Don’t you just love those trips when you can wander off the beaten path and discover something amazing? New Lanark, Scotland was definitely one of those hidden gems.
My husband Mark and I decided to rent a car to tour Scotland. Having our own wheels gave us the great advantage of freedom. We were able to make spur-of-the-moment decisions and detours while marvelling at the beauty and lushness of the Scottish countryside.
We were actually driving back to Glasgow at the tail end of our trip when we saw a roadside sign advertising a Victorian Fair.
It was still early in the day, so we turned to each other and said, “why not?”
We hadn’t heard of New Lanark and it wasn’t on our list of places to see, but the modest little sign by the side of the road seemed to beckon to us.
The size of the parking lot alone made us wonder if this site was a bit bigger than we had assumed. Then we got our first glimpse of the buildings, and we realized we were probably going to be here longer than we first anticipated.
So, what exactly is New Lanark? Well, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details:
New Lanark is a restored 18th Century cotton mill/village, which once had over 2,000 people living or working here. This in itself may or may not be impressive to you, but consider this: the manager and part-owner, Robert Owen, believed in providing humane working conditions, social and education programs, and factory reform. He was also the founder of infant childcare in Scotland. In the 18th Century. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Well, sure, he did still use child labour. In those days, who didn’t? But he eventually abolished child labour, along with corporal punishment, which was incredibly advanced thinking at the time.
Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site still operates as a mill, but on a much smaller scale. (And they no longer rely on child labour.)
New Lanark Victorian Fair
On the day we arrived, their Victorian Fair was in full swing. They had music, jugglers and other street performers. My personal favourite area was a birds of prey exhibit.
You could get your photo taken with one of these majestic beauties for a small fee (which went to the upkeep of the birds).
I adore falcons and owls, and I really wanted to get my picture taken with one, but I couldn’t decide which one!
Then, I saw a little pygmy owl, and I was instantly smitten!
He was so light and tiny!
There were also booths with different games to play, including games of chance. One involved plastic straws with little rolled-up slips of paper tucked inside. You had to use a nail to poke out the slip of paper, and that paper had a number. If you matched the number to a number on an item showcased in the booth, you won that item. I won a cubic zirconia cluster ring, so that was a nice little souvenir. We really wanted to win a bottle of Scotch Whisky to take home, but we weren’t quite that lucky.
Despite not scoring a bottle of hooch, this quickly turned into one of our favourite days on our trip. A big part of that, no doubt, was that we went in with no real expectations of what we would encounter, so everything was a pleasant, unexpected surprise.
Once we were done poking around the fair, we went on to see the actual New Lanark mill.
What to See
Well, a surprising variety of things, actually. For people interested in history, this is definitely a great site, obviously.
New Lanark also offers a history exhibit in the form of a Disney-esque-style ride, called the Annie McLeod Experience. Set up in the basement of one of the mill buildings, this ride takes you through 1820’s life in the mill through the eyes of a young girl, Annie McLeod. Well, her ghost, more accurately. If that sounds a little creepy and weird, you wouldn’t be far off; it’s definitely an unusual take on your average dry history lesson about child labour in the 1800’s.
But somehow in this context and environment it works, and it was actually well done and very eye-opening. There is also an interactive gallery showcasing Robert Owen’s concepts of childhood education.
One of the many cool things here to see is the spinning frame in operation. They only make wool here now, but once made cotton as well. It’s pretty darn loud, I can’t imagine what a full room of those contraptions would have sounded like! Other areas of the mill house temporary exhibits, so this is a site that can keep you busy for quite a while.
If you really want a treat, part of the old mill building is now a boutique hotel, so you can actually stay on site. There’s something here for everybody’s interests.
Since we were there during their fair, we indulged in fair food. We had hot dogs, cotton candy, and hot cups of soup since we were a little chilly when we first arrived. But there are also three nice restaurants on site, so there’s plenty to choose from. The Mill Cafe also offers afternoon tea with a selection of sandwiches, scones and other sweet delights.
The mill still produces its own organic wool, which you can purchase on site, as well as various clothing items and accessories. So if you’re an avid knitter/crocheter, their wool shop might give you the vapours.
Unfortunately at the time, I hadn’t picked up knitting needles or a crochet hook for several years. So even though I walked back to their yarn-stuffed-wall several times to longingly stroke and fondle the soft, squishy balls of textured goodness, I chose not to buy any. This was a decision I would come to regret not long after, when I started crocheting again. Dang. Ordering the wool online wouldn’t be the same as buying it on holidays either. Sigh. Well it taught me that sometimes impulse buying can be justified.
The Clyde Walkway
There is also a really lovely nature walk here, part of the Clyde Walkway.
The Hall of Mirrors, also known as the Bonnington Pavilion, the Corra Linn Pavilion, or the Falls of Clyde summerhouse, is just one of the many interesting sights along the Clyde Walkway.
It’s now in ruins, but the Hall of Mirrors overlooks the Corra Linn Falls on the River Clyde. Sir James Carmichael of Bonnington House built it in 1708 for entertaining his guests.
The two-story building wasn’t a large building, but more of a stone gazebo, offering a large window overlooking the falls. (The Corra Linn Falls are actually part of a collection of four falls, called the Falls of Clyde. The other falls, or linn, include the upper falls of Bonnington Linn, Dundaff Linn, and the lower falls of Stonebyres Linn).
Why was the building dubbed the Hall of Mirrors? Well, because it had mirrors placed on the ceiling at an angle to reflect the image of the falls. Allegedly, this gave the impression that the waters were falling on the viewer. It’s thought to have been the first Camera obscura built in Scotland.
But there may have been another reason for the mirrors. Back in the day, people (well, men, probably) believed that nature was too harsh, brutal and ugly for women of good breeding to look upon it directly. (No, seriously. That’s what they thought.) But looking upon nature through the reflection of a mirror elevated the image to high art, making it okay. As long as they kept their back to the falls and didn’t look directly at them.
I’m not sure how women got to the pavilion in the first place then. Were they blindfolded?
What else makes this building special? It had some famous visitors, such as Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to name a few. Several alterations were made to the building over the years, and it’s not clear exactly when it was abandoned. But one thing is clear: the remaining ruins of this amazing little building need to be preserved.
The building is on the “Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland” website, and is listed as being in “moderate risk.” It seems they have been monitoring its state periodically, but no steps have been made to preserve or conserve the building. (Yet.)
The nature around the Hall of Mirrors site is really beautiful and calming:
If you continue walking past the Hall of Mirrors, you’ll eventually come to an iron bridge. It’s only to look at though, not to cross:
The footbridge may have been built for Lady Mary Ross. The bridge is also on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland.
As we backtracked to the New Lanark woolen mill, we came across this little guy on the trail. So watch where you step!
How Long to Stay
At least a few hours if you want to do the nature walk as well as the mill. It’s a fairly large site and there are a lot of smaller buildings to explore, too. If you’re here during an event or festival though, give yourself half a day or more, because they offer some really fun experiences. For more information, visit the New Lanark Heritage Site.
New Lanark is roughly halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, about an hour in either direction. It’s easy enough to drive to if you choose to rent a car, but you can also approach it by bus from Glasgow’s Buchanan Station and Lanark. Or you can take the train from Glasgow Central or Motherwell to Lanark station. From here you have to grab a train or cab the rest of the way.