The Isle of Arran Heritage Museum is housed in a group of mainly whitewashed buildings about a mile north of Brodick. If travelling from Brodick you find it on the right just before the junction between the main road that circumnavigates the Isle of Arran and the String Road, which cuts across its middle.
Museums come in all shapes and sizes. Seen from the road it is easy to assume that the Isle of Arran Heritage Museum is not particularly large. The reality therefore comes as a surprise. This is an extensive museum comprising a number of distinct parts, and as a result you are likely to find yourself staying longer, and learning far more, than you expect. A visit to the Heritage Museum really should be considered an essential part of any visit to Arran: all the more so given the very modest admission charges.
And speaking of admission charges, they are still more modest if you only wish to explore the outdoor exhibits, enjoy the gardens and picnic area alongside the Rosa Burn, and visit the excellent Café Rosaburn.
Your visit to the Heritage Museum begins in the visitor reception and shop, a wooden building at the northern corner of the twin-level car park (which itself offers rather more space that seems possible from the main road). From here you emerge into the gardens behind the museum, and your decision about which parts of the museum to explore first will probably be driven by the weather as much as anything else.
At the risk of over-simplification, the museum can be though of as having three distinct areas: the gardens, grounds and outdoor exhibits; the core exhibits in the stable block; and a range of additional exhibits, usually in recreated rooms or buildings, most of which lie between the gardens and the stable block.
As you emerge first into the garden, this seems as good a place as any to start a description of the museum. Ahead of you is a wooden shed which is home to a wide range of agricultural machinery, while nearby is the picnic area, definitely a fine weather option. Around the grounds are a number of outdoor exhibits including a several tractors. One of these, the red-painted Tommy's Tractor, is intended as a hands on exhibit for younger visitors. Part of the fun of some of these exhibits is guessing their purpose before reading the information about them: and getting it wrong a surprising amount of the time.
Standing against a hedge near the reception is an upright aircraft propeller with a single battered blade. This is the British American Memorial, erected by the Arran Junior Mountain Rescue Club in memory of all the airmen killed on Arran between 1939 and 1945. While the dangers of operational flying in wartime are obvious, it is easy to forget that training was also extremely hazardous. As an island rising to nearly 3,000ft, Arran became the location of a number of fatal aircraft crashes during WWII, and the crews of those aircraft are remembered here.
En route from the gardens to the stable block you pass a number of buildings. The most obvious is Rosaburn House, which backs onto the garden itself. This contains an exhibition about schooling on Arran in the 1940s, and is also where you find Café Rosaburn. At the far end of Rosaburn House you turn right through a gate positioned in front of a red phone box and walk down what feels like a short street of whitewashed buildings. These are home to a number of self-contained recreations of aspects of life in bygone Arran.
Perhaps the most spectacular of these is the smiddy. This functioned "in real life" as a smiddy for a century until the 1960s and comes complete with three forges, two of which are for blacksmithing and the third for maintaining masons' tools. Pride of place in the centre of the smiddy goes to the anvil, while other important tools include a beam drill, a hydraulic punch and a guillotine for cutting metal sheets. Part of what was originally a school building adjoining the smiddy has been fitted out as a shoeing shed: with the objects being shoed including both horses' hooves and wooden cartwheels. The smiddy is maintained in working order and twice each summer a blacksmith gives horse shoeing demonstrations here.
Close by is a shed that houses the Board of Trade's wagon number 575. This is identical to one that was based at the Coastguard Station at Kildonan on the south coast of Arran in the early 1900s. Its role was to fire rockets with lines attached to ships in distress on coastal rocks. Once a line had reached the ship the crew would haul in steadily increasing thicknesses of rope until the link between ship and shore was strong enough to allow those aboard to reach safety in a breeches buoy apparatus.
Opposite the smiddy is the 19th century cottage, fitted out as it would have appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. This has three main rooms. The parlour is the day to day living area of the family, while the kitchen was where most of the domestic work was undertaken. Upstairs is an attic bedroom with a single bed. Beyond the kitchen is a wash house in which you find an amazing collection of laundry equipment. Nearby is a fully equipped milk house or dairy.
The real heart of the museum lies in the large stable block at the far end of the complex from the entrance. This is home to a series of themed exhibitions about aspects of life on the Isle of Arran, and about the island itself. Important exhibitions cover the geology of Arran, which is significant because it mirrors in miniature that of Scotland more widely; and the archaeology and history of the island. Elsewhere in the stable block you can find out about the little-known clearances on Arran in the 1800s, and what became of those who emigrated as a result. And as you'd expect on an island, the history of ships and shipping receives particular focus.
The Isle of Arran Heritage Museum is also home to an extensive collection of archives about the island, now housed in a purpose built extension and looked after by the museum's archivist. The museum's genealogy department shares the new extension with the archives and offers public search facilities and genealogical services for those wanting to trace their Arran ancestors.