Lesmahagow: the village that changed the world

21 January 2020
Professor Andrew C Scott tells the story of a 30-year project to explore the history of a Lanarkshire village whose inhabitants have included inventors, scientists, artists, politicians… and even a spy.

It may seem strange for a scientist born in London to be writing about the history of a small Scottish village and its people, and also to claim that it is a village that changed history. Yet my family’s connection with the village of Lesmahagow goes back 300 years. 

The circumstances leading to me writing At The Crossroads of Time are indeed quite unusual and in many ways I feel that I have been led to undertake such a task. The story behind the book began when I was seven years old. My father was born in Lesmahagow during the First World War and his mother had been a teacher in the village. 

Family connections

We used to visit regularly until my grandmother died and my aunt and uncle, (a coal winder) moved away when the Killoch coal mine in opened in 1959. The following year my father’s best man took me agate collecting at Dunure on the Ayrshire coast and from that day on I wanted to become a geologist. 

One of the areas that I worked on in for my doctoral research and then as a university lecturer was the origins of coal. I was asked by the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh (now the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh) to collect coal samples for a new exhibition that they were organizing and it was suggested I go to Dalquhandy Opencast between Coalburn and Lesmahagow. 

My father, who was born in Lesmahagow, had died when I was 14 and I was keen to work on my family history as I was in the area for the coal project. Imagine my surprise when I was to learn that my family were living in a cottage in 1841 on the edge of the mine where I was working.

Even stranger, I learned that James Scott, my great-great-grandfather who had lived in the village, was a limestone miner and I even found the entrance to the mine where he worked! The link between geology, my family history and the evolution of the village was made and so began a 30-year project to understand how and why Lesmahagow evolved and why so many fascinating people came from there. 

Lesmahagow connections

Lesmahagow in Scotland is not likely to be a village that you have heard of. Perhaps if you are travelling from Carlisle to Glasgow on the M74 you might have seen the strange name on the turn off sign. 

Lesmahagow has many claims to fame because of its location and geological heritage (including the occurence of world famous fossils) and many of its sometime residents have taken up influential roles in the history of the nation. Below are some of the stories, which I explore further in my book.

The inventors

Inventors from Lesmahagow designed new machines such as the pedal bike, and experimented with innovative industrial developments at New Lanark, bordering Lesmahagow on the River Clyde. I tell the story of Gavin Dalzell whose bike is on display in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.

The scientists

The pioneering ‘man-midwife’ William Smellie was born in the village; his text-book on midwifery was the main book used for nearly 150 years and such was its importance it was reprinted in a special celebratory edition in the USA in 1990.

The end of the 19th and early part of the 20th century saw the remarkable increase in schooling for all the children of the village inspired by one teacher in particular – Matthew Glover, with whom my grandmother Kate Wilson taught. His own children James and Edward Glover went on to distinguish themselves in the new academic discipline of psychology. In particular, the discipline of criminal psychology was pioneered by Edward Glover. 

Lesmahagow people have also made a mark in economics. Alex Cairncross was one of the country’s foremost economists, not only becoming a government advisor, but also holding important roles in several universities, including setting up the first Research Department of Applied Economics at Glasgow University, where he was later appointed as chancellor and subsequently as Master of St. Peter’s College, Oxford. He was the author of many research volumes and textbooks on economics. 

The artists, writers and poets

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Sir Walter Scott loved the area and even contemplated making his home there. He used Craignethan Casle in his 1816 tale Old Mortality, in which he called it Tillietudlem. Such was the local interest in attracting tourists that a hamlet near the castle was given the same name.

Artistic connections continue with poet William Wordsworth, who visited and wrote about the area, whilst the painter J.M. Turner loved the area, especially the Falls of Clyde that links Lesmahagow with New Lanark, and painted them on more than one occasion. 

The sister of Robert Burns lived in the parish and several other poets came from or wrote about the area. Even those who left the village made an impact. For example, Alexander Muir emigrated to Canada and wrote the famous song The Maple Leaf Forever

Public servants, politicians and spies

However, it is one class of 1924 that catches the eye, with three boys going on to distinguishing themselves, two becoming knights of the realm (Sir John Inch and Sir Alex Cairncross) and another, Tom Fraser, becoming a cabinet minister, perhaps best known as the transport secretary who introduced Britain’s 70 mile an hour speed limit.

Another village boy, John Cairncross, is best known as the 5th Cambridge spy but much about him and his background has been misunderstood. My father, John Dalgleish Scott, who was the son of a coal miner, like so many from the village went on to Hamilton Academy before going to Glasgow University. 

My father studied French and German before the war and many in his class of 1938 joined the Intelligence services at the outbreak of the Second World War and I tell the tale of their incredible adventures and contributions to the war effort, including the story of my father’s friend Jimmy Adam who arrested the high-ranking Nazi von Ribbentrop at the end of the war. 

The legacy of those people has not commonly been traced to their one single connection, that they all grew up in the same village. Given its extraordinary legacy in the arts, the sciences and in the world of politics, Lesmahagow may well claim to be a village that changed the world. 

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About the author

Andrew C. Scott is a Distinguished Research Professor at Royal Holloway, University of London and a distinguished geologist. He is the author of more than 10 books and 200 scholarly articles. His previous book ‘Burning Planet - the story of fire through time’ was published in 2018.

Professor Andrew C. Scott is the author of At The Crossroads of Time: How a Small Scottish Village Changed History, published by Amberley Publishing.

Unlike many other small villages in the UK, Lesmahagow has many claims to fame because of its location and geological heritage and due to many of its sometime residents having taken up influential roles in the history of the nation.

Andrew C. Scott’s family lived in the village for more than three centuries, and in this book he explores the fascinating story of this unassuming settlement.