HAVING dealt with palaces and royal residences in this series on Scotland’s built heritage, I am now turning my attention to something completely different – important parts of our built heritage which are lived in by the hundreds of thousands of Scots who are residents of our five new towns, arguably the biggest-ever planned change to Scotland’s townscape.

It’s a trick question but what would the answer be to this: what is the oldest new town in Scotland? Most people who think they know would answer East Kilbride and indeed it was the first to be designated as a new town under the post-war legislation which I will be examining closely.

The National: An archive photo of East KilbrideAn archive photo of East Kilbride

If by “new town”, however, you mean an entirely planned settlement built for a specific purpose, then you have to go back to the 17th century for the answer – Port Glasgow, begun in the 1660s as a deep-water port for the city further up the River Clyde. It was based around the hamlet of Newark with planned port facilities, streets and houses and its innovative nature of the new town was reflected in its original name – Newport Glasgow.

Had the burghers of Greenock not been too demanding of Glasgow’s merchants’ money, it is likely their harbours and township would have expanded and Port Glasgow might never have come into existence.

If you are being pedantic you could argue that the harbinger of new towns was Sir Thomas More, who described the concept in his book Utopia in 1515.

In the 18th and 19th century, planned villages were created across Scotland during what some historians call the Age of Improvement, which ran approximately from 1720-1850.

The changes to the landscape brought about by agricultural improvers saw the development of villages, mostly to house farm workers, across rural Scotland as landowners imposed regularity – rectangular fields enclosed by stone dykes, new roads and villages laid out geometrically.

The growth of the textile-spinning industry created huge demand for weavers and then mills began to be built. The best example of an entirely new planned village is still with us and thriving, albeit as a tourist magnet – New Lanark, opened in 1786 by David Dale and perfectly preserved so that it is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. I cannot recommend a visit to highly enough. Over in Renfrewshire, the building of cotton mills also saw the creation of Johnstone as a planned new town from the 1780s, with wide streets and open spaces deliberately built into the townscape as dictated by the original plan by local laird George Houston.

From Bowmore on Islay to Tyninghame in East Lothian, there are many examples of planned villages created by landowners for various purposes – the latter settlement was built by the then Earl of Haddington, who demolished the original village to make way for bigger gardens for his house.

READ MORE: The history behind Orkney's connection to Norway

Some of these planned villages were extensions to existing settlements, with Turriff in Aberdeenshire an example of this process that dates from the 1760s.

Many developments were personal projects by landowners – Helensburgh was planned to a grid design by Sir James Colquhoun of Luss, who advertised for feuholders to come to the area in 1776. He named it after his wife Lady Helen, nee Sutherland, and at first the slowly-developing area was known simply as the New Town.

Another such development in Argyll and Bute was Inveraray. It is probably the best example of a new planned town in the west of Scotland, and its creation began with the 3rd Duke of Argyll who set about demolishing the existing Inveraray Castle in the 1740s. It took 40 years to build the current castle, which is the home of the Duke of Argyll, chief of clan Campbell.

It was the 5th Duke who, in 1770, called in the Adam family to design a new town around the castle. New roads and buildings were built and with many of them preserved, Inveraray remains one of the most attractive towns in Scotland.

In the 19th century, the demand for coal soared and new villages were created to house pit workers. Probably the best example of such a planned village is Newtongrange in Midlothian which the Marquess of Lothian began in the 1830s and which grew to be the largest planned mining settlement in Scotland by the start of the 20th century.

It was laid out in a formal pattern but the planners obviously ran out of imagination as the streets were simply called First, Second and so on up to Tenth.

The National: BBC's first director general Sir John ReithBBC's first director general Sir John Reith

Other new towns were created to house workers in various industries – the British Fisheries Society, for example, sponsored the building of Pulteneytown at Wick, the best surviving example of a new town designed by the great Thomas Telford who also laid out Tobermory on Mull as a new fishing port in the 1780s. So new towns in the sense of planned settlements are not a modern phenomenon as the most famous of them all, Edinburgh New Town, proves. It was built to the design of architect James Craig (1739-95) who won a competition to plan the New Town in 1766.

READ MORE: Meet the woman who started a Scotland-wide riot

Yet after the Second World War, the words “new town” were on everybody’s lips as they were seen to be an innovative problem-solving phenomenon that would create new communities while easing the problems of cities across Britain.

Unlikely partnership?

IT was largely due to the partnership between a Scot, Lord John Reith, the father of the BBC, and an energetic minister in Clement Attlee’s Labour government, Lewis Silkin, the minister for town and country planning, that the proposals to build dozens of new towns across Britain came to Parliament soon after the war’s end. Silkin put Reith in charge of a committee that looked into the idea of new towns and came up with a workable plan, designated the Reith Commission after the Stonehaven-born Scot.

