Community driven heritage in the Western Isles

I was recently in the Western Isles at the invitation of the trustees of Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath and Taigh Chearsabhagh to discuss future developments.

My trip started in North Uist at Carnish school. The school is being considered as a potential site for a new open store and research space for the Comann Eachdraidh. The group had lots of exciting ideas for the school, which they hoped to acquire through Community Asset Transfer and with funding from the Scottish Land Fund. They are planning a multi-function facility including a collection store, digital sound studio and possibly even an Indian restaurant.

Carnish is just one of three primary schools on Uist that have recently closed. A new, larger school has opened at Paible Bayhead. This was my next stop to see a project there in action. Mary Morrison provided some background to the partnership project with EU-LAC MUSEUMS. St Andrews University staff are supporting the project. They recently spent the weekend doing digital camera training with the group, teaching them how to do 360-degree panoramic photography.

It was a privilege to see the children learning these techniques from the newly proficient trainer. There were six groups working on different aspects of the island’s culture from shipwrecks to seaweed.  The local knowledge bearers came in to talk to the children and I watched as a volunteer told stories of the wrecks using objects found washed up on the shores. The children were spellbound and the sessions were recorded for the project.  It was serendipitous as I’ve recently been in contact with the EU-LAC MUSEUM project who wanted to use data from our inventory.

My next stop was Lochmaddy to Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Centre to see the museum and their lovely new exhibition on the sea. Norman MacLeod, Operations Manager, showed me his ideas for a new exhibit which ties into a remake of Whisky Galore! The museum is displaying an original bottle recovered from the SS Politician and the courtroom dock from which judgement was passed on the islanders illegally salvaging the whisky bottles from the ship. You’ll have to make a visit to get that selfie though!

Mention of the Scottish Land Fund happened again that evening with Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE) who talked more about the fund and the opportunities available. It appears to be a fantastic potential source of substantial funding for future developments for museums.

The weather was stunning the next morning as I drove up to Berneray to visit the small heritage centre run by the Comunn Eachdraidh Bheàrnaraigh. They’re doing fantastic things with a small exhibition on the local heritage. The exhibition is hosted in Nurse Cottage, built by the community to house the district nurse back when one lived on the island. They’re considering making the first steps towards Accreditation and it’s a journey on which MGS will be supporting them. They have ambitious plans to develop one of the oldest buildings in the Uists, Macleod’s Gunnery dating back to the 16th century.  I made a quick trip around the island to take a look. It will take some hard work to bring it back to its former glory, but it’s an amazing location and has great potential to be developed as a new local heritage opportunity.

The staff of the open store at Torlum, welcomed me in. Run by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the visit was a chance to look at some of the challenges they face.  The store has both the Councils collections and that of Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath and it’s rather full. The Carnish school development will be very welcome. Many thanks to the ladies there for their hospitality and opening up the biscuit box. It was a welcome stop.

Finally my last stop was an opportunity to visit Kildonan Museum on South Uist. The museum is a recent recipient of MGS funding for their redevelopment. The redevelopment was a large project of over £800k of which MGS has provided Capital funding for the new interpretation. The busy car park outside was a great indicator of how popular the museum is. Alistair and Mary and greeted me at the front desk. This local couple found love when Mary, originally from Ireland, stepped into the museum to buy a postcard. She met Alistair at the front desk and fell for him. Now happily married, the pair are both valued museum volunteers! Inside looks fantastic. The team have put in lots of work at Kildonan and it’s an engaging offer for the appreciative visitor. Hopefully, we will be invited back the official opening.

Throughout my whirlwind trip, the sense of community is common element amongst the stories. Museums are an important part of the local community. This visit has numerous examples of museums developing with the community in mind. Multi-function facilities such as those proposed at Carnish School put museums right in the middle of community life.

It’s been wonderful to see the variety and richness of the heritage of the Islands. The dedication of the many volunteers that are safeguarding and presenting it to visitors from all over the world. I heard a huge variety of accents and languages in my short stay and the new Hebridean Cycle Way was teaming with cyclists enjoying the magnificent scenery. It looks set to be a great season.

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