“…and I’ll take the high road.”

There’s two things I’ve noticed that characterise this place. To avoid National Stereotypes better occupied by sporrans, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and deep-fried things, “this place” is specifically southwestern Scotland at the baby end of the Clyde – Lanark and the pre-Lanark bits a soft southern pansy like myself would drive through to get there. Though I don’t really need to apologise for anything; I grew up in Glasgow, sod you.

One is the architecture. Buildings round here, even in the smallest towns – especially in the smallest towns – are something else. No-nonsense buildings, hard grey and off-red stone, and well-made; slate roofs, thick walls, all squared away with geometrical precision, taller, prouder and better made than the stone cottages in Snowdonia. In the parts of England I frequent, buildings made like this are either ancient rustic curiosities, great civic works or churches; not much middle ground. Here, they’re everything, with pleasing solidity, uniform professionalism and fortified dourness, and here, unlike the modern, flighty, plastic and basically ugly dwellings going up in immense numbers all over England, they’re still making them; some of the newer buildings we saw (easily distinguished by their lack of chimneys; the stoves they are a-changing) were the same style, if different in the details. Here, you get the feeling, a Scotsman’s house really is his castle. Building is no mere passion for venturing and scaffolding; no work of a free enthusiasm, it is a serious means for a serious object.

Two is the fussiness. Everywhere – again, especially in the small towns – safe, sensible warning signs sprout, and practically every warning is accompanied by a terse but detailed explanation as to why it exists. Just like the Wenlockhead lead museum attendants, who couldn’t point you up the hill without getting all up in your business; they want to know what you were doing, why, when, how, in order to tell you how you should instead be doing things down to the smallest detail. It’s a sort of micromanagement by proxy; where Ulster has flags of the Union and the bloody hand flying zip-tie ragged from every streetlight, Lanarkshire has “advised speed limit” signs telling you Twenty’s Plenty. There’s a common-sense smugness there, a superiority that belies a (probably well-founded) sense that people Don’t Know Better, and need to be told.

New Lanark is a town built on both of these principles.

Richard Arkwright, (in)famous pioneer of factory systems and industrial cotton-spinning, in partnership with the Scots banker David Dale, built the place in the late 18th century with the dream of it becoming “the Manchester of Scotland”. The Clyde was an ideal spot for water power, so ideal that this rocky valley in the armpit of nowhere was worth turning into the biggest cotton-spinning plant in the world. Water power and an abundance of cheap child labour, later to be supplemented by orphanages. (You think I’m joking, don’t you.) So they built massive factories here, in that dour, sensible grey stone style aimed to withstand the test of ages. They have done, and remain almost unchanged from two centuries ago; serious, industrial architecture, from a time when that didn’t automatically mean “ugly.”

(It must be stressed that this 18th-century industrial estate is New Lanark. Old Lanark is a perfectly normal [ie, well-built and fussy, by laid-back, slowly disintegrating southern English standards] town up the hill, with a big, imaginative statue of William Wallace and a great Indian restaurant. The town’s symbol is, for whatever reason, a double-headed eagle; I don’t know if its allegiance is to Byzantium, the Austrian Empire or the Imperium of Man, but it was cool to see.)

Later, New Lanark was acquired by the industrialist, philanthropist and proto-socialist Robert Owen. He introduced various forward-thinking, generally-seen-as-insane principles like providing plentiful good-quality housing (for 1820, that is; people still outnumbered rooms four to one), schooling and healthcare to his workforce, and a programme of relentless Improvement similar to that seen in the minds of the Wenlockhead librarians, where a schoolhouse purpose-built at great expense was used round the clock with a broad and interesting curriculum. The heritage centre gushes louder about him than the Clyde gushes outside, never really addressing the wisdom of raising and educating children to express themselves and know about the world, followed immediately by locking them in factories surrounded by murderous, deafening machines to work until they died. Nor does it paint the wage-slave locking-in tactic of paying workers in company store tokens as anything but a good thing (play me some Sixteen Tons.) But I suppose if he hadn’t turned a tidy profit along with the rigorously controlled Good Works, nobody would have taken him seriously, and nobody else in the world would have bothered to raise standards for their workers. Owen’s philosophy seemed to be that properly-educated, decently-fed, well-housed workers would be more efficient and obedient. It was his calling to raise these people from ignorance and suffering, by indoctrinating them in his way; they didn’t know better.

Taken in the context of its age, New Lanark was the fluffiest, friendliest, most liveable-in industrial hellhole in the world. Still, the overall philosophy you can see is not of woolly, good-natured philanthropy but an immense Soviet-esque feeling of “this is what’s good for you” handed down from on high; Owen Knows Best. Mostly glossed over is the man’s insane intellectual hippie commune in Indiana in which he and a bunch of other progressive 19th century intellectuals attempted to construct Utopia and then were reminded – forcefully – that they had no practical skills; that got a small exhibit in the basement of his house.

Owen moved on in 1825, to bigger and less successful things. New Lanark carried on operating until 1968 before going bust and being abandoned, and was only recently restored by the charitable New Lanark Association.

We stayed there two nights, and moved on.

(Evening of 29th to morning of 31st July 2010. Posted: Elgin, 1st August 2010, Orange mobile internet that hopefully won’t be as expensive as I suspect it will.)

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