Museum of… Museum of Islay Life - Museums Association

Museum of… Museum of Islay Life

Katie Ross discovers a treasure trove of lovingly curated artefacts that celebrate the rich history of a small Scottish island
Museum Of
The Museum of Islay Life is housed in a former Free Church

Where? 

The Museum of Islay Life was founded in 1977, and its collection is housed in a former Free Church in the village of Port Charlotte on Islay, the southernmost island of the Scottish Inner Hebrides.

Museum manager Ray Lafferty grew up on the island before leaving to study art history. He is now becoming an expert on Islay, which he admits knowing relatively little about before he returned to the island and began working at the museum 18 months ago. 

What? 

“The museum holds anything and everything that is in any way connected to Islay history,” says Lafferty. With items dating from about 12,000 years ago onwards, the museum has sections that are dedicated to the stone age, bronze age, medieval times and up to the present day.

“We also have a library. Again, any book that mentions anything about Islay goes in.” But this presents its own problems – as the island is famous for its whisky, any book on whisky is likely to mention Islay. “So that’s where we have to make the cut-off,” Lafferty says. “If we included every whisky book that mentioned Islay it would fill the museum.”

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Collection 

“We have about 18,000 items, and that encompasses objects, archive material, photographs, books and journals,” says Lafferty. And with increasing access to genealogical information, people all over the world are discovering connections to the island.

“We’re getting lots of donations now from America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and one or two from South Africa. Not all of it is fit for display, but it’s a part of Islay history so we’ve got to take it.”

The museum itself has space to display just a few hundred of these thousands of objects, which has resulted in a full storeroom.

Highlights 

“The thing that’s most noted is actually not very old,” says Lafferty. In February 1918, during the first world war, the US ship SS Tuscania was carrying American troops to Europe when it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat between Islay and Rathlin Island.

A museum display featuring an American flag mounted on a wall
An American flag made by local women is the museum’s star exhibit

“The soldiers needed to be buried the next day, but they didn’t have an American flag, so local women were collecting anything that was red, white or blue, such as bedclothes, tablecloths, handkerchiefs and within a few hours created a huge American flag.”

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Afterwards, it was presented to the then president Woodrow Wilson, who loaned it to the Smithsonian in Washington. It was subsequently returned to Islay where it now rests in the museum. 

Help at hand 

The museum opens on weekdays from Easter until the last Friday in October, during which time they have two people working on the desk. Lafferty works there all year round.

An 11th-century cross slab

Survival tips 

“Know your subject and be welcoming – if you can get those two done, you’re sorted.”

Future plans 

The museum has been undergoing renovation and reorganisation and hopes to apply for a grant for solar panels and to extend the office in a year’s time.

Comments (1)

  1. Freda Matassa says:

    I visited the Museum of Islay Life a couple of years ago and found it to be an excellent small museum. Items were well-presented with just the right amount of information. It provided a wonderful introduction to the Island’s history and staff were well-informed and helpful.

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