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Dr Alistair Brown
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Scotland Trip: New Lanark

We leave Mull on the early morning ferry to Oban, with the island appropriately shrouded in a mist, as if it had specially gifted us the glorious weather we had for the previous three days. We both feel privileged, as if Mull has given us a few of its secrets, a piece of its wild nature for us to take back to the rush of traffic and ping of emails. This, though, is one of the paradoxes of tourism. As we move to discover the special "it" of a new place, the more people follow, so that soon the special quality is no longer the same as that for which we came in the first place. And so, whilst I hope our journey has made us a bit more conscious of the beauty of a landscape where man and nature can live in balance, I am also conscious of the fact that our very act the very act of being here deprecates the very environment that makes it so special. Departing Mull is sad because, in some ways, I feel ashamed ever to have arrived.

On the other hand, when the special nature of a place is changed by tourism, like a grazing herd the tourists tramp on somewhere else: Ibiza, Thailand, New Zealand. But behind their backs, the first place may be recovering. And this has happened to the Highlands. The place to which the Romantics were flocking in the eighteenth century had become, by the late twentieth, neglected compared to the sunshine and cheap apartments offered in the package holiday. But those of us who refuse to fly because of CO2 emissions are being rewarded as we discover we can creep back to the wild places that both are and are not a world away from home.

Certainly, it is a somewhat uncanny experience, boarding the ferry where, suddenly, my mobile's 3G signal comes alive and Sky News reports flash across screens. I realise that I - a news, email and web junkie - have missed none of these things on Mull. For why waste time on the small screen, when it is the larger landscape that is playing the most important drama, where the weather for the day is the only news that matters, and where it is local people, not distant voices on a phone line, who are going to help or inform you if you get into trouble?

As we draw close to Oban, what in another context would seem pretty Georgian townhouses which hugging the harbour, now seem somewhat imposing, their three or four stories in contrast to the low crofts and cottages that on the whole characterise houses on the island. In the drive back down the A85 to Glasgow, we both reflect on the uncanny feeling, that whereas on the drive up here we had felt like we were leaving civilisation behind, now the same houses and - yes, even shops and petrol stations - in small villages that had once seemed remote now seem like comparatively metropolitan centres. As we eventually hit the Glasgow rush hour, running the knife of the M9 that scythes its way through the city, the calm of Mull evaporates as we stare at the tailgates of vans.

Once we arrive at our final youth hostel New Lanark, however, another uncanniness hits. New Lanark is now a World Heritage Site, having once been the model mill town established on philanthropic and socialist principles by the industrialist Robert Owen. The town is pristine but we feel like we have entered the twilight zone as, at this late hour of the day, there are no tourists, only staff walking around in petticoats and cloth caps. Have we really been transported back in time? Gingerly, and in hunt of food for dinner, we creak open the door of the village shop, to be glowered at by some mistress of the 1800s, peering over her glasses. Her nostalgic humbugs and gobstoppers will not serve for our food, and we retreat from this other worldly shop to that identikit one that is comfortingly recognisable: Tesco.

Photograph of New Lanark
Owen's Mill, New Lanark

Having failed to spot Mull's most exciting resident and Britain's largest bird, the sea eagle, at least today we know that we are guaranteed to get a close view of the fastest animal in the world: the peregrine falcon. Perged on the gorge of the Clyde river that once fuelled New Lanark's mills nest a pair of peregrines, who have reliably returned here every year since 1997. Scottish Wildlife Trust have set up a dedicated guard on these rare birds, with a hide across on the other side of the gorge from which visitors can use high-powered telescopes to see the nest without disturbance.

