Sunday, 1 July 2018

New Lanark Mill - Lanarkshire

Travelling northbound for a summer break in Lanarkshire, the saying about 'knowing where you're coming from to know where you're going' came to mind.  While unchartered territory for me, I wondered at a vague sense of 'going home' and the lives of great great great grandparents some 200 years previously.  As spinners and weavers of cotton, wool and silk, my holiday home in the Waterhouses at the converted New Lanark Mill felt very fitting.

My ancestors Hector and Elizabeth English moved to Lanarkshire from Atrim in the early 1800s.  They bypassed Glasgow where they likely disembarked their incoming ship and headed slightly south to set up home Lanarkshire.  They would almost certainly have been familiar with this kind of Jacquard loom as housed in Hamilton Low Parks Museum and they may have had something similar in their Lanarkshire home.

Looking at the weavers cottage where they lived gave a great sense of how integrated work and living would have been - two adults, numerous children and various home spinning and weaving equipment!

However, the wheels of industrial revolution was well under way by the early 1800s and would ultimately shape Hector and Elizabeth's lives.  Lanark was chosen as the site for cotton spinning mill in the late 18th century by Glasgow banker David Dale and spinning machine inventor Richard Arkwright.  The ever flowing river Clyde made for the perfect location for the spinning machinery which would completely transform the lives of home spinners.

The torrent of rapidly flowing water upstream at Lanark through a narrow gorge was the key to what was to become the largest cotton spinning mill in Britain.

A single giant wheel harnessed this immense water force and drove the new cotton spinning machines.

The increase in production that the machines brought was staggering and the make up of the initial workforce now makes for shocking reading.  Of the 1000 or so people initially working in the mill, around two thirds were children of which 450 were yet to reach their teens.  All the same, David Dale treated the children, many of which who were orphans, very well compared to his contemporaries and the fact that so few died were testament to this.

David Dale's son-in-law Robert Owen continued his philanthropic approach, introducing a bold and innovative experiment for economic and social reform in how he structured New Lanark Mill.  Mill workers benefitted in unprecedented ways through quality living accommodation, fairly priced food, fair wages and education for all children.  He went on to be a key player in social reform, the set up of trade union and the Co-operative organisation.

New Lanark Mill continued spinning cotton for another 100 years until its sudden closure in 1968. It came close to demolishment in the mid 70s, however, thankfully the set up of a conservation trust and various government legislation and funded schemes enabled the mill buildings to be restored over the following 20 years.  The mill is now a World Heritage Site with exhibition space and a neighbouring hotel.  Better still, spinning machinery is in operation again creating New Lanark Wool which is woven and sold as the worlds first organic tartan.

I was very lucky at the time of my visit that the Great Tapestry of Scotland was on display at New Lanark Mill.  Completed in 2013 and consisting of 160 panels depicting the story of Scotland, I learnt more history about Scotland in a few hours than I have in a lifetime.  The panels required 300 miles of woollen yarn, 200 yards of linen, 1000 stitchers, and100,000 hours of stitching time!

Picking out just one favourite panel from 160 feels impossible, however, there is no doubt that panel 105 - The Paisley Pattern - stitching in Glasgow caught my eye.  While this was only a temporary display of the tapestry, it was good news to hear that it will have it's own permanent display in Tweedbank in around 18 months time.

What is impossible to depict pictorially about my visit to New Lanark Mill and the surrounding area is the warmth and friendless of the people.  The desire to engage and help was unfaltering from the first day to the last and added to the pleasure of visiting in spades.  The success of any holiday for me is invariably marked by thoughts of when it might be possible to return.  Finding this thistle of my last look around, I hoped that a return to the Scottish Borders would indeed come to pass.

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