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Early years

It was the age of the Scottish Enlightenment and Robert Burns was prancing around the Braes of Ballochmyle, as he had a fancy for Wilhelmina Alexander, Claud’s 31 year old unmarried sister. Meantime, in the glens of the north, the notorious Highland Clearances were in full swing. The network of financiers, merchants and philanthropists working with Arkwright were doing everybody a favour by bringing starving homeless souls to their cotton mills, where large numbers of women and children workers were needed. So, while the raw cotton was cultivated by slaves in the plantations of the American South, it was processed by Scottish mill workers who were effectively slaves also through the indenture system.

 

It is difficult to examine this period without sounding political but this should be no reason to shy away from looking at how our modern industrialised world came into being. One side of the argument says mill owners like David Dale and Alexander were ruthless exploiters of their workforce, bringing them forcibly to the mills and then incarcerating them in the mill villages. The received wisdom of the time (amongst the powerful) was that they were doing “them” (i.e. the white poor in Scotland and the enslaved blacks in the Southern USA) a favour by providing them with houses, plots on which to grow vegetables, a rudimentary education for their children, some basic health care, and compulsory religious instruction. As they saw it, they were “improving” the people (their Human Resources) in the same way as an enlightened estate owner improved his land. However, some of the ungrateful workers and slaves tried to run away.

 

At Catrine, the mill owners were outraged that they had good houses lying empty. Some of the workers even refused to attend the church built especially for them. For the mill workers to have the illusion of freedom or just a taste of it, was sufficient to let the genie out of the bottle. The spread of education to the workers set in train the events which ultimately culminated in universal suffrage in Britain, and in America the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.