Monday, April 28, 2008

Day 3 The Borders and New Lanark

Each day of the tour, I shared a poem that was relevant to the place or area we were traveling. As we went to the Borders today, we passed the home of the poet known as The Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg. His poem, "A Boy's Song" eloquently describes the rolling green hills of sheep and cattle pastures bisected by the rivers Tweed, Clyde and Yarrow. One stanza goes...."Where the mowers mow the cleanest, where the hay lies thick and greenest, there to track the homeward bee, that's the way for Billy and me... "

I couldn't help thinking of the song Karine Polwart sung last night, "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow" as we drove through the Borders today. This sad song is on her album "The Fairest Floo'r". We heard Karine in concert last night at Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline. A fine song writer and singer, I was most moved near the end of the concert when just her voice and a piano accompanying treated us to several traditional old songs.

Locharron of Scotland was the venue of the morning. One of the few weaving mills left in the Borders, this Selkirk based company weaves tartans and fashion fabrics for designers and companies around the world. Since last year they have moved into their new home at Riverside industrial area and feature a huge new showroom of their goods. A guided tour starts with the dying process of the wool.

The process continues with cone winding, winding the warp and then tying onto the looms. If the current order has the same number of warps per inch as the previous job, a machine can tie on the entire warp in one hour. If an order has an unusal set, a worker has to hand thread the heddles, about an 8 hour job, just like us labor intensive hand loom weavers have to do in our studios. The reel that had just come off the warping machine had 9 different warps on it, one tied to the other.

The Swiss power looms the company weaves on are quite new. But still much hands on work and checking is required to retain the high standard of quality the company demands of their cloth. The women in quality control handle and inspect every yard of fabric after it comes off the looms. If an error is found, they may have to hand needle in yarn to fix the problem for up to a 40 yard length. The finishing of the cloth is jobbed out to another company. Locharron has their own inhouse design team. The head designers spend half their time in New York and Japan. When I asked the guide how Lochcarron has survived when most other mills have closed, he answered simply “quality. When companies buy from us, they know what they are getting.” In the photo you see Brad Bonar, hefting a finished roll of fashion fabric.

New Lanark World Heritage Site is the site of a former mill where cotton was spun. Today, in one of the restored mill buildings, there is a small production of wool yarn being spun on a large spinning mule for the sake of education and for profit.

The community was built below three falls on the River Clyde in the late 1700’s by a Mr Dale. The mill ran on power generated by the falls. Today New Lanark still produces hydropower that runs the community, with enough left over to sell back to the power grid. The mill was purchased and run by Robert Owen from 1800-1825. He was a social reformer and forward thinker far ahead of his time. He ideas were not popular with other mill owners. But his efforts gave him the title Father of trade unionist movement in Scotland. He banned children from under age 10 from working in the mill. He started the first nursery school in the UK. Children from ages 2-9 went to school while their parents and siblings worked in the mill. Once children reached age 10, they worked in the mill and then attended classes at night. Mr Owen treated his own 7 children no differently than he treated the children of the mill workers.

The school was built by money generated from the company store which was run as a cooperative. New Lanark was the first cooperative that lead to the foundation of The Co-op, a grocery store still thriving around the country today. In school not only were reading, writing, and arithmetic taught, but the children studied dancing, music, and nature studies.

The workers lived in buildings just across from the mill. A family of 10 may share one room, but they were warm, well fed, and had healthcare provided by the mill doctor. The work day started at 6 a.m with a breakfast break at 9 a.m. and lunch break in the middle of the afternoon. The work day ended at 7pm. The mill ran 6 days a week and was closed on Sunday. The mill operated until the middle of the 20th century until it could not operate profitably. The mill buildings sat empty and fell into disrepair from the elements and vandalism. A foundation saw the value in restoring the site and started the vast restoration of the mill in the 1970’s. The restoration still continues today. In the past year a new roof garden has been added on top of one of the mill buildings.

The site is a glorious example of public and private cooperation to preserve an important part of Scottish history and to educate generations to come. Today 150 people live on the site. Many visitors may only take the Millenium Ride. But I encourage you to view the movie, The Annie McLeod Story, in the school building, visit Robert Owen’s house, spend time looking through the exhibits in Mill buildings 1&2 and the housing block and take a hike up to the top falls.

This time of year, there is a 24 hour peregrine falcon watch along the trail where a falcon is nesting. Telescopes are set up so you can view the nest. This year we stayed at the mill hotel. It was soothing to fall asleep to the sound of the River Clyde rushing by. I was very struck by this place on my first visit 11 years ago and each visit deepens that impression. I think it is the most tasteful and educational tourist site in Scotland.

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