Museum of… Museum of Strathnaver, Sutherland
A museum that is firmly rooted in the local community and the history of one particular clan
The museum is on the north coast of Scotland, in Strathnaver. It is in an old church in a working graveyard by the sea, which the museum’s development manager, Fiona Mackenzie, estimates has been a site of ecclesiastical use for about 1,000 years.
The museum serves the area colloquially named “Mackay Country”, which covers about 2,000 sq km. It tells the history of the area, much of which concerns the ancient Mackay clan.
The parish church fell into disuse in the 1930s, says Mackenzie, and the historian and broadcaster Ian Grimble was instrumental in galvanising the local community to set up the museum. The collection began with a call for donations, and the museum opened in 1976.
The community is very involved; a wall panel created by local schoolchildren is a feature that Mackenzie says a lot of visitors comment on, and a recent project engaged artists, schools and community groups to produce an exhibition featuring textile panels, paintings, sculptures, podcasts, short films and an interpretive trail through Mackay Country.
Most of the objects have been donated. Mackenzie says people regularly bring things in. Recently, the museum received a set of bagpipes made from part of a wagon that crossed America on the Oregon Trail.
A lot of the collection is on display, but some items are in storage, as the museum is undergoing a revamp. Mackenzie says some larger items, such as carts and boats, will be removed from display, to increase the amount of space available and help the museum improve the stories that it tells.
A bronze age beaker, unearthed nearby inside a cist – a stone coffin – by road workers in 1981. After punching through the cist with a jackhammer, they called in the county archaeologist when they realised they had discovered an artefact.
Help at hand
The museum has three part-time salaried staff, but is run by 12 volunteers, who staff the front desk and do the day-to-day work.
Funding comes from grants, but also donations from the public and people with links to the Mackay clan. The museum has secured about half of the funds needed for the refurbishment from Strathy North wind farm, an appeal and a soon-to-be-announced source. Mackenzie hopes to reach the target by September.
Many of the volunteers are particularly invested in the museum, as they have family connections with the Mackay clan. Mackenzie says building a strong network and sharing knowledge is also important – there are four meetings a year for museums across the Highlands.
Mackays from all over the world visit the museum. Last year, 6,000 people came through the door – a record. Numbers have been increasing steadily every year, which Mackenzie thinks is partly because the museum is on the North Coast 500 tour route.
Rising visitor numbers make the refurbishment even more important. Mackenzie says the museum has got to the point “where in order to grow, we need to make improvements to the buildings”. The larger objects need to be moved into a purpose-built space, while a workshop will provide an area for activities to run on site.
Tilda Coleman is a freelance journalist