Summerlee, the Museum of Scottish Industrial Life, stands on the north west side of Coatbridge, between the centre of the town and Drumpellier Country Park. Coatbridge Central Station is a few hundred yards to the south, while Coatbridge Sunnyside Station is a similar distance to the east. There is a large parking area on the opposite side of the access road.
Summerlee is a superb visitor attraction that should be high on the "must see" list of anyone visiting central Scotland, and all of us who live here. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that it is an exceptionally high quality day out offering something for just about everyone: Summerlee was given a £10m refurbishment and upgrade between 2006 and 2008 and as a result the main museum is one of the most impressive in Scotland. The second reason to visit is the combination of indoor and outdoor activities and things to see: yes, the museum is excellent, but it is only a small part of what is on offer here. And the third reason to visit, and keep on visiting, is that it is free. This means you can dip in and out as you wish, or, as in our case, having discovered just how good it is, return the following weekend with the grandson.
Given the urban setting, it is remarkable to discover that Summerlee occupies a 22 acre site set within the town. The red facade that is obvious from the entrance gates is home to the reception and the shop. Here you can buy reminders of your visit, and tickets for the tram service that links together different parts of the site. Meanwhile, one side of the building beyond, set within a bowed out metal skinned structure, is home to Summerlee's cafe.
The heart of Summerlee is the main exhibition hall. This extends a considerable distance back from the reception. As you approach, it looks a reasonable traditional brick-built factory building, but the reality is very different. The whole east side of the original building now has a glass wall, and the east end of the south wall is also filled with large windows.
Internally, the exhibition hall feels like a very large, light and airy shed offering the exhibits plenty of space. This works well, as many of the exhibits tend to be on the large side. Perhaps the largest is the winding engine from Cardowan colliery in North Lanarkshire. Until the pit closed in 1983, this provided transport between the surface and the coalface for the 1,500 men who worked there. It continues to revolve today, and helps give a sense of the sheer scale of the engineering involved. Many of the other mechanical exhibits remain in working condition and still move, securely separated from visitors.
No longer moving, but still very impressive, is the steam locomotive made just down the road at Gibbs & Hogg in Airdrie. Interaction is encouraged in many areas of the museum. A particularly impressive exhibit is a large scale simulation of the furnace in an iron works. Visitors have to manage the different elements in the process in order to obtain the desired outcome, without accidents on the way.
Although Summerlee is now subtitled "The Museum of Scottish Industrial Life", there is considerably more here as well. A metal drum within the hall is home to a fascinating series of displays about society and war. There are also items that firmly predate the arrival of large scale industry in the area. Notable among these is a beautifully carved stone known as the Cambusnethan Stone. This was found in a graveyard in 1898, and when it was originally carved in the 900s probably formed part of the shaft of a large free-standing cross.
You could enjoyably spend the best part of a rainy day in the exhibition hall at Summerlee, but if the sun is shining then there is a great deal more to see and do around the rest of the site. The first thing to note is that different parts of the site are linked together by a tram service, on which the museum operates its collection of trams, which include examples that saw service in west central Scotland and, as shown on this page, in Dusseldorf.
The tram runs up and down the west side of the site, and as you follow its route you pass a number of outdoor exhibits such as the enormous Garret locomotive; the sawmill and timber shed, complete with traction engine; and the iron canopy originally erected to commemorate Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887. The tram service concludes at the northern end of the site, where you find a recreated coal mine, complete with winding gear; a very rare colliery engine; and two rows of miners' cottages. Many of the rooms in the old miners cottages have been fitted out to represent different periods during the 1800s and 1900s, and one of them is a reception for visitors wanting to experience a trip into Summerlee's recreated coal mine.
The north end of the site illustrates especially well the sense you get throughout Summerlee of having been left things to simply discover for yourself. A phone box, various pieces of industrial machinery, large cranes, and more. Near the coal mine is a railway siding that is home to three steam engines, simply sitting at the platform. Even more unremarked is a large boat you find nearby, a replica of the Vulcan. When launched on 18 May 1819, the Vulcan was the first iron boat ever made in Scotland. She was built to carry up to 200 passengers on the Forth & Clyde Canal, and was towed by horses. This business disappeared with the coming of the railways and she ended her working life as a barge carrying freight, before being broken up in 1873. The replica was built in the 1980s, and may one day carry passengers on the restored Monklands Canal through Summerlee.
As you return down the east side of the site, you follow the section of the Monklands Canal the Vulcan may one day use. This canal was once essential to the growing industrialisation of the area, but is now deceptively tranquil and pleasant. Much of the land between the canal and the main exhibition hall is the site once occupied by the Summerlee Iron Works, which has been the subject of extensive archaeological investigation over the years. The site can be viewed from the raised area above the southern end of the canal, or from the metal clad Iron Works Viewpod.
Summerlee Iron Works was for nearly a century one of the most important iron works in Scotland. It as built in 1836 by John Neilson to take advantage of a new and much more efficient method of extracting iron discovered by his younger brother, James Beaumont Neilson, the "hot blast" process. This used locally extracted coal and iron ore, and the product was shipped out on the Monklands Canal. By the 1850s, so much iron was being produced in Coatbridge that it had become known as the "Iron Burgh".
The Neilsons and others who invested in ironworks and associated industries in the area made a great deal of money, and it is arguable that many of their workers were also financially far better off than they would have been in farming or other industries.
The effect on the local environment was less positive. In the 1840s one commentator wrote: "There is no worse place out of hell than that neighbourhood. At night, the groups of blast furnaces on all sides might be imagined to be blazing volcanoes at most of which smelting is continued on Sundays and weekdays, day and night, without intermission. From the town comes a continual row of heavy machinery: this and the pounding of many steam hammers seemed to make even the very ground vibrate under one's feet. Fire, smoke and soot with the roar and rattle of machinery are its leading characteristics; the flames of its furnaces cast on the midnight sky a glow as if of some vast conflagration. Dense clouds of black smoke roll over it incessantly and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything."
The Summerlee Iron Works closed during the industrial unrest of 1926. The site was cleared in the 1930s, and subsequently saw use by the Hydrocon Crane Company, whose fabrication shed forms the basis of today's main exhibition hall. Summerlee was opened as an industrial heritage park in 1987, and since then has gone from strength to strength, though perhaps only since reopening in 2008 has it really lived up to the dream of truly encapsulating a way of life that has now almost entirely vanished from Scotland.