History spun from cotton

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Seonag Mackinnon visits New Lanark, where reforming mill owner Robert Owen employed a hard-working community

Cool!" is not the comment you expect a teenager to make about Scottish industrial history, yet that was the exclamation from three boys who rushed over to see the start-up of a noisy, gigantic 19th-century spinning machine in a restored cotton mill. They, and the academic subject, seemed to come alive on a tour of the world-famous conservation village of New Lanark.

The second-year history students from Alva Academy represent a small proportion of the 400,000 visitors a year who come to see the place where mill owner Robert Owen pioneered such daring innovations as free education for children and adults, free medical care, a ban on the "tawse" for belting children and decent living and working conditions.

Education officer Lorna Davidson, who has lived and breathed the subject of Owen for the past 14 years, carrying out research and playing an active role in its development, has a dream: "I want to see Robert Owen as well known to Scottish schoolchildren as someone like Robert Burns. It would be wonderful if it were seen as part of their education to know about someone who introduced so many things that we now take for granted."

At present, 30,000 schoolchildren a year come to investigate subjects within the domain of environmental studies, the expressive arts and Standard Grade history and geography. Colleges and universities also come to pursue topics as diverse as urban conservation, travel and tourism, childcare and nursery education, settlement studies and industrial archaeology, water power and Utopian Socialism.

The seemingly endless educational scope is fortunate, since New Lanark also represents a highly enjoyable day out. The observer arriving for the first time at this restored village by the Falls of Clyde will be stunned. Even the car park contrives to be beautiful. It is short on tarmac and based on a commanding height above the extensive Georgian buildings made of sandstone from the surrounding wooded gorge.

The occasional car makes heads turn as the main sound is the river coursing through, shoes tapping on cobbled pavements and craftsmen hammering and chiselling to restore another of the buildings.

It may be frustrating taking a party there if you have to rush round in two hours. We had the luxury of a short walk by the falls, a wander through the streets, a peer at the waterwheel and a chance to reminisce with the pinafore-clad assistant in the Thirties village store about "coo taffie" and "soor ploom" sweets.

For parties coming from afar, the hostel in restored buildings makes possible a longer stay at a base within reach of other attractions in the central belt, or a weekend reconnaissance trip for teachers. Many parties come from the Highlands and islands, and many of the earliest workers were Gaelic speakers from these areas. Another hostel is due to open in May.

The village is a living community of 180 people, not just a museum. Some inhabitants are former workers or descendants of those who worked in the mill, which closed in 1968. It is, however, hard to imagine that 14 years after its opening in 1785, the cotton mill was the largest in Scotland, supporting a village population of 2,500. The streets would have been crowded, the mill noisy with heavy machinery in four buildings on several floors.

The Conservation Trust has introduced a 10-minute audio-visual ride in a ski lift-type chair. The Annie McLeod Experience invites visitors to see the village through the eyes of a ghost of a 10-year-old girl. Annie, using the simple direct language of a child, tells of the cotton dust in the mill, which made them look like snowmen, the pervasive smell of boiling nappies at home and the marching, dancing and singing lessons.

The ride, recently improved, is sophisticated enough with its spooky smoke, holograms, sounds and bodies - dead or alive - to excite young people. One Scottish newspaper described it as a Disney-type family outing. It manages, however, to stay on the right side of gimmickry, to serve as a useful recap of educational themes mentioned earlier in the visit.

Lorna McDougall, principal teacher of history at Alva Academy, brings three groups a year to New Lanark. "The guides are so enthusiastic and they will tailor their talk to whatever you require. It is also very well organised, with good resources for preparing in advance of your visit and for follow-up afterwards."

During our visit the guides had no difficulty in holding children's full attention. While going round a mill worker's house of the 1820s, children were able to feel the weight of the wooden buckets that children would have used to fetch water, heavy even when empty.

They saw the minuscule space in which a working-class family lived, the paucity of their belongings and the basic hurlie beds in which children slept, which had wooden wheels so they could be rolled under the adult's bed during the day. In the village store of that period, they saw the limited choice of foodstuffs and the absence of colour and contrast.

Music from the Thirties played while visitors toured the millworker's house of that period, but the features of New Lanark which seem to make most impression on schoolchildren are the Annie McLeod experience, the waterwheel and, of course, given children's interest in all things lavatorial, the "stairheid cludgie".

New Lanark Mills, Lanark ML11 9DB. Tel: 01555 661345.

School parties Pounds 2.50 per child, which includes an hour with a personal guide. Contact Lorna Davidson, education officer

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