A hefty 230 miles north of Glasgow and two hours from Inverness, past Achnasheen and Kinlochewe, is a museum that you may not have heard of but that you should definitely visit.
Gairloch Museum is in Wester Ross on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. It is on the North Coast 500 touring route and is housed in a refurbished anti-aircraft operations room in the centre of the village.
To put the achievements of the museum, its board, staff and volunteers into context, it is important to understand where they were six years ago. Faced with cuts to funding and a lease that terminated in 2018, this community-led, independent museum seized the initiative.
It secured £1.8m to redevelop a derelict building and create an education space, an exhibition, store, archive and offices. It was money well spent. The result is a buzzing community hub; a creative use of space that not only provides a window into the history of the area for visitors, but also sits firmly within the community it serves.
The nature of independent museums means they have to respond quickly to change, in order to survive. They must work in partnership, and the line between community and institution should be permeable. Larger museums sometimes struggle with true community engagement; the conversations are often one way and the communities they look to serve are unable to be part of the decision-making process. This is not the case at Gairloch.
Community is at the core of the work – the museum is in the community, about the community and for the community. Everyone involved in the organisation has a stake in the region, and to facilitate these relationships, the museum has leased space to like-minded organisations such as the University of the Highlands and Islands.
This also helps to diversify its income streams. The shop is full of high-quality local crafts, the stories told within the exhibition contextualise Gairloch and its residents, and there is a vibrant community gallery.
Sense of space
You would think that the nature of the building, being a military bunker, would take away from what is an independent, volunteer-led museum. Bunkers have connotations of dark, closed-in spaces – and an undertone of fear. And yet, the experience inside is anything but. When you enter the building and are greeted by one of the volunteers on the front desk, there is a sense of space and warmth.
That is not to say that the fabric of the building does not create some issues. Hard surfaces can lead to sound bleed in places and I did at one point get lost, although in fairness, I was offered a map on arrival and did not take it.
The collection itself is predominantly a celebration of a crofting community that has played an important part in world events. I appreciated hearing real voices with real stories throughout, and seeing relatively recent pictures of community members. The collection felt connected to real people, and the stories had the ring of authenticity without alienating visitors.
The ground floor consists of archaeology, social history and Gaelic culture. Although space is limited, I felt that more could have been done with the archaeology collection.
The most exciting piece is the Gairloch Pictish stone, which was probably carved between AD500 and AD700 by the Picts, a group of people who lived in the north and northeast of Scotland. They were a sophisticated people renowned for their highly detailed carved stones.
The Gairloch stone was likely to have been carved locally, and consists of the image of an eagle and a salmon.
Throughout the ground floor, there are opportunities to connect with the people who lived on the west coast of Scotland; be it through poetry and language in the Gaelic section, or marvelling at the scale of the Fresnel lens, which was once housed in a Stevenson lighthouse called Rudha Reidh, 12 miles along the coast at the mouth of Loch Ewe.
Indeed, the exhibition’s community-focused and natural history sections are the strongest part of the experience. It is clear that through domestic objects, there are big stories to be told.
One of the most powerful moments is on the first floor. It is there that a display case addresses the impact of the first and second world wars on the region. Alongside is the quarantine sign from what became known as “anthrax island”, which is in a bay not far from Gairloch.
It was on Gruinard Island – its real name – that the department of defence experimented with biological warfare in 1942. Sheep were taken to the island and exposed to the infectious disease anthrax.
Three days later, they were dying. The island remained quarantined for 48 years – a chilling thought in the current international climate and a reminder of how rural areas often play a key role in world events. The most memorable moments of my visit were the interactions with the team members.
From the moment I walked, in I felt welcome. One person, in particular, stood out – a volunteer, clearly passionate about the museum and its collections, who undertakes a round trip of 112 miles to be there, demonstrated spinning yarn in the gallery spaces.
She told stories about the area, gave pointers on how to pronounce Gaelic and French words, and patiently corrected mistakes. It is people and their stories that make a collection work; without them, we do not have a mandate.
Be clear on who the collection is for, make sure they are part of the process and ensure the stories are authentic. Keep that in mind and you can’t really go wrong. Gairloch Museum certainly hasn’t.
Katey Boal is the visitor services manager – engagement at the National Trust for Scotland