The mill and village houses of New Lanark are a World Heritage Site, but Sandra Dick finds a new exhibition sheds light on how it was almost lost forever

For generations it provided work, housing and an escape from the desperate poverty and hopelessness that gripped Scotland.

But when the cotton looms of New Lanark’s mill eventually fell silent, the 19th-century buildings which once represented a visionary dream fell into disrepair and began to collapse.

And by the early 1970s, the mill and its associated homes – a remarkable example of industrial innovation and social reform – were tottering on the brink of being lost forever.

Today New Lanark founder Robert Owen’s vision of a thriving utopian community that combined manufacturing excellence with decent living conditions and education for workers’ children, is a Unesco World Heritage Site which attracts 400,000 visitors every year.

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But as remarkable pictures from a new exhibition show, its towering walls were once dangerously close to crumbling, homes once occupied by scores of grateful families were in disrepair and the entire site was little more than a ghost town.

It’s a far cry from the teeming village and mill where 2500 people once lived and worked – and a leap from today’s visitor attraction.

The exhibition, which is due to open later this year, will tell the story of the village during the era which saw it fade, close and deteriorate.

And it includes wishful visions for the site’s future drawn up by Glasgow School of Art students, which imagine a mill that returns to its roots providing shelter, employment and community for its people.

Suggestions for a future New Lanark include a role as a refugee settlement, arts and crafts workshops, inter-generational community projects, mental health rehabilitation and even a vertical "high rise" garden.

According to Helen Martin, collections officer at New Lanark, the architecture students’ ideas combine the mill’s traditional ethos with a modern era – even if they are simply "wishful thinking".

“Some involve large-scale building which obviously we are not going to do. But New Lanark was always supposed to be a living and working village – it was never intended as a museum or frozen in time.

“So we need to think about the future and what ways we can use the spaces we have in new ways and keep it alive and relevant.”

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The mill and village, in a gorge by the side of the River Clyde, was founded in 1786 by cotton mill entrepreneur David Dale.

However, it was his son-in-law Robert Owen’s remarkable vision for a form of "industrial utopia" that would see workers live in harmony with the mill, taking advantage of education and with vastly improved working and living conditions, that made New Lanark unique.

Owen, disturbed by conditions he’d witnessed in Britain’s mills, resolved to support workers – many of whom had come from the poorhouses of Glasgow and Edinburgh or were Hebridean islanders fleeing their failing crofts in search of a better life.

Among his welfare programmes was the first infants’ school in Britain, which opened in 1817.

The mill and village were celebrated across Europe as a perfect example of industry, engineering and social reform, but by the mid-20th century its production methods were outdated and uneconomical.

It’s then owner, Gourock Ropeworks, halted production in 1968 but struggled to sell the mill. Homes began to suffer from lack of investment and the model village became outdated, tired and in need of care.

Residents drifted away, and by 1974 the historic mill and its associated buildings could easily have vanished had it not been for a committed group of people who understood its unique value and set about saving it from crumbling.

“There was a time when the future of the village was really uncertain,” said Ms Martin.

“The mill closed in 1968 mainly because it wasn’t financially viable. But no one wanted to take on the mill because they would have had to take on the housing and all the upgrades and renovations it needed.

“It would be a large undertaking. So, the buildings were just left to the elements, to the point that it was quite bad.”

By the time New Lanark Conservation Trust was set up in the mid-Seventies, the top two floors of number one mill, which is now the site’s hotel, had collapsed, and walls of other buildings were being shored up by wooden props.

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A turning point came when the buildings were listed for their historical significance before a compulsory purchase order in 1983 enabled work to begin on saving the structures.

Ms Martin said the aim of the exhibition was to look at the industrial heritage of the past, New Lanark now and its future, and to remind visitors how close it came to being lost.

“We wanted to show that the mill hasn’t always been as it is now, and there was a time when the future of the villagers here was really uncertain,” she added.

“There has been very intensive work done over 50 years to save the industrial buildings and the houses.”

One of the site’s two main mills is now New Lanark Mill Hotel, while the other draws thousands of visitors every year to see the heritage centre with its working loom and to pay homage at the birthplace of one of the first examples of a planned settlement.

The smaller mills are used as office space, with room for exhibitions and events, while New Lanark’s houses are now home for around 200 people in a mix of private and social housing.

As well as images reflecting on New Lanark’s past and possible future, the autumn exhibition will include the Historic Environment Scotland (HES) photography exhibition, Industry and Aesthetics, which explores emotional responses to photographs of abandoned industrial spaces, and contemporary pictures submitted by visitors as part of a summer photography exhibition.