David Dale lived from 1739 to 1806. He was a self-made businessman and financier who established the huge mill complex at New Lanark. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
David Dale was born in Stewarton, Ayrshire where his father was a grocer. After leaving school he became an apprentice to a weaver in Paisley, and later worked in Hamilton. Moving to Glasgow he spent some time as a clerk to a textile merchant before setting up in business himself in 1768, importing linen yarn from the Low Countries. Dale married Anne Campbell, whose father was John Campbell of Jura, a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh. In 1783 Dale became the Royal Bank of Scotland's agent in Glasgow and opened their first branch there. By 1785 Dale and his wife lived in a house designed by Robert Adam in Glasgow's Charlotte Street: he was the epitome of a highly successful self made businessman.
In 1785 David Dale formed a brief partnership with Richard Arkwright, the Englishman already famous for industrialising cotton spinning south of the border to establish large scale cotton spinning mills in Scotland. Together they purchased a site near Lanark on the fast flowing and powerful River Clyde. In 1786 David Dale took over sole control of what became New Lanark. By the early 1790s he had four mills in full operation. For his workforce he turned first to children. Out of a total workforce in 1793 of some 1150, over 800 were children, many from the orphanages of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Dale expanded his workforce further by recruiting Highlanders who had been removed from their land during the Highland Clearances, offering them an option other than emigration. To house them he built much of the rest of New Lanark, starting with Caithness Row (a name reflecting the origin of many of the first residents) and then the Rows at the other end of the village. On one occasion he actually went to Greenock to recruit Highlanders stranded when the ship on which they were meant to be emigrating did not materialise. By the standards of the day David Dale was a remarkably enlightened employer. Food and accommodation were good, children were required to attend school for two hours each day (after their 13 hours in the mill) and workers generally fared much better than others in Scotland at the time.
In 1798 New Lanark was visited for the first time by Robert Owen, a 27 year old Welshman. He had met Dale's daughter Caroline by chance in Glasgow and she suggested the visit. Within a year Robert Owen was negotiating with David Dale to purchase New Lanark. He married Caroline Dale on 30 September 1799, and took over New Lanark on 1 January 1800 for £60,000. This wasn't quite the end of Dale's involvement in cotton: in 1801 he helped Glasgow manufacturer James Craig buy the similar Stanley Mills in Perthshire. David Dale died at his house in Charlotte Street in 1806. He was buried in the kirkyard of St David's Church in Glasgow's Ingram Street. His grave simply carries the inscription: David Dale, Merchant.