‘Mum, how far is it to Gairloch?’ piped my younger offspring from the back seat.
‘Oh, only about an hour,’ I lied cheerfully, as we drove west along Fortrose High Street.
As soon as I had heard that Gairloch Museum, recently relocated to new premises, had won the 2020 Art Fund Museum of the Year Prize, I had told them that like it or not, We Were Going.
Out of the corner of my eye I could just see my husband rolling his eyes from the front seat but chose to ignore it. ‘I shall probably just sit in the car and listen to sport,’ had been his main contribution to the discussion of the trip the night before. My younger daughter really wanted to stay at home and crochet hats, a new-found lucrative (she hopes) hobby. I told her she could crochet in the car. My elder daughter had shown rather more enthusiasm for the trip although I think the magic words ‘sandy beach’ and ‘lunch out’ may have had a lot to do with that.
In fairness to my beloved family, their response to a potential museum visit is probably of my own making. Years working in museums (notably HMS Belfast in London, the Imperial War Museum’s largest collection item) and heritage (‘Look darlings! Another lovely old house. Yes, with columns…’) even before I started my consulting business meant they had probably reached cultural saturation point long ago. Or so they thought.
It was a beautiful autumn day, which helped the drive, and the colours and reflections were breathtaking. We had timed our visit to allow for lunch and first enjoyed a meal at the Barn Restaurant at Big Sand – recommended by the museum team. We had already passed the new museum site on our approach – if Gairloch is spread along the coast road like a long, slow smile, the new museum is a rotten tooth made bright and white and whole again.
At some point during the journey I had let slip the fact that the new museum had been created in an old nuclear bunker. The responses to this were predictable: will it be radioactive, then? All the old che sera sera prejudices. Will it be chilly? Will it be kitsch? Libraries are silent. Museums are cold. And bunkers glow in the dark…
The initial impact of the museum is one of new-build modernism, a stark white cube with one of the key exhibits from the collection, the great russet foghorn from the Rubh Re lighthouse, jutting up in the foreground. It looks much bigger than it did at the old museum site. In fact, everything does. I longed to know what it might sound like. Would it be feasible to have a once-a-day foghorn blast, I wondered, a bit like the One o’ Clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle?
I did not know the old museum well but visited on a couple of occasions for meetings with its doughty curator, Dr Karen Buchanan. It had long outgrown the wee croft of its original site with various larger exhibits spilling over into the area outside it. Inside the original was a couthy jumble of contents, affectionately assembled over the years. It was lovely in its informality but it also resembled oh-so-many others – and the heating and lighting were so poor that conservation conditions were the stuff of nightmares. I remember, for example, glancing without great interest at a large ridged glass object tucked into a dark corner.
Well. The lens from the lighthouse at Rubh Re now provides the brilliant heart of the new museum. As with so many other exhibits, improved display, giving objects more room to breathe, now stops visitors in their tracks. You can see the top of the lens peep, enticingly, from behind the reception desk. It dazzles in the first museum space entered (my elder daughter kept looking at the small lightbulb inside it, unable to believe the impact of its multiple reflection, which once saved so many vessels from the rocks). Audio here (with sanitiser) provides first hand accounts of lighthouse life. And the hanging galleries suspended around the first floor also provide a view of the lens from above. This is how to celebrate an iconic object.
There was sound here too. The gallery to one side of the great lens is dedicated to the early protesting outdoor worship of the Free Presbyterian Church (I confess the phrase ‘have you seen the light?’ flitted through my mind at this juxtaposition). The best preachers could attract hundreds and sometimes thousands to their open-air services. A recording of Gaelic psalm-singing led by a precentor filled the space. My younger daughter said it reminded her of something – but she couldn’t remember what, and the moment passed.
