Celebrating history and community in Strathnaver
12th January 2022. Strathnaver is a place name which resonates in Scottish history. It’s almost synonymous with the Highland Clearances. However, Strathnaver Museum captures in fine detail history ranging from the Bronze Age through to the present day. Now a project to carry out substantial refurbishment of the museum building, and create an annex to house agricultural exhibits, will open up this fascinating area of north-west Sutherland to yet more eager visitors whilst cementing its role in the local community.
With the Museum sitting on the North Coast 500 the site is ideal for offering visitors an insight into an area steeped in rich history. Tourism is of key importance in this geographically remote part of Scotland, and the museum gears its collection to a wide range of audiences from both home and abroad.
Of course the project will do more than appeal to visitors. It is firmly rooted in the local community and will deliver a range of benefits in what is often referred to as ‘Mackay Country’. The cultural history here is fascinating. By refurbishing the museum the connection with local people and places will be enhanced, whilst educational, social and economic opportunities are set to be considerably expanded.
The Museum, located in Bettyhill, is housed in an iconic former church building which dates back to the 1750s. It is Grade B listed, the church’s pulpit was used to deliver eviction notices during the clearances, and 1883 saw crofters give compelling evidence to the Napier Commission. Steeped in the economic and social history of the Highland Clearances the building simultaneously occupies a central role in local, Highland, Scottish and international history.
All of this makes refurbishment a sensitive issue.
A new purpose built annex building will house agricultural exhibits and, like any new building on an important site, also demanded sympathetic management and required an archaeological investigation. The area was thoroughly explored to allow for the preservation and recording of any finds. It was a fruitful exercise, uncovering several interesting objects, confirming what is thought to be a long human occupation of the site.
Fiona Mackenzie, Project Manager at Strathnaver Museum said: “The museum team are delighted with progress so far and hope that the work will uncover more artefacts which can be added to the collection. We hope to learn more about the history of the site, and how people used it in the past, to aid our knowledge and understanding of this special place.”
“As part of our planning permission we were required to undertake an archaeological survey which has unearthed a host of really interesting finds including a bronze pin in excellent condition, an ard plough, part of a bone comb, bronze ring moulds, evidence of iron working and lots of midden material. We had to extend the dig due to the richness of the finds but it has enabled us to fill a gap in our collection. The site was carbon dated to the late iron age to early medieval.”
That studied approach is pretty much the Strathnaver Museum style. The museum opened in 1976 but the community acquired the building in 1962 and will be celebrating 60 years of community ownership next year it’s a local treasure which has been improving year on year for some time now. It appeals as much to the Scottish diaspora as it does the local community.
Back in 2012 a project to digitise the museum’s collection and local census records ran alongside a series of guided walks and the commissioning of artists to interpret exhibits from a different perspective. In 2013 the focus was on how to maximise the potential for Strathnaver Museum to bring social, economic and environmental benefits to the area. Visitor numbers subsequently increased by 22%, and participation in events and activities soared. A partnership project to develop an app to promote the heritage and museums of the wider region followed, and enthusiastic work by an Education Officer and a raft of volunteers further strengthened the museum’s local value.
Now the focus is on creating a heritage gateway which will point visitors and locals alike to the cultural and natural heritage of Sutherland and Caithness. The condition and layout of the current museum will be improved which will help ensure that the valuable collections here will be able to remain on display to best effect. The enhanced visitor experience will sit well in a building that is set to be a key cultural and social hub in Sutherland.
With a bold activity plan that includes educational events, training opportunities and work experience, this project is well placed to improve local health and well-being and break down isolation barriers. Economic benefits will follow and the museum will contribute to wider regional goals to increase cultural engagement and improve access to Scotland’s rich history.
The redevelopment of Strathnaver Museum is good news for Sutherland, good news for the North of Scotland, and good news for Scotland. In dovetailing economic regeneration with social benefits this is a project that is set to have an impact well beyond the Bettyhill area.
The Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund is part of the Scottish Government’s current European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, which runs through to 2023. This is one of two ERDF Strategic Interventions led by NatureScot – the other is the Green Infrastructure Fund.
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