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A brief history of the Strathnaver Museum building

The second in a series of regular blogs exploring aspects of the Strathnaver Museum refurbishment project. Housed in the former Church of St Columba in Bettyhill Strathnaver Museum is an impressive building thought to have been a site of ecclesiastical use for at least a thousand years. Built in 1774 this striking building is category B listed for its regional importance and houses an important historic collection telling the story of the Highland Clearances, Clan Mackay and the wider social history of north west Sutherland. Operating as a museum since 1976 the building is in major need of repair and sensitive refurbishment to preserve this important building, safeguard the collection it contains, and improve the visitor experience. For many years the Board and volunteers of Strathnaver Museum have been working hard to undertake a major refurbishment project to do just that!


Emblazoned on the pulpit which dominates the main gallery of Strathnaver Museum is the initials and date ‘M G M 1774’; referring to Master George Munro 1774 minister of Farr from 1754 until his death in 1779. The church was built in 1774 on an important ecclesiastical site that goes back for at least 1,000 years.


The pulpit in the main gallery space


If you take a walk around the building the sites ecclesiastical importance can be seen in the stones commemorating Farr residents going back several hundred years and especially in the Farr Stone. This Pictish symbol stone is thought to date to around 750AD and is intricately carved with a Celtic cross and two intertwined birds. Looking to the left you’ll see 3 smaller stones, thought to be early grave markers.


The Farr Stone, situated to the west gable of Strathnaver Museum


In 1882 the building underwent extensive renovation which saw the removal of the galleries and the creation of party walls reducing the space of the interior worship space. At the same time it would appear that the unusual large window in the north wall was added at this time. This is explored more in a previous blog post Chipping away the old facade.


Main gallery space looking north west towards the window that was added as part of the 1882 renovations


By the 1930s the building had fallen out of use and remained without a purpose until 1962 when the Church of Scotland handed it over to the community. This early community asset transfer was after a decade of hard work by a dedicated band of volunteers led by broadcaster and historian Dr Ian Grimble. The group had the vision to  create a museum for the area which would give the community a voice in telling their own story while bringing social, education and economic benefits to the area.


Dr Ian Grimble by Dulcie Lambert (1901 – 1981) a painting in the collection of Strathnaver Museum


To improve the buildings accessibility as a museum work in the 1970s and 1980s saw floors laid in the lower galleries to the east and west, the erection of internal stairs, installed fire escapes to the east and west gables and rendered the outside of the building in a modern render. However, the trustees had ambitious plans for further improvements to the building to ensure the future of the building, the important collection it looked after, and to deliver more educational opportunities.


Planning and consultation meeting


Following development funding from Highland LEADER and the Architectural Heritage Fund an architect and museum designer were contracted to produce detailed plans. Leading to securing planning permission and listed building consent in May 2019. This just left the task of securing the remaining funding to actually deliver the project!


Fiona Mackenzie, Project Manager Strathnaver Museum, Tom Mackay, Chair Strathnaver Museum and Catriona Hill of Oberlanders Architects


In September 2021 after the appointment of our contractor O’Brien Construction Ltd work began on site. The work includes the removal of the cement render and its replacement with lime mortar and limewash, the removal of the subsiding external fire escapes and the replacement of the east gable fire escape, the removal of a party wall to create a more welcoming reception space, the installation of a bridge to link the upper east and west gables, repairs and maintenance to the existing fabric, installation of new exhibitions and the creation of a purpose built exhibition and workshop space.


Concept design for the main gallery space by Abound Design and Interpretation



Concept drawing of the new exhibition and workshop space


Strathnaver Museum will reopen to the public in early 2023 just in time for the buildings 250th anniversary. Ensuring that this special building and the collection it contains is preserved for future generations to tell and in turn learn about life in north west Sutherland, or Mackay Country, over the last 8,000 years.

Thank you to our funders for making this exciting project possible: