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Mr Levett's Scottish Tour (Part One)

The Bee's Jeremy Levett, along with his parents, and brothers Nick and Oliver, recently made an expedition north o' the border.  This is his Tue Account of their epic journey...

Take me out to the Penrith chippie, where the food is hot and the air is nippy

Up at something unreasonably early to dump the tortoise on lovely Havercrofts, then the long road north, with Oliver at the helm anticipating his next driving test. Leaving Bristol, we talked about a chap trying to exterminate grey squirrels in his area and replace them with red ones – someone determined to be on the wrong side of natural selection, I feel – then I florped over onto the bags and slept until we were at the northeastern bounds of the Lake District. For Americans and other heathen foreigners, Bristol to Penrith is about a third of the way across the United Kingdom; shut up, what we lack in size we make up for in history.

And it was very different terrain. Everywhere there were these hills. While Bristol is full of murderously steep hills it’s so urban you don’t really see them, and the surrounding countryside is pretty subdued. I am born and raised a stadtkind and am always amazed when I see naked countryside in decent quantity and a shape other than Flat; here it was, dirty great lumps in the surface of the earth, whole ranges of them, punctuated with woods and clusters of white spoil-heaps, bristling with conveyors and gantries. Wild terrain, but tamed land on top of it. Artificial looking mounds and a few collapsed houses lay among corrugated-roofed farms and fields irregularly delineated by dry-stone walls. People started building dry-stone walls here centuries ago and have carried on pretty much without stopping since. We passed a forest of wind turbines at the National Park boundary and wondered about Lake District nimbies; more idiots determined to be on the wrong side of history. One of the turbines had its blades feathered and wasn’t turning. It’s always a shame to see technology without hustle.

Lunch in Penrith at a chippie very proud of its awards, and possibly responsible for the generally rotund shape of the local Penrithers; had an "Angel Burger" (double cheeseburger with mayonnaise; the counterpart "Devil Burger" had sweet chili instead) and the meat was deep fried rather than grilled. We weren't even in Scotland yet, and the OIL IT UP approach was evident; I love a place that takes its cholesterol seriously.

Wanlockhead Lead Mining Museum, the famous Museum
of Lead Mining at Wanlockhead.
Near the source of the Clyde we found the hill Scoular Anderson had stood on writing Journey Down the Clyde, and took a photograph to match it; the bridge has been rebuilt, the trains that streak down the line are different, but the pylons, the river, the hills are the same. Up into those same hills we drove, to find the Wanlockhead Lead Mining Museum, past a deep depression carved down the years by the slowly slipping meanders of a river (I wanted to take pictures, there was one amazing side of a meander which clearly showed all the stages of erosion and regeneration: bare rocks, bushes, scrub, soft even turf - but Mum said I'd get a chance when we drove back along that route; we didn't) and under hilltops sprouting arrays of ominous-looking, half-hidden radio aerials. We found the museum, but the staff were absurdly fussy and nannylike, trying to plot our itinerary constantly, glancing at their watches, tutting; you got the impression they were desperately happy just to have someone to talk to, as well as a good idea of why they were so desperate. The museum itself was good, though, having shaken off an escort. It had a bunch of exhibits of Various Rocks, lead ingots and fire-marks and big old flanged bullets with their moulds, a scale model of the mine's beam engine, a poem Robbie Burns had written to pay the blacksmith for shoeing his horse (cheapskate). There was surprisingly little silver. Up the hill there was an ancient miners' subscription library full of relentlessly Improving books, all Victorian science and natural history, and more psalms than I would have thought existed, and down the hill past the ancient, rickety beam engine we were treated to a tour through the history of miners' huts (given by the museum's token non-overbearing staffer, who happened to be the token male one). At one point the landowner had granted the locals the right to build houses on any flat ground they could find, which given the scenery wasn’t the offer it sounds like. The mine was all in ruins, littered with the shattered, rusting detritus of various eras, and the cafe was closed when we returned, so back into the car, and another few leagues on to Lanark.

"...and I'll take the high road."

"Is anything worn under the kilt?"
"Nay, it's all in purrfect wurrking orrder..." etc.
There’s two things I’ve noticed that characterise this place. To avoid National Stereotypes better occupied by sporrans, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and deep-fried things, “this place” is southwestern Scotland at the baby end of the Clyde; Lanark and the pre-Lanark bits a soft southern pansy like myself would drive through to get there. Though I don’t really need to apologise for anything; I grew up in Glasgow, sod you.

