Gairloch Heritage Museum is hard to miss. It stands on the junction between the main A832 and the "B" road close to the heart of the scattered community of Gairloch. The museum itself presents the fascinating story of the heritage and culture of a large part of coastal Wester Ross and should be considered an essential stopping off point for anyone wanting to know more about this beautiful part of Scotland.
There are place to replace it on a new site, but the museum is currently housed in an "L" shaped building and is divided into some 20 different sections, each addressing a different aspect of the story of the area. These flow well one into another and all the exhibits are nicely set out and discreetly signed. As a result it is possible to simply wander around the museum taking note of the exhibits which particularly appeal to you. To gain the most from your visit, however, we'd recommend purchasing the extremely good guide to the exhibits published by the museum. This not only fills in the background to many of the exhibits in much more detail, it also serves to help remind you of what you have seen after your visit and, inevitably, reveals one or two things you wish you'd noticed at the time!
Much of the museum is given over to the people who made their lives in sometimes marginal and difficult conditions, though the natural history is not overlooked. One section covers the geology that underlies Wester Ross, helping explain how this stupendous landscape came about and revealing that when you walk here, you are walking on some of the oldest rocks on earth. Another section has a series of cases displaying examples of the animal and bird life of the area.
The human story of Wester Ross is told in a series of sections that focus on different aspects of life. The importance of mills and milling is emphasised in one part of the base of the "L", while the next looks at the way the laundry was traditionally done, complete with a collection of irons and a large mangle. Another section is given over to the spinning, knitting and weaving of wool, which began to play a large part in the local economy after the introduction of sheep in the 1800s.
Other sections look at shoemaking, postal services, and the extraction and use of peat. And very few visitors will pass by without spending some time admiring a tableau showing one of the many illicit whisky stills which sprang up throughout the Highlands and Islands in the 1700s. Our distiller is shown peering into the condenser where the spirit vapours would have been turned into "the water of life".
Easy to overlook is a Pictish symbol stone with an excellent carving of a fish and the lower part of the carving of an eagle. This was unearthed in 1948 when foundations were being dug for a house in Gairloch and is an unusual example of such a stone being found on the west coast of Scotland.
The main body of the museum has displays about the dairy industry, education, Gaelic in the community, the impact of war on the area, religion, horses and stables, and shopping, complete with a recreated shop. There is also a space for temporary exhibitions. One large part of the museum is given over to a superb recreation of the interior of a traditional croft house as it would have appeared in the middle of the 1800s. At the living end this includes a fireplace, advanced for its time with a wooden hood to collect the peat smoke that previously would simply have been left to find its way out through the roof. At the other end of the single room is a traditional dresser and a box bed, plus a mother with her baby in a crib.
Perhaps the most significant story covered by the museum is the part played by fishing, sailing and the sea in the lives of local people. One section looks at this explicitly and includes a range of artefacts from fishing equipment and sea shells to a model of the S.S. Mabel, which after being built in 1882 was put into passenger service on Loch Maree by the owner of the Gairloch and Loch Maree Hotels. The service was taken over by MacBraynes four years later in 1887. She remained in service until 1911 and was then moored in the loch at the Loch Maree Hotel, where her remains were still visible as late as 1937.
Rather happier was the fate of the three fishing boats on display outside the front of the museum. The largest, the Queen Mary, was built at Inveralligin on Loch Torridon in about 1907 and then fished from Badachro for 40 years. A second boat, the Ribhinn Bhoidheach (or "Beautiful Maiden") was built in nearby Port Henderson in 1914 and fished from Melvaig. Completing the nautical theme are the foghorn and lighthouse mechanism originally installed in the lighthouse at Rubha Reidh, just up the coast.