The large town of Motherwell lies on the east side of the Clyde Valley and of the M74 motorway a dozen miles south east of Glasgow. It's difficult to believe today, but until the arrival of the railway in the 1830s Motherwell barely existed.
There had certainly been people living in the area from a very early date. The name comes from an ancient religious well, the Mother's Well, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Today its site is marked by nothing more than a plaque in Ladywell Road.
Even further back in time, the Romans ran their main road to central Scotland along this side of the Clyde Valley, crossing the South Calder Water at a spot on the north west side of today's Motherwell. Here they built a fort and a bath house, though they didn't stay in Scotland for long.
So, by the 1830s, the area comprised assorted farming communities and the estate of Jerviston House, plus a tiny hamlet called Motherwell around the crossroads between the road following the Clyde, and the one running from Edinburgh to Hamilton and beyond. And then the railways arrived and everything changed. The first to arrive did so in 1833, and from 1849 Motherwell became a junction station with a direct link to Glasgow. Another line was added in the 1870s, crossing the Clyde.
The town's excellent communication links led to the development of a number of major iron and steel works on the north east side of the town. A wide range of other heavy engineering companies were established in the same area, building everything from munitions (a good business to be in during the First World War), to bridge components, to trams. By the 1930s most of Scotland's steel production, including that in Motherwell, was in the hands of the Coleville family, and it remained so until the steel industry was nationalised in 1967.
In 1959 the government persuaded the Colevilles to begin work on a vast new steelworks, which was to become Ravenscraig, occupying much of the land to the north east of Motherwell. By 1961, 1.2 million tonnes of iron was emerging from Ravenscraig's blast furnaces each year: more than the total production of Scotland's industry in the 1800s. After nationalisation of the industry, the British Steel Corporation raised production of the blast furnaces further, producing 3 million tonnes each year from the early 1970s. By the mid 1970s employment in BSC's various plants on the east side of Motherwell reached 13,000 people.
The 1980s brought catastrophic decline. The steel strike of 1980 lost BSC important markets, and this was followed by the closure of the Linwood car factory in 1981 and the Bathgate truck factory in 1986, both very important customers. By 1989 Ravenscraig employed just 3,200 people. Worse was to follow. 400 years of Scottish ironmaking came to a close on 24 June 1992, when Ravenscraig closed: the iconic gasholder bearing the Ravenscraig name was demolished in July 1996. Today only the Dalzell Plate Mill remains of Motherwell's once thriving iron and steel industry, rolling steel brought by train from Middlesbrough into plate steel of various shapes and sizes: and even this was mothballed for a time.
The huge area once occupied by the Ravenscraig Steelworks has been steadily cleaned of industrial pollution and seems likely to end up being reused to provide a new regional centre, significantly expanding the Motherwell you see today. And that is a Motherwell that has moved on from its reliance on heavy industry: though as a visit to its beautiful Heritage Centre shows, without forgetting its past.
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