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Chipping away the old facade

The first 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!


Strathnaver Museum, south elevation, 2005


In late September 2021 our successful contractor, O’Brien Construction Ltd,took possession of the site and began to realise the ambitious community vision for Strathnaver Museum that had been actualised in designs by Oberlanders Architects. One of the first tasks undertaken was to strip off the old cement render which had been applied to the exterior of the church building during the last phase of major refurbishment in the 1970s.


Strathnaver Museum January 2022 encased in scaffold during removal of the cement render as part of refurbishment work


The removal of the cement render will not only bring the building back to a more aesthetically pleasing and historically accurate state, but will crucially result in improved environmental conditions within the building. The current render creates an impenetrable barrier which traps moisture within the walls, water seeping in through open joints will lead to damp and deterioration of the building fabric, which in turn risks the condition of the collection. Not to mention making conditions inside the building unpleasant for visitors and staff! The building will be rendered in a more traditional lime based render later this year.

Fortunately, despite almost 5 decades hidden away under cement, the stonework for a building of its age, notwithstanding a few voids, and an unusual red mortar on the west gable, is in remarkably good condition. However, we did find a few surprises lurking underneath the cement!


A void in the stonework October 2021


Although we didn’t find any elaborate window facings hidden beneath the cement, we did find some fascinating details and a long forgotten later addition. Curiously all of the windows, bar one, had double lintels as can be seen in the photo below. There is still some evidence of the small stones that had been wedged between the two lintels. It is thought that the double lintel may have been used to give more strength, perhaps thought necessary due to the exposed nature of the site! This theory is perhaps backed up by the existence of a triple lintel in Orkney, see the Hall of Einar on Westry for more information.


An unusual double lintel uncovered beneath the cement render of Strathnaver Museum


The image below shows another example of a double lintel this time in a window that has been blocked off on the eastern gable; presumably closed off during the renovation work which was carried out in 1882.


Blocked in window on east gable of Strathnaver Museum showing an unusual double lintel


Originally the building would have sat 750 folk but following the Disruption of 1843, which split the established Church of Scotland, and the impact of emigration, the size of the congregation fell and in 1882 the galleries were removed. Yet the removal of the render has revealed that the unusual long central window on the rear of the building is in fact a later addition! It may seem curious that so much investment was poured into a church with a falling congregation but it would still have been an important building and the work must have made the church more light and airy. As can be seen in the image below the lintel is a single stone spanning the width of the window opening with the surrounding stonework distinct to the original. You can just see the seam in the image below where the old stonework has been punched out and replaced with the window opening.


Strathnaver Museum window on the north face


The 1882 refurbishment work was extensive and included the insertion of internal party walls (more about that in an upcoming blog) yet by the 1930s the church had closed its doors.

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