On a recent trip to Glasgow, I was able to make a pilgrimage to New Lanark, a historic village nestled along the banks of the River Clyde.
New Lanark was built in the late 18th century by David Dale, who built a cotton mill and housing for the workers needed to run it. The industrial revolution was in full swing and mills were being established along waterways to take advantage of the power that could be generated by the flow of the water.
In 1785, a group of investors including Robert Owen, a Welsh philanthropist and social reformer, acquired the cotton-spinning mill in New Lanark. Owen’s vision was to create a community where the welfare of workers was as respected as the commercial enterprise. Owen implemented revolutionary measures such as shorter working hours, decent housing, education for children, and a company store that did not gouge its customers. This experiment marked a paradigm shift in industrial practices, challenging the prevailing norms of the time.
New Lanark operated as a cotton mill until the late 1960s when the once-bustling mills were closed and began to fall into disrepair as industries evolved and modernized.
The turning point for New Lanark came in 1974 when a group of concerned citizens recognized its historical and cultural significance and formed the New Lanark Conservation Trust, aiming to preserve the heritage of the village for future generations. This marked the beginning of an ambitious restoration project that would not only breathe new life into the crumbling structures but also serve as an example for the preservation of industrial heritage globally.
In 2001, New Lanark was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which underscored its importance on the world stage. The UNESCO inscription recognized New Lanark as a site that bore witness to innovative industrial and social developments, ultimately influencing societal changes far beyond its geographical boundaries.
The designation highlighted the role played by Robert Owen and the New Lanark experiment in shaping early industrial practices. The well-preserved cotton mills, workers’ housing, and educational institutions became not just a window into the past but a living testament to a transformative era.
Today New Lanark is a beautifully restored village. Some of the worker housing has been converted to flats, but much of the site is now a tourist attraction that offers visitors a chance to step back in time to learn about the cultural significance of the New Lanark experiment, as well as the history of the Industrial Revolution. Additionally, it functions as a commercial mill again, this time producing wool yarn.
When we visited, we parked in visitor parking above the site and walked down the paved path to the visitor center.
We found we had arrived a little early, so decided to walk along the River Clyde to the Corra Linn waterfalls. The walk was about 20 minutes each way. Part of it was on a boardwalk just above water level along the banks. As we were early, we had the path mostly to ourselves, only encountering a few locals out for a walk. The path was a tranquil start to our day at New Lanark and ended at a lookout over the falls, perfect for a few snapshots.
On the way back, we passed along the “high road” rather than taking the path along the river and were treated the site of large fields full of Scottish Blackface sheep.
We arrived back in the village to find the visitor center opened. After paying for our tickets, the first stop was a ride that took us through the daily life of Annie McLeod, a young mill worker. The cars sat two people (there were also wheelchair-accommodating cars) and led us through a home, schoolhouse, shop, and more.
At the end of the ride, we passed through the wool mill. The machines were all visible for visitors, but as we were there on a weekend, they were not in operation. No worries about that, though. Later in the building we passed through the cafe to the gift shop where New Lanark wool was available to purchase in a variety of colors and weights, as well as items knit with the wool, books about the history of the site, and other items for yourself, your home, and your friends.
In the same room as the mill, there are displays addressing the history of the cotton mill. These displays introduced some of the reforms implemented by Robert Owen, as well as talking about the type and quality of cotton that was spun in the mills–suitable for sails and other thicker cloths. One display addressed the sources of the cotton fibers, which included cotton raised in the United States on plantations that relied on the labor of enslaved people.
From there, we made our way to the other buildings on the site that are open to the public. In Robert Owen’s School for Children, the restored dance instruction room is set up as a classroom, complete with student desks, wall charts, and a globe nearly as tall as me in the corner. Placards and display cases provided insight into Owen’s progressive approach to education, most notably that all children attended school until they were 10 before they could begin working in the mill.
This practice may seem like a harsh reality to us today, but in its time, it was revolutionary. Additionally, once children began working in the mill, they could continue their education in the evenings, as could the adults who were interested in continuing their learning. Though, a placard on display in the classroom notes that children who came to the school after their shift were not generally thrilled to be in class.
The Millworker’s House is a restored apartment designed to capture the essence of 19th century living. Initially, millworkers’ families were housed one family to one room, with some families including a whole passel of children. As time progressed, the size of the apartments were increased and communal bathrooms were installed in the basements of the buildings before eventually being replaced by bathrooms in each flat.
Robert Owen’s house has also been restored. There are family items on display, including cross-stitch samplers worked by his daughters. Displays in the basement tell Owen’s history, including his attempt to establish a utopian society in the United States.
The village of New Lanark serves as a living example of sustainable tourism and cultural heritage preservation. The ongoing efforts to maintain the site’s authenticity and integrity are a beacon for other communities striving to safeguard their industrial past.
The New Lanark Conservation Trust continues to play a pivotal role in nurturing the village’s legacy. Through educational programs, community engagement, and partnerships, the trust ensures that the spirit of Robert Owen’s experiment endures, inspiring future generations to appreciate the delicate balance between progress and humanity.
New Lanark has its own hotel and hostel on site, so you can opt to spend an evening or two in this beautiful location along the River Clyde. Otherwise, New Lanark is a lovely drive from either Glasgow or Edinburgh. Plan to spend at least 2 hours on site, but to make the most of the experience, a good 4 hours should be set aside for a walk to the waterfalls and enough time to fully take in all the site has to offer. The cafe is open daily and serves hot and grab-and-go options.
There is a modest fee for parking, and an entrance fee to be paid at the visitor’s center before you begin your wandering. For up to date information for visitors, and to find yarn spun at the wool mill at New Lanark, see their website.