A Hidden Gem – New Lanark

Scotland has four World Heritage sites: The Heart of Neolithic Orkney; St Kilda; Old and New Town Edinburgh and perhaps the least well known, New Lanark. Sitting just below the dramatic Falls of Clyde about 30 miles from Glasgow, the living museum of New Lanark reflects the extraordinary changes that took place is Scottish society over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries: changes that had their roots in some very unlikely places.


The Scottish Reformation of the 17th century was at times brutal, destructive and reactionary; and yet, for the most part it was liberating and enlightening. The new church, the Kirk, established poorhouses in every parish, engaged the local population in clerical affairs and brought the Bible and Sermon down to serve the people. The Church of Scotland has a Calvinist doctrine, and at the heart of this theology is the belief that faith is a personal covenant with the Almighty and an understanding of the gospels and laws of the Old Testament. Thus, education stood as a central pillar of the Kirk. It would have unforeseen consequences.



John Knox – Father of the Scottish Reformation



It was a key principal of the new regime that everyone could read the Bible, and so a school was established in virtually every parish in Scotland. As a result, children in Scotland would throughout the 18th and 19th centuries receive a full education until the age of 14; something that was completely unheard off across Europe at that time. By 1800 over 75% of all Scots were literate, the highest rate on earth. What the Church hadn’t taken into account was that people would read books other than the Bible; they did, and they ate up literature, mathematics, philosophy, classical texts and humanities with a voracious appetite. Our unique universal education policy laid the foundation for the Scottish Enlightenment.


It took more than education to change Scotland though, it took money as well. Scotland was historically one of the poorest nations in Europe; a problem compounded by an unfavourable climate, and a dearth of good agricultural land. Yet, the Scots are hard working, and following the Treaty of Union with England in 1707 new agricultural techniques arrived into the country, and Lowland Scotland went through a rapid agrarian revolution. Like the Highland Clearances that followed a century later, there was a large population shift, as farming became less labour intensive and smaller units were merged into larger ones. But, for the farmers and the markets they served, it was boom time; and a new middle class began to emerge.


The money being generated, and the wealth flowing across the border also helped to finance new innovation and entrepreneurship. Opportunities in England’s overseas colonies was also breeding a burgeoning merchant class; slowly at first, but then like a hare out of the trap Scotland’s economy blossomed like the heathland being converted to farms across the nation. However, many of these farmers, especially in Ayrshire, around Glasgow and in Fife never realised the untapped wealth their fields covered – a new revolution was coming and like the Reformation before it, it would change the country forever.


The City of Glasgow was well placed on the Clyde to trade with the colonies of North America; and by the mid 1700s was the key tobacco and sugar port in the British Isles. This made the mercantile class very rich indeed, but more was to come. As well as trading with the world, it would be here on the Clyde the world’s shipping would be built. In addition huge coal reserves and iron deposits were discovered across the Central Belt. Forges, steelworks, factories, mills and all sorts of industries sprung up and thrived from Ayr in the south to Dundee in the east. By 1850 Scotland had become the Engine Room of the British Empire. It was a remarkable transformation.


The cities also provided a home for the many in the countryside who couldn’t find work at home, but conditions were grim. Places like the Gorbals in Glasgow or the Hilltown area of Dundee were among the worst slums in Europe – the Gorbals would be forever etched in the national psyche as the epitome of horrific housing and poverty. Still, they poured in, fuelling the Industrial Revolution as much as the coal, steel, ships or jute they were working with. Edinburgh too had its slums and industrial heart, but nothing like Glasgow; and the Scottish capital has long since drawn its wealth and employment opportunities from the service industry.


It was here that the new finance available was sown into something very different, and the ‘Athens of the North’ would become the fulcrum of the Enlightenment. Throughout the late 18th and all of the 19th centuries, it would be greatest intellectual seat in Europe; and as the money poured in on the back of all the philosophical advancements so a strong banking sector developed. It was here that Scotland’s special education system perhaps shone the brightest. Yet, across the nation, that great gift of learning was paying dividends: from Watt’s steam engine, and Adam Smith’s economic theories; from the poems of Robert Burns to the medical advancements pioneered by the likes of Joseph Lister. These were gifts that Scotland would export around the world as the British Empire grew to cover a quarter of the globe.


The River Clyde crashes over the Bonnington and Corra Linn waterfalls with an incredible force, a power that industrialists had long coveted. In 1786, one of them, David Dale and his son-in-law Robert Owen took the strength of the river and built a set of new mills in the valley bellow the old medieval town of Lanark. Unlike the slave drivers in Glasgow, these two had a more utopian vision of how a workforce should be treated. New Lanark was, from the very beginning, meant to be something different and more socially enlightened. Owen was the real driving force in this project, a man of real philanthropic ideals. He would take hundreds of families from the slums and bring them to the leafy Clyde valley, and give them a proper life, and from that good, hard workers. It was, and is a fantastic concept. The craziest part is that it worked. Owen even bought out his less enlightened partners to pursue his welfare programmes.



The Mills and Houses of New Lanark



It became a model village, and enterprise; and the great and good from rags to royalty came to see it in action. It was more often than not an eye-opening experience. When the Mills finally shut in 1968, a number of ventures worked to keep the essence of the site intact; and today both the village and the falls are among Scotland’s best kept secret attractions. It remains a fantastic testament to our nation’s industrial spirit and enlightened zeal.


Written by David McNicoll, owner of Highland Experience USA – and for anyone interested in our heritage. www.highlandexperience-usa.com


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One thought on “A Hidden Gem – New Lanark

  1. Mark Henderson

    Great article. Alexander Henderson was John Knox’s right hand man in Reformation efforts. Would it nbe possible to put this article into the Clan Henderson Society quarterly magazine “An Canach” The magazine goes out to approx 1000 members..


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