Thursday, 21 February 2013

New Lanark

New Lanark – a World Heritage Site for Very Good Reasons (C A Hope)
The stark little mill village of New Lanark in Scotland has been a recurring feature throughout my entire life.
As you approach it from the market town of Lanark all you can see, far below you, are roofs and chimney pots and they look completely out of place in this beautiful wooded valley. Despite decades of familiarity, I still feel a wave of awe when I see the old stone tenements and the giant mills clinging to the hillside. I think it’s the unexpectedness that takes my breath away.
The village sits at the base of a deep, narrow gorge carved out of the rocky landscape by the River Clyde as it drops hundreds of feet in a series of waterfalls.  These waterfalls are the mighty Falls of Clyde, famed the world over and viewed by hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The waterfalls and New Lanark Mills go together: without these powerful Falls there would be no New Lanark.
Since the 1600s records suggest that people would travel great distances to alight from carriages or horseback and take the winding paths through the surrounding woodland to gaze in awe at the spectacle. In 1784 there were two gentlemen in particular who travelled from Glasgow specifically to see the already famous beauty spot. They were businessmen, merchants and mill owners: Richard Arkwright and David Dale.
Dale was looking for investors to establish a cotton mill at the foot of the gorge, harnessing the Clyde’s immense power to drive the new machinery. A partnership was formed and New Lanark was born. While Arkwright was a partner for only a year or so, he and Dale remained in contact right up to the time of Arkwright’s death.
I first glimpsed Dale’s mill village in the 1960s on a ‘Waterfall Day’. These are the days, about 3 or 4 a year, when the Hydro Power Station (built 1920s and now owned by Scottish Power) stops diverting water from the Clyde into their turbines, allowing the full force of the river to surge down through the ravine. You can feel the pounding of the water vibrating under your feet long before you see the rising spray! Some of my earliest childhood memories are of family outings when, picnic packed, we would join hundreds of others to walk up the perilous cliff-side path to view Corra Linn, the largest and (in my mind) most beautiful of the four waterfalls.  Linn means waterfall in Scots and the origin of the name Corra has been dimmed by time. Legend has it Cora, King Malcolm’s daughter, leapt to her death there or, less romantically, it is a corruption of the Gaelic word for weir: the Weirs were big local landowners hundreds of years ago.
In the 1960s the mill village was on its last legs with only a few residents and the by the 1970s it was in a state of ruin. Saplings grew from collapsed buildings, glassless windows gaped wide to the elements and Nature crept in to claim it back. It was a dangerous, damp, grey place:  forlorn.
As a newly married young couple, my husband and I explored buying one of the tenement houses. It was a mere shell of a house, 4 storeys high and being sold as ‘sound, wind and water-tight’ with the possibility of grants to turn it into a home. We stepped away from the idea but many others took up the challenge. The New Lanark Trust was born that same decade and it is this far-sighted, enthusiastic Trust which has brought the village back to the land of the living – literally! Their interactive exhibitions are superb and definitely worth the accolades poured upon them.
New Lanark is much more than magnificent stone mills with stylish Palladian windows and rows of housing for its workers.  It is one of the most important sites of the Enlightenment era. Both David Dale, who built it, and Robert Owen who followed him, were men of vision. Owen put his radical social philosophy into practice here for the first time, a proper school was built and thousands of people flocked to see his work in action.
Owen has been called a Visionary. He is the acknowledged inspiration for the Cooperative Movement (over one billion members worldwide today)primary schooling and workers’ rights.
New Lanark is now a World Heritage Site, one of only four in Scotland. In high season (Easter to September) its streets and mills bustle with tourists but it retains a dignified splendour, holding more than two hundred years of history among the towering walls and cobbled streets.
Up until a year ago, I was fortunate to work in the village with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. My job entailed hosting the visitor centre as well as taking guided walks up through the wildlife reserve to the Falls. Badger Watches, Bat Walks and Fungal Forays were a joy! Who wouldn’t love to glimpse otters fishing in the dusk as the cries of peregrine falcons echo eerily among the cliffs? Or watch badger cubs gambolling among peppery bluebells, bird-cherry trees, branches trailing low into the river, hanging with scented wild honeysuckle? These ranger lead walks are a regular feature but need to be booked: contact the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
About four years ago I decided to research the village properly, deeply. Who were these men, David Dale and Robert Owen? As well as their achievements, what were they like as husbands, fathers? Who were the first villagers and why was the beautiful curved tenement Row above the lade called Caithness Row?
It took me several years but I have just completed the first book in the New Lanark series, ‘New Lanark Spinning New Lives’, which will be launched (in New Lanark) on March 1st 2013. Weaving fictional characters with the real people who created this unique little community, I hope others will find it as interesting and enjoyable to read as I found it to write.

C. A. Hope Feb 2013