both children and adults: children would learn during the day while adults (and kids who worked in the mill) could attend after a shift. It included a creche for young children and acted as a hub of activity for the community (it frequently hosted dances and concerts as well as having a library).
Across the way was an exhibition commemorating the men of the village who had fought in World War One, the women who worked in the mill producing textiles for the war effort and the efforts of village fundraisers. It’s hard to imagine the scale of loss suffered by villages like these and exhibitions like this help to keep the memory alive. It’s especially important as there are no more survivors left– it’s up to us to make their story heard and their faces visible. Seeing photographs, family treasures, handwritten letters and personal testimonies made it seem so much more poignant- and tragically pointless.
Most of the mill workers’ houses have been turned into either owner-occupied flats or form part of a Housing Association, with the ambition of keeping the village as a living community. Luckily, they haven’t all been modernised: our next stop after the school were the preserved examples of housing from the 1930s and 1820s. What struck me the most was that the houses were apparently generously spaced and in good condition for the time. It consisted of a kitchen (OK, a pretty big one, but still) and a little bedroom off to the side. The 1820s house consisted of even less: a singl’ end style property could see ten people crammed into one room. It put our current living situation into perspective- seeing the way people lived back then made me feel a little bad for complaining about our one bedroom flat. While the style of housing wasn’t all that different to anywhere else, it was the conditions they were kept in that set them apart. The mill houses had electricity and running water, and latterly indoor toilets- practically unheard of at the time.
We just about squeezed in the village shop before we had to leave: the shop was a co-operative, set up so that villagers could have access to fresh produce at lower prices than in the local towns and cities. To this day it sells Fair Trade products, including New Lanark’s own-recipe ice cream. The mill also still produces its own wool, which is pretty impressive given its inception was over 200 years ago.
Places like New Lanark are crucial to our understanding of social history. It’s one thing to study it or read about it, but seeing it first hand brings it vividly to life. It makes history tangible, shows us where we came from. The mill and other places like it were milestones in social justice. Its emphasis on humane conditions was innovative at the time and remains so today. Access to education and healthcare are now recognised as fundamental human rights, and places like New Lanark realised this in a time when workers’ rights were unheard of. The layout of the place is easy to walk through, picking up information on the various attractions as you go. Lucas might have been a little young to appreciate it, but it was still nice to have a little family day out and take in some culture. There’s so much to see that we didn’t even have a chance to get around it all in one day. We’ve still got the Falls Of Clyde to explore, and we’re already looking into going back in the summer for the Brick City Lego exhibition. Who says history has to be boring?
We were invited to spend the day at New Lanark Mill as part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017 celebrations, but my opinions are all mine.