When historic Scotland bought the disused, dilapidated Stanley Mills in 1995, it was recognised that the new jewel represented more than a peep into history; it offered a panoramic view of life, geography, technology and science over 200 years.
Since 1786, the mill had been party to the taming of the forces of nature, seen the Highlands cleared, benefited from the invention of the factory system by Richard Arkwright and sat at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.
But by 1995 it was in a sorry state. Closed since 1989, it had a few rusty bits of machinery contained within crumbling stone walls. Even so, those at Historic Scotland saw its potential to deliver not just another tourist attraction but also a rich education resource that could embrace A Curriculum for Excellence across many topics.
It has taken 13 years and pound;4.6 million to get there, but the salvaged mill, opened this Easter, is a thing of beauty; awesome and fascinating, full of interactive displays that will capture every pupil's imagination.
"I thought some of the stories were sad. It has made me really think about what it used to be like for children in those days," says Coren Childs, from P5 at Bruntsfield Primary in Edinburgh.
He was one of the first pupils to sample the array of activities from swapping bobbins at high speed to testing the power of different water wheels.
Other pupils from the local schools were also brought in to try out the interactives, so that they and their teachers could give feedback on the resources and their accompanying education support materials. Overseeing it all is Fiona Davidson, previously assistant director of the Council for Scottish Archaeology but since September education officer at the mills.
"We have had four teachers working with the development of the mill on secondment for a few days over the past few years to advise on the educational content," explains Ms Davidson. "More recently, they have come back with their pupils to test it all."
The result is an extensive educational package, from a teachers' pack containing all the information needed for a teacher-led visit, which is free to schools, to a series of workshops. The teachers' pack will be available online to download free, and contains two suggested tours: working life and water power. It covers all ages of pupils, but will be particularly useful for P4-S2.
"The overarching theme of the mills is water power; how it was harnessed and how that technology changed over the 200 years since it opened. But there is so much about the mill that it can cover more topics than science and technology," says Ms Davidson.
There is the historical context of people moving from the land, the industrial revolution and its social repercussions, especially on the Highland people. There is scope for geography pupils to study the land around the mill and what made it such an ideal site, even though it took five days to haul the cotton from the west coast where it arrived from America. There are stories and poems in Gaelic and there is a wealth of artefacts and rusting machinery to satisfy any art and design department.
For those schools that want a bit more than a teacher-led visit, Ms Davidson can provide a series of workshops at pound;2 per pupil, ranging from industrial archaeology and Victorian working life to science sleuths or Higher art portfolio opportunities and discovery tours.
All the workshops and materials have been vetted by teachers to ensure they fit the brief.
Ms Davidson is also working on classroom resources for schools that are unable to visit. These will be contained in a CD-Rom which teachers can request, but Ms Davidson hopes they will go online on a Stanley Mills website when it's built.
Over the next 12 months, Historic Scotland expects 3,000 pupils to wander through the cavernous rooms of the mills, playing with the interactives while at the same time soaking up the learning that the mill is steeped in, probably without even noticing.
WHAT'S ON SHOW
- A scale model of the working mill shows how cotton was processed, working its way from the bottom floor to the top of the mill.
- A computer game lets pupils build a mill, taking into consideration location, source of the cotton, where workers came from and investments needed and then will show them if it would survive.
- One tests if 21st-century children are as nimble as 18th-century ones through plucking threads from looms and rethreading them.
- Another recreates the tiny spaces that child labourers had to manoeuvre into to clean moving machinery. Pupils will be able clamber down to see if they can pluck cotton thread from under the machines in time.
- A change-the-bobbin interactive shows how quickly workers had to work when the mill was in action.
- Probably destined to be the most popular display, a huge water game gives pupils the chance to test three different scale-model waterwheels to see which harnesses the most power. Thoughtfully, hand-dryers are provided.
- Less popular with teachers perhaps, there is a button that will release the full noise of 30 carding machines in one room; but only for a few unbearable seconds.
Photograph: Fraser Band.