The large South Lanarkshire village of Lesmahagow can be found some 20 miles south-east of Glasgow, close to Junction 10 of the M74. The main road from Carlisle to Glasgow once passed through Lesmahagow. The village was later bypassed by the dual carriageway A74, running along its east side, and then in October 1986 it was bypassed for a second time when the nearby length of the M74 opened to traffic, with the old A74 becoming the B7078.
There is some debate about the origin of Lesmahagow's unusual and far from Scottish-sounding name. The starting point appears to have been the arrival here in the latter half of the 500s of a Welsh monk known as Saint Machutus. It seems that Saint Machutus (or Mahego or Malo) was a follower of Saint Brendan, and found his way to Scotland from his homeland via Brittany. By some accounts he also gave his name to the city of Saint-Malo. The name Lesmahagow is often said to be derived from "the enclosure of St Machutus", and suggests that the saint founded an early monastery here.
It is possible that there was a continuous tradition of Christian worship here over the following centuries, as there appears to have been a church already standing in Lesmahagow when it was chosen as the site of a Tironensian (or reformed Benedictine) priory as a daughter-house of Kelso Abbey in 1144. Lesmahagow Priory was jointly founded by King David I and by John, Bishop of Glasgow, who granted estates whose incomes could support the new community.
The monks at Lesmahagow Priory pioneered the development of fruit orchards in the area, and this was something that continued after the priory had ceased to exist. Today parts of the foundations of the priory can be seen to the south of Lesmahagow Old Parish Church, following excavation in 1978.
By the end of the 1500s the area around Lesmahagow, or Abbeygreen as the village is also often called, was fairly populous and there was already a bridge carrying the main road across the River Nethan. This was at Craighead, at the north end of the village, where the B7078 and the M74 today both also cross the river. A parish school was established in the 1620s and later in the same century the village became a burgh with the right to hold markets and fairs. By the mid 1700s Lesmahagow had become a significant village with overland links to a number of surrounding centres.
The 1800s saw Lesmahagow develop in a number of ways. It gained a post office in 1825, a year after Thomas Telford completed his work on the upgrade of the road from Carlisle to Glasgow. A gasworks was built in 1846, which suggests that coal was already being mined in the immediate area, and as the century went on, coal extraction became an increasingly important part of the area's economy. The railway arrived in the mid 1850s, in the form of a branch line of the Caledonian Railway.
Lesmahagow reached the middle of the 1900s in pretty good shape, but passenger services ceased on the railway in 1965, and the line was removed altogether in 1970. Meanwhile, deep mined coal went into terminal decline as an industry, though significant open cast extraction continues to the south of the village. The impact of these changes on the local economy was predictable, and a number of village facilities, including its two cinemas, disappeared over the same period.
Against this background it is difficult to know what to expect from a visit to Lesmahagow. This is especially true given that the village has been so effectively bypassed. What you find is a place of considerable character. It would be hard to call Lesmahagow "pretty", though parts, especially at the two ends of the main street, Abbeygreen, are quite attractive. The south end is punctuated by a bridge over the River Nethan. This is overlooked by a grassy mound which the overactive imagination might suspect was the site of an early castle. Apparently it wasn't.
Lesmahagow is also a place that gives quite a strong sense of community. Some of the obvious facilities, such as the Community Library, are run by the local authority. But features such as the WRVS building in what looks like two cottages on the main street show that people are themselves working for the future of the the village. At the north end of Abbeygreen is The Fountain Centre. This started life as the church hall for Lesmahagow Old Parish Church, but now provides a range of community services. Lesmahagow is also the Scottish base of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.