On the opposite side, a polished axe and arrow heads floated beautifully within their cases. ‘So you can just find those in the dunes?’ asked my elder daughter, with a gleam in her eye (we did try later, but no luck). I remembered finding a similarly-marked clay pot at Kindrogan Field Centre when I was my younger daughter’s age, during a brief spell when I fancied archaeology as a career. We found ourselves talking, really talking, about something other than COVID 19 and what was for dinner for the first time in way too long, and it felt good.
Both girls and husband loved the upstairs interactive gallery and the sight of them bouncing repeatedly on the foot plate to try to cause an even greater earthquake was highly entertaining.
I liked the display of taxidermy here. One school of thought suggests that stuffed birds etc should now be confined to the flames out of a sense of respect – but this would not bring them back to life. Isn’t it more respectful to see them contribute to learning? Artful display at small person level means a child can now look straight into the wild face of a golden eagle. That engagement could trigger a lifelong fascination for these fabulous birds. This is not to endorse the killing of wildlife today, just making respectful use of the taxidermy we already have.
We liked the crofthouse recreation (much discussion over the pros and cons of a box bed) but I found the lack of a sustained period of illumination without keeping your finger on the button a wee bit irritating and photography here was a struggle. 20 seconds would do fine.
The little school display after this was every inch my own Highland primary school at Inchmore. It made my palm itch and had me wondering where the tawse was, but perhaps I missed it.
It is not often my husband sings, but he did so when he found the little grocery shop recreation. The gallery was soon reverberating to ‘Zubes, zubes, zubes, zubes, zubes are good for your tubes…’. Good thing he was wearing a mask. ‘Oooooh, but they were rough…’ Savouring the memory, he wandered on, the man who had just been going to sit in the car outside and listen to sport.
Nearby, ‘Yarn!’ exclaimed my youngest, admiring twisted hanks of hand-dyed wool in the exact shades of autumn visible outside. She wondered if she could crochet the stockings on display instead of knit them and suddenly we we were discussing the relative merits and even the mathematical properties of the two techniques.
In the final gallery before redescending the stairs, I found myself confronted by a familiar sign warning trespassers not to set foot on Gruinard Island, site of a misguided experiment in biological warfare using anthrax. My mother had told me the story as a child and I vividly remember the shock of this sign in situ. I still find the concept of deliberately poisoning soil to gain military advantage profoundly disturbing.
The use of the space is clever – elevating the bicycle and spinning wheel reminded me of Alan Borg’s groundbreaking refurb of the Imperial War Museum in the 1980s, when large collection items were suspended from the roof for the first time. I liked the temporary exhibition area too, currently housing an attractive art exhibition.
How the designers have contrived to make a concrete bunker feel so warm and welcoming is anybody’s guess. The staff/volunteers at the reception desk were a delight both over the phone in advance and in person. (They could maybe mention that the loos are halfway through the visit not near reception in that arrival briefing? Or perhaps they did but I missed it).
One thing I should have asked, but failed to, was how much of the site we missed because of COVID closures. There is a good one way system based on simple sticky arrows on the floor with social distancing and sanitising in place where there were objects which could be handled.
I glimpsed a bright and spacious research room and the café is not yet up and running for COVID-related reasons. If there were outdoor spaces the route did not include them. We browsed the classy shop and bought a few nice bits and bobs, then went on our way rejoicing, to risk our necks on a steep and slippery track down to the superb sandy beach nearby.
Both girls fell fast asleep on the way home, just as they used to when they were small – but as she was drifting off the younger suddenly remembered what it was the Gaelic psalms reminded her of. ‘Istanbul,’ she said. Absolutely true. I am not sure what the local Free Church minister would think, but to us the Gaelic psalms sounded very like the imam’s plaintive call to prayer at Agia Sophia in the centre of Istanbul, ancient Constantinople, which Viking settlers hereabouts would have called Miklagard.
We drove home without mentioning COVID once, the girls dozing, my husband still singing the Zubes song under his breath and myself thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about the universality of worship. We have promised ourselves a return visit to Gairloch’s Museum when all areas (and its own café) are fully open. What an asset for Gairloch – and for the whole of the Scottish Highlands.