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Exciting plans at Strathnaver Museum

By Jim A Johnston

Strathnaver Museum’s ambitious plans for renovation and extension were aired to the public for the first time at a well attended event in the Naver Teleservice Centre on the afternoon and evening of Wednesday the 21st March.  Central to the ongoing presentation were a set of proposals drawn up by Ardgay based architect Catriona Hill which were pored over with rapt attention by museum volunteers and members of the public who dropped in.  Board members and Museum staff including the Chair, Mr. Tommy Mackay, and Development Officer, Ms Fiona Mackenzie, were on hand to answer questions as was Miss Valerie Houston, contracts and assets manager  at the Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust whose function was to share her community’s experience of successfully carrying similarly challenging projects through to completion.

The Museum Committee’s desire is to preserve and restore the essence of the building to its mid-18th Century appearance while addressing necessary improvements, such as improved access to all levels, a more spacious reception area, disabled toilet provision and a separate annexe which, while melding with the current structure, will complement it with a top of the range 21st Century design rather than attempt to emulate the original with an 18th Century pastiche.

“Our aim is to conserve the historic fabric,” says Catriona, “but to to do so in a contemporary manner which will allow the Museum to function effectively and get the very best out of its future.”  In order to achieve this she recommends the removal of the external staircases which were erected in the mid-seventies to give access to the internal galleries.  The western staircase would be replaced by a modern fire escape while, in place of the eastern one, a “portal”, described as a, “contemporary intervention” would create a point of interest at the Museum entrance and, at gallery level, would offer a clear view from end to end of the building along an imaginatively constructed bridge linking both sides of the interior.  Meanwhile, the exterior would have its 20th Century harling removed and replaced with an authentic 18th Century render.  The planned annexe is to be located outwith the immediate curtilage of the museum together with a sheltered courtyard to house larger exhibits including agricultural implements.

‘’While all this is going on”, says Fiona Mackenzie, “we will be running a three year cultural and natural heritage programme which will seek to involve the Mackay diaspora from across the world.  The clearances, politics, landscape and language will be our main themes.  We must do our best to keep the business of the Museum at the forefront no matter how difficult it my be when the builders are in.”  She anticipates a cost significantly in excess of £1,000,000 but is reasonably optimistic about assembling a funding package within a year and her hope is that, in three years time, all those who visit, volunteer or work on the premises be be reaping the fruits of this labour in a rejuvenated and fit for purpose building.

While echoeing these ambitious aims, board member Mr Robbie Mackay hopes that the work will solve a long standing mystery. “No-one seems to know when the Church of St Columba was actually built,” says Robbie, “I really hope they uncover a date stone when the harl is removed.”  And the Board’s Chair, Mr Tommy Mackay, sounded a slightly cautionary note, “We, and our predecessors, have been trying to do something like this for more than 30 years and have been nearly there on more than one occasion.  I really hope that, this time, we will be able to deliver the goods. It’ll mean a great deal of work for several years but we’re all up for it and ready to get going.”