Historic mill with a mission

20th July 2007 at 01:00
A restored cotton mill on the River Tay will soon be offering visitors a state-of-the-art exhibition which will bring its history back to life

there is a bend in the River Tay, where the water speeds up suddenly, having dropped 21 feet in just a quarter of a mile. The Tay is the fastest river in Britain, so the power surging past the village of Stanley in Perthshire is immense.

The locals recognised this long before the industrial revolution and for more than 400 years a mill has sat at this bend. But it wasn't until 1786 that the first cotton mill was erected here, using Richard Arkwright's revolutionary factory system, 50 years before the word factory entered the English language.

"Some might say it was odd to site a cotton spinning mill so far away from Glasgow, where the raw cotton was arriving from America. It took five days to bring it here by cart. But it would have been much stranger not to site a mill at this point of the river," says Jim Broughton, interpretation manager of Historic Scotland, owner of Stanley Mills since 1995.

Over the past few years he and the rest of his team have been converting the old disused mill into a major visitor attraction. The mill is steeped in history, but even now, as the shell of the building waits for hordes of pupils to bring it to life, the facility promises so much more than a whiff of the past.

"We want to develop our properties so they fit with other areas of the curriculum beyond just history and we realised early on this was the perfect site to start," says Jane Rahil, project manager. "We recognised it could complement A Curriculum for Excellence in many ways: science and technology with its water power, geography, social studies and history."

Having fallen into disrepair, Stanley Mills needed to be gutted and restored. It meant huge investment, but it also gave Historic Scotland an almost blank canvas on which to develop the centre. It has done so with schools in its sights and it is forecast that two in every three visitors will be pupils when it opens in April next year.

Historic Scotland has made the unusual move of bringing teachers in from early on. "This involvement is certainly something Historic Scotland wants to do more often," says Sue Mitchell, education manager.

Four teachers Margaret Smith from Luncarty Primary, Ann Melville from Ruthvenfield Primary, Alison McKenzie from Stanley Primary and Mairi Grant from Breadalbane Primary were recruited through a leaflet campaign targeting all the local schools.

"We were hoping to recruit secondary teachers as well, but only primary teachers applied," says Ms Mitchell. "We hope that in future, with other projects, we will get secondary teachers too."

The teachers were offered placements within Historic Scotland, with supply cover paid for by the Excellence in Education Through Business Links programme, funded by Careers Scotland. They have spent three days both this year and last, advising on how to develop the site to suit schools.

"Much of the interpretation work had been developed by the time we came on board but we have been able to say whether we thought something might not work," says Mrs Smith, P7 teacher at Luncarty.

"We've been involved more with the interactive exhibitions and been able to suggest what would capture children's imaginations, and we expect that we will get even more involved now, developing the educational resources."

It is not the first time EEBL has brought Historic Scotland and teachers together. Last year, one teacher was seconded to Arbroath Abbey and the Signal Tower Museum, while two others went to the Angus Digital Media Centre. The result was a DVD made by local pupils to support school visits to both sites. A further project is planned again to link a teacher to Arbroath Abbey, to develop a maths classroom on site, providing schools with an outside resource to support the curriculum.

"It is a fantastic experience," says Mrs Melville, who teaches P2-3. "Working with Historic Scotland at Stanley has been a challenge but it has also been interesting for us to see how other organisations work. It has given me ideas that I can take back to my classroom."

Much of the exhibition at Stanley Mills is going to be state-of-the-art, with light effects and sounds bringing the mill back to life, glass screens and huge interactive exhibits to entertain and educate. And there is just enough of the old machinery for pupils to see that, even in the mid-20th century, it was a noisy and demanding environment in which to work. One section in the mill will have a button that will release the full noise that 30 carding machines in one room would have made, but only for a few unbearable seconds.

Stanley Mills is still in the middle of its refit, but Mr Broughton is confident that the full exhibition, spread across the mills, will be in place by October. From then until April, it will run through testing to make sure it delivers what schools require. Then it will be ready for the rush.

Stanley Mills Stanley Mills is seven miles north of Perth. The first mill was built in 1786 and the last commercial operations ended in 1989.

Early map evidence from the 1580s and 90s shows two water mills near where Stanley grew up, suggesting this stretch of the Tay had been used for grinding corn well before the newly discovered corn mill was built.

The complex contains the best-preserved cotton spinning mill directly associated with Richard Arkwright, inventor of the factory system.

The buildings are of such importance that they have a Grade A listing to protect them.

Conservation of Arkwright's Bell Mill started in 1996. The Heritage Lottery Fund has granted pound;6.4 million for the restoration of the Bell and Mid Mills.

The new visitor centre in the Bell Mill and part of the Mid Mill will be available for educational use all year round.

Historic Scotland has been working with groups including the West Stormont Local History Society to gather information and items associated with the mills. Memories of workers have also been collected in an oral history project.

Education manager Sue Mitchell (left) with Margaret Smith and Ann Melville, two primary teachers who volunteered to help Historic Scotland develop the site to suit schools. Photograph: Fraser Band

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