Friday, 10 November 2017


"Exchange their poverty for wealth,
their ignorance for knowledge,
their anger for kindness,
their divisions for union".

So said industrialist and philanthropist, Robert Owen, in the early 1800s.

Do you work an eight hour day? It's likely because of Robert Owen's vision to improve workers rights in the UK during the Industrial Revolution. At the time he coined the phrase, "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest".

A couple of weeks ago, because of yet another good suggestion by Pauline, on a clear blue sky, crisp Autumn day, I visited the World Heritage site of what was Owens' utopia, New Lanark, situated south west of Edinburgh and almost equidistant from Glasgow.

New Lanark is a purpose built "town" like no other you are likely to come across. On first approach it looks like a Victorian style new-build, so pristine is its stone work. In actual fact the build was started over 200 years ago by David Dale. The area was chosen for the fast flowing water of the river Clyde. The speed of the water is due in part to the fact that over a short distance the vast volume of the river plummets over a series of three waterfalls immediately before New Lanark. This was another reason for our visit, the Falls of Clyde.

In its early years many buildings went up as the cotton industry thrived, and in this time of the Industrial Revolution, new machinery was powered by giant waterwheels, rotated by the diverted water of the Clyde.

As I walked past the three-storey high, stone built buildings, I felt I was in some rather grand meuse in a suburb of London, than among what were essentially, cotton mills.

We walked south and away from the collection of buildings, following the course of the River Clyde upstream. Visible from the village are the tumbling rapids of Dundaff Linn (Linn meaning waterfall), the lowest of the three Falls we would see, and nearest to New Lanark. The sun was low in the sky and no sunlight reached the river. Over millennia it had gouged its way deeper and deeper, and now the sides of the canyon was smooth vertical rock over a hundred feet high.

The track through the woods then becomes a boardwalk just a foot or two off the water, though when the river is in spate the boardwalk is not accessible. This pops out at Scotlands very first hydro electric power station, built in 1927.

The path wound its way through Autumn woods, eventually following a sharp bend in the river, where the highest fall, Corra Linn, came into view. A mist of fine water particles rose, as huge volumes of water went over the 84foot drop.

The path crosses over a weir two kilometres on, over the top of Bonnington Linn, the first of the Falls, which for me were the nicest set, split in two by a small island. Now at the top of the gorge, a small amount of sun could reach the cascading water.

To return to New Lanark you have to double back and retrace your steps, which is what Pauline and I eventually do, but not until we had wandered down the west side of the river to view the Corra Linn at a closer vantage point.

Halfway we came across the ruins of Corra Castle, and at first I hadn't noticed it, buried as it was in hundreds of years of ivy growth and fallen trees. Built in the 15th century it was home to an appropriately named family, the Weirs. Now it is home to a rare family of bats.

After viewing Corra Linn we started the retrace of our steps, and within little time were back in New Lanark.

New Lanark's founder, David Dale, sold the mills in the early 19th century, to a partnership that included Robert Owen, his son-in-law. Owen would become an influential social reformer, and improved the living and working conditions of all the workers at New Lanark, some 2,500 at its height. He introduced the eight hour day, and built a school for the workers 500 children.

War may always be prevented,
by those who adopt the principles of peace,
being at all times prepared
to resist injustice and oppression;
and this may easily be affected by
wise arrangements in the education of the young.

Owens business partners were unenthusiastic at his spending of profits on making the workers "comfortable", but Owen fought off all attempts to interrupt his vision. New Lanark would go on to become celebrated throughout Europe. Visitors, including royalty, were astonished at the cleanliness  of the place, and the happiness of its inhabitants and workers. His vision of, a happy worker was a productive worker, was justified by the mills becoming highly profitable.

They eventually closed, as recently as 1968, and rapidly fell into disrepair. New owners stripped the buildings of valuable metal, but in 1971 they were listed as historic buildings, that then required their legal preservation. By 2005 most of the buildings had been restored, with new business, such as a hotel and offices, opening up in the old mills. Along with Edinburghs Old & New Towns, St Kilda, the Antonine Wall and the Forth Bridge, UNESCO made New Lanark a World Heritage Site.

Robert Owen passed the ownership and operation of the mills to the Walker family in 1825, and set sail for the US state of Indiana. He established a new vision there, based along the lines of New Lanark, and called it New Harmony. The project ultimately failed, and Owen returned to the UK. He passed away in 1858, penniless.

So the next time you put in your eight hours, say a little thank you to Robert Owen.

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