New Lanark Mills

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain. Although exactly how and what started it all is difficult to determine, the country was able to bumble through rapid major technological advancements, abandoning the countryside to work in factories in new cities, and eventually banding together to produce a youthful gang of loveable pickpockets telling us to “Consider Yourself.”

If Oliver Twist went to New Lanark (one of the largest cotton mills in the country), his life wouldn’t have been as dramatic and poignant, but it would be no less inspiring. He would have been taken in by this man:

Robert Owen (1771-1858) Mill Owner, Social Reformer and Father of the Cooperative Movement

Robert Owen (1771-1858)
Mill Owner, Social Reformer and Father of the Cooperative Movement

The first daycare centre and co-operative store in the world was in New Lanark. There were no beatings, no verbal abuse, no squalid living conditions for the steam-powered mill’s employees and residents (it was also a village). Not only was there healthcare available, but children were educated and taught not only maths, science, literature and history but also music and dance.

Children at New Lanark school


And yet there was commercial profit.  It survived the steady decline of the cotton industry during the Napoleonic Wars. There was so much profit, that people from all over the continent went to this place to satisfy their curiosity about this “model town” that defies the stereotype of cruel factory-owners in the bad city. Enough profit for Owen to be able to buy back the factory when his partners, outraged that he wanted to open a school for children, put the whole thing in auction with the bidding starting at £60k.

The mill closed in 1967, but is still flocked by tourists today.

The mill closed in 1967, but is still flocked by tourists today.

The schoolroom.

The schoolroom today. Look, it’s the “same” banner!

Owen bought his partners out at a little over £100k. In early 19th century Britain, this might as well have been a gazillion pounds. Wouldn’t you know it, it seems a happy worker really is a productive worker. The employees were so happy when they heard the news that when Owen returned, they went into a fit of jubilation and unhitched his carriage horses, pulling the equipage along themselves.

Everyone in New Lanark loved this guy. He had a long, happy marriage, his children grew up to be geologists, professors and even a representative of Indiana responsible for the bill that paved the way for the foundation of the Smithsonian Institute–and all of them were against slavery.

Undoubtedly, Robert Owen was a good man, of good character who believed the world can be a better place. Based on how his children lived their lives, we can assume he was also genuine–he lived what he preached:

“What ideas individuals may attach to the term “Millennium” I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold: and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal”. – Robert Owen, 1816 speech.

So, why is it that this utopian village is not what comes to mind when we think of cotton mills?

Yea, why?

Yea, why?

To be honest, all those things–education for the poor, healthcare, decent working conditions, savings, living wage…well, those are all well and good. But where the heck is the village pub?


Spinning Machine

Alcohol was frowned upon at New Lanark. And the absence of the village pub to me symbolizes the problem with New Lanark. The ones who make the decision about laws and statutes are not the adoring employees. And for someone who isn’t worrying about whether or not he gets to eat, or someone who assumes he will be provided education, who doesn’t worry about how he will buy his clothes, New Lanark would have seemed incredibly, totally boring.

And so was Robert Owen.

He was a pioneer. And his heart was in the right place, but man, did he just go on and on and on about the damn poor people and education and labour laws… that quote from him posted above? It wasn’t an address to the House of Commons. He said that to New Lanark residents. On New Year’s Day. In a speech so long there had to be a musical intermission between the parts. He had the support of Quakers, philosophers and economists (including Jeremy Bentham)–but these were people who were already of the same opinion as Owen.

They wouldn’t recognize a joke if it bit them in the arse and said “Knock Knock.”

Robert Owen's House.

Robert Owen’s House.

The fact that people paid attention was a sign of the changing times, and not of Owen’s irresistible charm. There was a recent Revolution in France. America gained independence. There were riots in the streets.

If Oliver Twist grew up in New Lanark, he would have had a better life than he could expect otherwise. But would there be a musical based on his story? Would anyone watch?

I probably will. But only if there’s free beer.


The Isle of Mull

“Nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence.” — Dr. Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

With this quote in mind, I went on holiday with my family to the same place that Dr. Johnson visited sometime in the 18th century and formed the above opinion. After a forty-five minute ferry, I arrive in Mull and this is what I see:

Would YOU live here?

Am I missing something?

The Isle of Mull is one of the largest in the Hebrides, a group of islands off the Scottish mainland, the same place where, in 1588, it’s said a member of a little known fleet of ships called the Spanish Armada docked to get provisions and exploded into what I can only assume was a riot of colors.

The colors were later immortalized in the children's TV show, "Balamory."

The colors were later immortalized in the children’s TV show, “Balamory.”

I have no idea what Dr. Johnson was complaining about. There are certainly worse places in which to live. In fact, today many citizens in the Isle of Mull were “born in other parts of the world,” mostly (and understandably) hailing from a certain part of the world’s armpit called Newcastle. We stayed in Mull for a week, and in that time I never once saw a “true local.”

Seriously, where are all the Scots?

Seriously, WHERE are all the Scots?

This is the cost of the Highland Clearances, and it’s never been more obvious than in this remote Hebridean isle. The place names are Gaelic, but none of the island’s inhabitants speak it. It’s a beautiful place filled with romantic medieval castle ruins, deserted white sand beaches, peaceful lochs, white-tailed sea eagles, otters, golden eagles, corn crakes, deer, puffins, whales, seals… and the most a lot of people could say is that it’s their second home.

Everywhere there are remnants of Highland life–you can almost see a buffed, red-haired laird from historical romance, but the clans have long since left. It’s no longer illegal to wear tartan, but somehow I doubt those bleating sheep and fat cattle these lands were cleared for would have any use for such garments.



If there was anything left of traditional Highland life after the Jacobite Risings in the 17th century, the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution got rid of it much in the same way a washing machine would clean a stain from your shirt. How the stain got there, and the lessons learned from the stain, is soon washed from memory. It happened in another time, another era in your life. So, by all means, next time you wear that shirt, feel free to eat spaghetti bolognese without a napkin.

Holiday homes in Bunessan, Isle of Mull.

Holiday homes in Bunessan, Isle of Mull.

It is easy to condemn the English, or the increasingly wealthy landed gentry, for the decimation and forced migration of a culture amused by caber-tossing that even the Roman Empire failed to subjugate.

But notions that our version of “progress” and “civilization” are the best and good for the world, and that the country is running out of space due to immigration, of how unfettered investments and globalization is good for the many and not the few, are still mostly unquestioned and often win elections. When it comes to greed and ambition, to hoarding resources, I think we all remain guiltier than a puppy standing next to a puddle.

That puppy is called Rusty.

That puppy is named Rusty.


Johnson, Samuel. Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Transcribed in 1775.