By Jim A Johnston
Strathnaver Museum, Bettyhill, occupies the 18th Century Church of St Columba in the centre of Clachan Cemetery and is adjacent to a famous monument of the Christianised Picts, the Farr Stone. While the ancient stone testifies to at least 1,200 years of religious activity on the site this most recent usage dates back only forty years though to that may be added a gestation period of almost a quarter of a century between the acquisition of the building from the Church of Scotland for the princely sum of £1.00 to its opening in the summer of 1976. Over those four decades the volunteer Board has striven to secure funding for significant refurbishment of the building but, while success has come tantalising close on several occasions, that goal has so far eluded them.
However, despite current austerity, the Board stands once more on the cusp of success and, thanks to a major grant from the European Union funded Highland LEADER Fund, is developing plans for a major upgrade not just to its iconic original building but to include a new annexe which will house the agricultural and fishing collection and create space for temporary exhibitions.
Following an open tendering process the opportunity to draw up plans and secure the necessary planning consents has been won by the award winning CH Architecture of Ardgay and last Wednesday, a snowy January day, Catriona Hill, met with Board members and volunteers at The Store Café to discuss future prospects.
“CH Architecture is delighted to have been appointed to assist Strathnaver Museum with their forthcoming renovation project,” said Catriona Hill, “which will create a new Heritage Hub for the north of Sutherland.”
The volunteers highlighted their key concerns including making the building wind and watertight, improving heating and insulation, visitor bathroom facilities, staff office accommodation and improving the reception area. Board member and regular volunteer, Colin McDonogh, summed up their views as follows, “Our visitors love the charm and quirkiness of the museum with its huge diversity of unusual and sometimes bizarre exhibits. I’m proud that we maintain the professional standards required for Museum Galleries Scotland Accreditation and yet keep an almost junk shop sort of appeal. People love it – we’ve seen other museum refurbishments ‘sanitise’ the feel of the place, and we don’t want that.”
The Board hopes that the preparatory work will be completed in the spring of 2019 and, if all goes well, that bricks and mortar will follow during the winter closure period 2019-2020.
However, Chair of the Board, Tom Mackay of Newlands struck a cautionary note, “We’ve been here before – and we know it’s going to take an enormous amount of hard work – but with good will and further fundraising we aim to bring our plans to fruition this time round.”