Kilmartin House Museum can be found in the village of Kilmartin, some eight miles north of Lochgilphead. The village lies at the heart of Kilmartin Glen, the nearest that mainland Scotland has to offer to a theme park of ancient (and not so ancient) history. Within six miles of the village there are over eight hundred ancient monuments of a wide variety of types, and Kilmartin House Museum is the ideal base from which to set out to explore them.
The museum stands on the west side of the main road passing through the village, immediately north of Kilmartin Church. The location is no coincidence. The main museum building, Kilmartin House, was built in 1789 to serve as a manse for the church's predecessor, built on the same site as the one you can see, and visit, today. Kilmartin House Trust was founded in 1994 to preserve, interpret and display archaeological artefacts. The trust's mission statement goes on to say: "we use the collections and the local archaeological and natural heritage to inspire, educate and enrich peoples lives and to ensure the future preservation of this important landscape."
From the visitor's point of view, a trip round the museum itself, for which an admission fee is charged, provides essential background to the story of the area and is highly recommended. The ancient monuments so richly scattered across Kilmartin Glen are fascinating, but when you see them on the ground it is often very difficult to imagine what the people who built them must have been like. Kilmartin House Museum does an excellent job filling in the otherwise missing human dimension and setting the monuments on the ground in their proper context.
Within the museum you are introduced to a number of different aspects of the story of the area. The focal point is a circular large model of Kilmartin Glen which allows identification of the different elements of the landscape. Elsewhere are galleries focused on different periods in the glen's history. One looks, for example, at the wood age, and brings together artefacts from the era and places them in a highly atmospheric setting. Another area looks at the way our distant ancestors lived on the shore and used the sea to feed themselves.
Other parts of the museum are more conventional in layout, presenting collections of, for example, pottery found during archaeological excavations in the glen. For us one of the highlights was a demonstration, with visitors encouraged to get hands-on, of the way our early ancestors milled grain. Bringing along your own child labour is very helpful for this aspect of your visit!
While we'd recommend a tour of the museum for anyone visiting the area for the first time, it is well worth noting that the facilities available at Kilmartin House Museum go far beyond the museum itself. It is arguable that the Kilmartin House Museum is doing itself a disservice with its name and should actually call itself the Kilmartin Glen Visitor Centre, because that is what it really is.
You begin your visit, after passing outdoor information displays and a recreated monk's beehive cell, in the range of stone buildings that started life as outbuildings for the manse. At the heart of this is the wonderfully welcoming reception area, beyond which is a gift shop combined with an excellent bookshop, which, as you would expect, majors on books about the area and its history.
The stone buildings are also home to a rather fine cafe, which extends rearwards down to a conservatory level offering views of some of the ancient monuments in the valley behind the museum, and loos, whose cisterns have to be the most strikingly decorated we have seen anywhere.