Lifting the Lid on Scottish food history at New Lanark

I remember enjoying reading about the industrial revolution in school. It was almost near enough in time not to feel like a fairy-tale and it left its mark all over the city I lived in. It affected every aspect of how people lived, including what they ate. An exhibition at New Lanark – industrial revolution model community – explores how the Scottish diet has changed in recent centuries. We went to check it out.

Old cookbooks - cakes, cakes, cakes!

Old cookbooks – cakes, cakes, cakes!

The view when you walk down into New Lanark from the car park is gorgeous. Nestled in the lap of a verdant valley are well-ordered industrial and domestic buildings. New Lanark is a world heritage site, a space of global industrial and social interest. It was of interest in its heyday too: visitors would come from afar to see how the community worked. The site combines a mill and a village and was the brain child of John Owens, a cotton mill owner who wanted to look after his worker’s moral, spiritual and physical well-being. In his community, children could stay in school until they were 12, workers only worked 10.5 hours a day, and the mill store sold produce of better quality and at a lower price than what was available in similar communities. The history is fascinating: we spent a good half an hour in the school room alone.

Lifting the Lid on Scottish food history.

Lifting the Lid on Scottish food history.

So, what did they eat?

It’ll come as no surprise that the early generations of factory workers didn’t exactly dine on cake and pork chops. They rarely had meat in the stew they ate almost daily, a mixture of available veggies often thickened with barley. Depending on thickness, it could be soup or stew. It’s a dish I think we’d all recognise: I make it for warming winter lunches. Breakfast was often porridge and was part of the working day: you work, then you go home for breakfast, then you return to work.

Lifting the Lid shows how the Scottish diet has changed as the world has changed. From a diet of porridge and barley, we’ve moved to one with a lot more meat but also a wider range of fruit and vegetables. I was fascinated to find out about the large tomato-growing industry that sprang up in Scotland and intrigued by how it died away due to the increased costs of maintaining and heating glass houses.

Oats. Say no more. ;)

Oats. Say no more. 😉

Lifting the Lid was developed in association with National Library of Scotland and contains a number of reproductions of original hand-written recipes and facsimiles from cookbooks. It’s interesting to see how access to new technologies (canning, for example) and ingredients changes the diet of a nation. Just imagine the huge range of ingredients that have become accessible in the last few decades with increased global sales and cheaper transport. As a foody of vast and varied appetites, I came out of the exhibition grateful to live in present times.

But what did you eat?

There’s a hotel restaurant and a cantine-style café. We went to the latter for treacle scones, machine coffee and award-winning New Lanark ice cream. I had the lemon sorbet (tangy and refreshing) and the puff candy ice cream (delightfully caramelly and creamy). Next time, we’ll try the hotel restaurant.

If food’s not your thing, there’s still a lot to see in New Lanark: there’s the workers’ house, the mill itself, a roof garden with pretty view and the waterfall. There’s even a fun and informative ‘ghost’ ride. The shop sells, among many other things, wool made at the mill. When we went, they were spinning maroon.

Lemon sorbet and puff candy ice cream. Mmm!

Lemon sorbet and puff candy ice cream. Mmm!

New Lanark World Heritage Site

South Lanarkshire Scotland
ML11 9DB

Telephone: +44(0)1555 661345

Instagram: newlanark | Twitter: @newlanerkwhs | Facebook: New Lanark World Heritage Site

Caroline was given tickets to visit New Lanark World Heritage Site and see the exhibition. She paid for her own coffee and ice cream.

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.

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