Lesmahagow - At the Crossroads of Time by Andrew C. Scott
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 to claim that it is a village that changed history. Yet Lesmahagow is where my family is from and they had lived there for 300 years. The circumstances leading to the writing of the book 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 starts when I was 7 years old. My father was born in Lesmahagow during the First World War and it is where his mother had been a teacher. We used to visit regularly until my grandmother died and my Aunt and Uncle, (a coal winder) who looked after her, moved as the new Killoch coal mine in Ayrshire that opened in 1959. The following year my father’s best man, who he met in Germany at the end of the second world war took me agate collecting at Dunure on the Ayrshire coast. From that day I wanted to become a geologist. One of the areas that I worked on for my doctoral research and then as a University lecturer was on the origin 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. 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 that was on the edge of the mine where I was working for the museum. Even stranger, I learned that James Scott, my great-great-grandfather who lived there, 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 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. You probably may have had difficulty pronouncing the name.
If you are a geologist, and more particularly a paleontologist, you may remember hearing of those exceptional early fossils found there from the Silurian Period 420 or so million years old - perhaps the name of an early fish or those giant sea scorpions found in Museums in Glasgow and Edinburgh and indeed worldwide.
If you are interested in Scottish industrial heritage, you may know that it is near New Lanark or that it had a nearby coal mining industry where the coal helped fuel Scotland’s industrial revolution and whose gas coal provided some of the first gas used to light houses and factories in Scotland.
If you are into secrets and spies you may know that it was the birthplace of John Cairncross, the 5th member of the so-called ‘Cambridge Spy ring’ who passed secrets to the Russians during the Second World War.
Lesmahagow, has many claims to fame because of its location and geological heritage and many of its sometime residents have taken up influential roles in the history of the nation. In this new book I explore the fascinating story of this unassuming settlement
Inventors from Lesmahagow designed new machines such as the pedal bike. I tell the story of Gavin Dalzell whose bike is on display in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.
The pioneering ‘man-midwife’ William Smellie was born there. His textbook 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 nineteenth 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, for 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.
In economics also Lesmahagow people have made a mark. Alex Cairncross was one of this countries foremost economists not only becoming a government advisor, but having important roles in several Universities including setting up the first Research Department of Applied Economics at Glasgow University where later he was appointed as Chancellor and later 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
Sir Walter Scott loved the area and even contemplated making his home there. He used Craignethan Castle in his 1816 tale of ‘Old Mortality’. He called it Tillietudlem and such was the local interest in attracting tourists that they named the local hamlet by the Castle as Tillietudlem. Craignethan Castle has a fascinating history and can be visited today.
The poet William Wordsworth visited and wrote about the area and the painter J.M. Turner loved the area and especially the Falls of Clyde that links Lesmahagow with New Lanark (a World Heritage Site) 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 https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-maple-leaf-for-ever.
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, Sir Alex Cairncross and one becoming a cabinet minister Tom Fraser MP. Who was best known as the transport secretary who introduced the 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 story 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 been commonly 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.
Andrew C. Scott's book At the Crossroads of Time is available for purchase now.