PsychoGeography #80: Scotch on the rocks, with a splash of water

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The Independent Online

Most years at Easter we head up to Lanarkshire to visit my parents-in-law.

Most years at Easter we head up to Lanarkshire to visit my parents-in-law. They live in Motherwell, a town that had the heart ripped out of it a decade or so ago when the vast chimneys of Ravenscraig, the steel works, were demolished. Nowadays this part of the Scottish rust belt is cleaner and more orderly, but there's still a lurking feel of despoliation in the landscape: the fields are small and dark, twists of polythene are caught on the barbed wire as if the livestock were plastic run amok, the verges glitter with crushed cans.

To the south and the north there are the remains of enormous opencast mines, whole square kilometres of the earth churned up and scoured out. On the OS map they show up as disturbing, white spaces, devoid of features either manmade or natural. My father-in-law told me about one mine where they'd brought it an earthmover so vast, that once its work was done it proved impossible to take it away again. "It cost £3m - and now it's just sitting there, rusting, falling apart."

By contrast we stay half an hour's drive away in a superbly restored chunk of industrial heritage, New Lanark. This was the utopian brainchild of Robert Owen and David Dale: a community of cotton workers, housed in coolly rational, early-19th-century buildings that snake along the vertiginous sides of the steep Clyde River valley. Their spinning jennies were powered by the torrent, and their - relatively - benign employers made sure they were educated, housed and received medical care.

The original New Lanark didn't outlast the Victorian era, and by the 1970s the buildings were derelict. Since then, however, all has been restored and it's now termed a World Heritage Site. Usually I find such ascriptions problematic - but New Lanark truly is remarkable. True, the funicular ride through its history that constitutes the principle visitor attraction is a tad cheesy, and the acres of woollens on sale are rather cloying, but if you listen to the rush and clatter of the water wheels turning, time seems to backpedal out of the present. We put up in one of the "water houses" attached to the New Lanark Mill Hotel, foursquare, solid structures that once housed water turbines, and which are so well built that there isn't a trace of damp.

We spent the days driving down to Ayr and across to Edinburgh, but each evening we'd find ourselves back at New Lanark and take a walk up through the darkened nature reserve to the falls at Bonnington Linn. The Falls of Clyde were the kind of scenic gash that put the Romantics in touch with the sublime. Even today, with every conceivable kind of cataract within a few hours flying distance, their anfractuous, sinuous torrents - hump-backed, frothing, pounding - still have the capacity to quietly thrill. And this despite the fact that the bulk of the waters are siphoned off and fed into a humming hydroelectric plant.

Over the years I've been coming to the Falls the safety measures have steadily advanced up the gorge: signs, benches, grip-fast walkways, balustrades. In an entirely tasteful and appropriate way the wild beauty of the place has been interiorised, until - especially by night - you get the feeling that you're striding through a large sitting room. A couple of years ago a pair of peregrine falcons began nesting by the second set of falls at a place called Corra Linn. To begin with there were just a couple of enthusiastic twitchers keeping watch on them, but now there's an entire info-encampment, complete with signs warning you that the hawks are protected by motion-sensitive alarms and a CCTV system. It seems a long way from the unfettered, natural world, yet the precautions are hardly unnecessary; such is the psychotic bent of birds' egg thieves - and so heavy are the penalties - that more of them are confined to the special unit at Barlinnie than there are psychopathic killers.

Not for the first time, sitting in the pine-fresh darkness and listening to the rush of the waters and the pulse of the power station, I wondered if the original workers of New Lanark were able to take pleasure in the beauty of the falls. Or was looking at the source of the clack and snap of the machinery they were yoked to only the Industrial Revolution equivalent of staring at a line of electricity pylons marching across blighted fields?