One is the architecture. Buildings round here, even in the smallest towns – especially in the smallest towns - are something else. No-nonsense buildings, hard grey and off-red stone, and well-made; slate roofs, thick walls, all squared away with geometrical precision, taller, prouder and better made than the stone cottages in Snowdonia. In the parts of England I frequent, buildings made like this are either ancient rustic curiosities, great civic works or churches; not much middle ground. Here, they’re everything, with pleasing solidity, uniform professionalism and fortified dourness, and here, unlike the modern, flighty, plastic and basically ugly dwellings going up in immense numbers all over England, they’re still making them; some of the newer buildings we saw (easily distinguished by their lack of chimneys; the stoves they are a-changing) were the same style, if different in the details. Here, you get the feeling, a Scotsman’s house really is his castle. Building is no mere passion for venturing and scaffolding; no work of a free enthusiasm, it is a serious means for a serious object.

Two is the fussiness. Everywhere – again, especially in the small towns - safe, sensible warning signs sprout, and practically every warning is accompanied by a terse but detailed explanation as to why it exists. Just like the Wenlockhead lead museum attendants, who couldn’t point you up the hill without getting all up in your business; they want to know what you were doing, why, when, how, in order to tell you how you should instead be doing things down to the smallest detail. It’s a sort of micromanagement by proxy; where Ulster has flags of the Union and the bloody hand flying zip-tie ragged from every streetlight, Lanarkshire has “advised speed limit” signs telling you Twenty’s Plenty. There’s a common-sense smugness there, a superiority that belies a (probably-well founded) sense that people Don’t Know Better, and need to be told.

New Lanark is a town built on both of these principles.

Richard Arkwright, (in)famous pioneer of factory systems and industrial cotton-spinning, in partnership with the Scots banker David Dale, built the place in the late 18th century with the dream of it becoming “the Manchester of Scotland”. The Clyde was an ideal spot for water power, so ideal that this rocky valley in the armpit of nowhere was worth turning into the biggest cotton-spinning plant in the world. Water power and an abundance of cheap child labour, later to be supplemented by orphanages. (You think I’m joking, don’t you.) So they built massive factories here, in that dour, sensible grey stone style aimed to withstand the test of ages. They have done, and remain almost unchanged from two centuries ago; serious, industrial architecture, from a time when that didn’t automatically mean “ugly.”

(It must be stressed that this 18th-century industrial estate is New Lanark. Old Lanark is a perfectly normal [ie, well-built and fussy, by laid-back, slowly disintegrating southern English standards] town up the hill, with a big, imaginative statue of William Wallace and a great Indian restaurant. The town’s symbol is, for whatever reason, a double-headed eagle; I don’t know if its allegiance is to Byzantium, the Austrian Empire or the Imperium of Man, but it was cool to see.)

That Robert Owen
Later, it was acquired by the industrialist, philanthropist and proto-socialist Robert Owen. He introduced various forward-thinking, generally-seen-as-insane principles like providing plentiful good quality housing (for 1820, that is; people still outnumbered rooms four to one), schooling and healthcare to his workforce, and a programme of relentless Improvement similar to that seen in the minds of the Wenlockhead librarians, where a schoolhouse purpose-built at great expense was used round the clock with a broad and interesting curriculum. The heritage centre gushes louder about him than the Clyde gushes outside, never really addressing the wisdom of raising and educating children to express themselves and know about the world, followed immediately by locking them in factories surrounded by murderous, deafening machines to work until they died. Nor does it paint the wage-slave locking-in tactic of paying workers in company store tokens as anything but a good thing (play me some Sixteen Tons.) But I suppose if he hadn’t turned a tidy profit along with the rigorously controlled Good Works, nobody would have taken him seriously, and nobody else in the world would have bothered to raise standards for their workers. Owen’s philosophy seemed to be that properly-educated, decently-fed, well-housed workers would be more efficient and obedient. It was his calling to raise these people from ignorance and suffering, by indoctrinating them in his way; they didn’t know better.

Taken in the context of its age, New Lanark was the fluffiest, friendliest, most liveable-in industrial hellhole in the world. Still, the overall philosophy you can see is not of woolly, good-natured philanthropy but an immense Soviet-esque feeling of “this is what’s good for you” handed down from on high; Owen Knows Best. Mostly glossed over is the man’s insane intellectual hippie commune in Indiana in which he and a bunch of other progressive 19th century intellectuals attempted to construct Utopia and then were reminded - forcefully - that they had no practical skills; that got a small exhibit in the basement of his house.

Owen moved on in 1825, to bigger and less successful things. New Lanark carried on operating until 1968 before going bust and being abandoned, and was only recently restored by the charitable New Lanark Association.

We stayed there two nights, and moved on.

Next week: the Antonine Wall, the Falkirk Wheel, and on into the Highlands.

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