Silkin brought in the bill to start the new towns in 1946 and with Labour’s massive majority it was always going to become law. What is fascinating is how it gained support across the House of Commons as almost everyone appreciated the need to tackle the huge problems of overcrowding and poverty in cities such as Glasgow.


The Attlee government insisted on controlling the project from the centre, not least because industries and populations would have to be dispersed across Britain as a whole.

There was also considerable focus on how new industries would be developed in the new towns, and the government promised tens of million in support for the project.

The idea that development corporations, rather than local authorities, would build and run the new towns was widely welcomed, though some councillors objected to losing their fiefdoms.

Scotland was to get its own considerations in the New Towns Bill, with the secretary of state for Scotland, the oft-forgotten Joseph Westwood, a former miner, arguing: “Nowhere in Great Britain are we in greater need of positive planning with a direct aim and purpose than in Scotland. Our experience of uncoordinated enterprise, and of the lack of any enterprise at all in the development of towns has been most unfortunate.

“For the first time, it is proposed to confer on the Secretary of State full powers to secure the development of new and well planned communities which will fit into the fabric of Scottish industrial and social economy. I hope to use these powers to full effect and I am confident that public opinion and the local authorities will co-operate wholeheartedly with me to that end.”

Westwood then named the first likely new towns which had been identified in the Clyde Valley Regional Plan – East Kilbride, Cumbernauld, Houston and Bishopton. The first two came to fruition, the latter two did not.

Sadly Westwood would not live to see the new towns take shape – he demitted office in 1947 and was killed in a car crash the following year.

So to East Kilbride went the honour of being designated Scotland’s first new town. The village of Kilbride – a name that means Church of St Bridget – had existed for centuries, adding the prefix East when the village of the same name in Ayrshire added west.

It’s now in South Lanarkshire and the local authority website tells what happened: “By far the biggest event to change the shape of East Kilbride was the decision in 1947 to create a new town – transforming the small peaceful village of around 2500 inhabitants into one of the UK’s foremost business and commercial centres.

“On Friday, August 8, 1947, the first meeting of the East Kilbride Development Corporation was held, with the task of drawing up and executing the new town plans that would allow both an influx of people moving from the city of Glasgow and new industry to provide them with employment.

“Developed around a central shopping and office area was a series of residential neighbourhoods and, on the outskirts, industrial areas and business parks. Each neighbourhood was planned to ensure there were shops and schools nearby.”

Though many inhabitants came from towns across Lanarkshire where the so-called miners’ rows of housing were becoming decrepit, the biggest influx came from Glasgow. Stories abounded of people moving from slums in the city centre to new sizeable homes provided by the Development Corporation.

READ MORE: The siege of St Andrews Castle and the making of John Knox 

East Kilbride also had a huge advantage – it was not dependent on the heavy industries which were becoming obsolete in and around Glasgow.

There was an argument over the name of the second place to be designated as a new town. In 1948, some local councillors objected to Glenrothes as the name for Fife’s new town, feeling that naming it after the Earl of Rothes was not suitable for the egalitarian age.

One suggestion was Westwood, after the Fife miner turned secretary of state. The first vote had the two names tied, but eventually Glenrothes stuck and Westwood died just 18 days later.

His successor, Arthur Woodbury attended the first meeting of Glenrothes Development Corporation and spoke of his high hopes for the new town, which he said would take 15 years to complete, but it was to be economically blighted within a few years.

The first idea for Glenrothes was to house miners who would work at a new super-pit in central Fife. Rothes Colliery was late opening and when operations began in 1957 the workforce was just 1300 – less than half the anticipated employment.

Massive problems underground, with flooding a constant threat, saw the pit close after just five years. It was a blessing in disguise, however, as the development corporation turned to new industries such as electronics and these survived much better.

The third new town took until 1955 to be designated and from the outset Cumbernauld in what is now North Lanarkshire was different, though the driving force was still the need to house people being dispersed from Glasgow. Modernism and state-of-the-art building design abounded in the new town, which was built via a series of settlements such as Ravenswood and later Abronhill and Westerwood.

READ MORE: What is carbon capture and how does it work?

Ground-breaking in its day, one key to Cumbernauld’s design was the desire to separate pedestrian and vehicles and it pioneered the use of underpasses.

Cumbernauld also benefited from modern industries such as electronics and famously housed the biggest Inland Revenue offices in Scotland. It is now the largest town in North Lanarkshire.

Two more new towns were designated in 1962 and 1966. They were Livingston and Irvine respectively and mostly followed the Cumbernauld precedent in their design. A further plan to develop Stonehouse as a sixth new town did not proceed.

Development corporations have long since been discontinued and all five new towns now are important parts of their local authority areas and are notable as relatively modern areas in Scotland’s built heritage.