New Lanark and the European Route of Industrial Heritage

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On Monday I attended the European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH) summer conference in New Lanark. Industrial history, and the political and social factors associated with it, has long been an interest of mine and one that I was keen to further here at RCAHMS, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go to the conference and learn more about the efforts been made to raise the profile of our industrial past.


New Lanark

The Mills of New Lanark as drawn by Robert Scott in 1799 (c) Scran

The Mills of New Lanark as drawn by Robert Scott in 1799 (c) Scran

The ex-cotton mill town of New Lanark was the ideal location for such a conference as it acts as a standing reminder of both the importance and potential of industrial heritage. New Lanark is one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland and the only one that is solely concerned with the country’s modern history. The mill was founded by Stewarton born David Dale in 1785, in partnership with early industrial entrepreneur Richard Arkwright. Alongside the mills themselves Dale built a village to house its workers.

New Lanark is perhaps best known for its time under Dale’s successor and son-in-law, the visionary utopian socialist Robert Owen, who took over management in 1800. Owen used the village as a social experiment to show that you can make profit without degrading your workforce. He opened a school which all children attended, the working day was cut to ten hours and

Robert Owen, drawn by Mary Ann Knight c.1799 (c) Scran

Robert Owen, drawn by Mary Ann Knight c.1799 (c) Scran

there was even a crèche to help working mothers by 1816. Owen left in 1825 to found the Utopian settlement of New Harmony, Indiana, but the mill continued in production until 1968. Following years of dereliction the town was refurbished, with a hotel in one mill, a visitors’ centre in another and many of the houses rented on a not-for-profit basis. The staff present at the conference were keen to stress that New Lanark was not a Museum but something that was true to Owen’s aims of a site  ‘born of a spirit of enterprise allied to a vision for a better and fairer society’. A living, working site providing local employment and education, not just a monument to the past.



The ERIH conference itself looked at how a Scottish Route of Industrial Heritage could help to make more of Scotland’s industrial landmarks as attractive for tourists as New Lanark. ERIH was set up with help from the European Commission to promote the wealth of industrial heritage across Europe and currently has 1000 member sites in 43 countries. More recently, regional routes have been set up within ERIH to help industrial sites in smaller regions work together to attract more visitors; the idea was tried in South Wales with initial success before tailing off. It was suggested that, despite Scotland’s lead role in the industrial revolution and the fact that industry dominated the lives of millions of people for almost two centuries, industry still plays a very distant second fiddle to castles and ancient monuments in Scottish Heritage, and this need not be the case.

Newtongrange Colliery before its conversion into the National Mining Museum, one of the key sites in Scotland's industrial heritage (c) RCAHMS

Newtongrange Colliery before its conversion into the National Mining Museum, one of the key sites in Scotland’s industrial heritage (c) RCAHMS

It was agreed that the potential for Scotland’s industrial heritage to be central not just to its heritage sector but to its identity is huge but for many a regional route covering the whole of Scotland is not the answer. Scotland’s size and the remoteness of some areas was one issue as was the wide range of industries across the country.

Industrial history seems to be harder to sell than romantic visions of castles and the ‘olden days’. Perhaps it is too recent and brings back bad memories for some. Perhaps it lacks the stereotypical beauty and is seen as a blight on the landscape. Perhaps it is just too dirty. Or perhaps the industrial heritage bodies are yet to find a way to market their sites as effectively as other monuments. However, groups like ERIH, and more global organisations such as the International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage (TICCIH) are important vehicles for sharing ideas about how to unleash the potential of this area in the future and educate people of the importance of industry in their ancestors’, their country’s and the modern world’s history.