As someone who used to work for a Wildlife Trust, H is very impressed by the resources targeted at this one species. A team of rangers live on site for twenty-four hours a day during the nesting season, ensuring that the nest is protected from poachers or, more likely, angry pigeon breeders whose valuable birds are the undiscriminating falcons' principal food. While she talks work with the rangers, I get the chance to plug my camera into the largest lens I have ever seen: dish-plate in diameter and around 3 feet long, it should allow me to get a great close-up of the nest. Unfortunately, with a lens this long the slightest wobble - such as that caused by the depression of the shutter - leads to a shaky picture, and so I have to use the 10 second self-timer to avoid touching the camera. In spite of the assurances that the birds are not aware of our presence in the well-camouflaged hide, I am not convinced, as one or both of them seem cheekily to fly or move around just at the moment the 10 second interval is up. My failures surely justify the purchase of a remote trigger when we return home.

Falls of Clyde
Falls of Cylde, Jacob More

The picture-taking, though, is something of a distraction for the far finer impressions of our walk along the river, once we leave the falcons behind. As at Loch Lomond, we are following in the footsteps of the Romantics. The series of waterfalls known as the Falls of Clyde, which drop over successive steps of dark rock, were described by Dorothy Wordsworth in sublime terms: "The majesty and strength of the water, for I had never before seen so large a cataract, struck me with astonishment which died giving way to more delightful feelings." In her diary, Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, Dorothy recalled Samuel Taylor Coleridge finding the appropriate word when discussing Cora Linn, the grandest fall, with a fellow walker:

Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. 'Yes, sir,' says Coleridge, 'it is a majestic waterfall.' 'Sublime and beautiful,' replied his friend. Poor Coleridge could make no answer, and, not very desirous to continue the conversation, came to us and related the story, laughing heartily.

Majesty, too, is conjured by Jacob More's painting The Falls of Clyde (Corra Linn) which depicts three small human figures gazing and pointing at the yellowing falls in. Today, the scene is being re-enacted, though in a somewhat subversive way, by two anglers who somehow have scrambled down to the flat rocks at the bottom and idly cast off. They have either ignored, or are not aware, of the warning signs at an artificial weir upstream, which advises that the level of the river can change very rapidly as the gates are opened to regulate the flow to two small hydroelectric power stations.

Like the cotton mills before them, these utilise the river's ceaseless flow to provide clean energy. Dating from 1927, they are Britain's oldest hydro-electric power stations generating for the grid (though I feel a smug pride when I recall that the north-east's Cragside has the world's oldest hydro power station, feeding Lord Armstrong's house since 1870). Bonnington station, which we pass on our walk, is a fine art deco building, with huge slit windows offering a glimpse of green generators inside. Behind us, water rumbles and echoes eerily down large steel pipes which divert the water off the main river, causing it to descend the hillside in a tamed way, in contrast to the unruly fall of Linn on the river.

Following the First World War, the architects of Scotland's hydro-electric revolution were aware of the issue that presses home today. The original publicity material for the scheme explains that:

Our coal measures are becoming worked to a degree which is causing thoughtful men to regard our future with some concern. The time is past when we, in this country, can afford to view with indifference waste of our natural resources, whether it be human life - and all that implies - mineral wealth, or water power.

Bonnington, back in the 1920s, was the pioneer for an industry that is - and must - realise its potential a century later, in the present day. Currently, Scotland gets around 20% of its electricity from renewable sources. By 2020, it is predicted to meet half of its needs this way. Bonnington shows that it is possible for industrial needs to be fulfilled in an environmentally respectful way, but it also implies how the public perception of schemes like hydroelectric depend on our sense of history. The cotton mill already beneath the Falls of Cylde has become a World Heritage Site, an accepted, even protected part of the river's landscape. Similarly, the established brown bricks of Bonnington do not seem to disturb the majesty of the river observed by Coleridge. With the gradual adaptation of the river to man's uses over time, power and beauty can go together. But that long period allows people's perceptions of the natural and the artificial to change, and to blur into one another, so that the mill and the power station seem somehow appropriate, where once they must have been condemned as an eyesore. Deploying wind farms on Shetland, which is currently the most controversial project in Scotland, will pose more of a problem, though, because the urgency of climate change people cannot take the privilege of centuries to adapt to this new view of the landscape.

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This page was published on July 2011 | Keywords: New Lanark, Scotland, River Clyde, Bonnington

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