Standing towards the south end of Lochinver's Main Street and looking across it out over Loch Inver is the superb Assynt Visitor Centre. The visitor centre has stood here since it was opened by Magnus Magnusson in 1995 and today serves as a combination of Tourist Information Centre, bookshop, museum of natural and social history, activity centre and base for the Highland Council rangers. Entry is free, and a visit is highly recommended.
The visitor centre's most obvious exhibit stands outside the front of the building and comprises a collection of very large chunks of the rocks of Assynt. The geology of the area is one of its most striking factors, and it is interesting to see some of the component parts set out to be seen and touched. This is a theme that recurs within the centre, as is another which becomes obvious before you enter. A large window by the door is home to a magnificent tiled vista of Loch Inver and Lochinver complete with a large heron. This was produced for the centre by Highland Stoneware Pottery, based in Lochinver.
At first sight the interior is fairly indistinguishable from any other good tourist information centre. Helpful staff, free leaflets promoting the many visitor attractions in the area, and a well stocked shop carrying books of local interest, maps, gifts postcards and so on.
As you move towards the rear of the building you begin to realise what else the visitor centre has to offer. In the centre of the ground floor is a large table containing a three dimensional map of Assynt showing the individual and highly distinct mountains which so characterise this area. Next to it, on the same scale, is a companion map showing the areas covered by glaciers during the last ice age complete with a couple of - possibly slightly over scale - polar bears.
Beyond is a beautifully presented series of panels setting out aspects of the background to the area. The geology of what has now become the North West Highlands Geopark receives particular attention. A characteristic of the visitor centre is the amount of imagination and effort that has obviously gone into many of the exhibits. One wall is home to a recreation of a sea bird colony on the ledges of a cliff face, complete with cliff face and sea birds. Another large and equally three dimensional display gives a bird's eye view of a remote croft which illustrates very graphically the traditional way of life for many in Assynt.
Standing against one wall of the centre is a carved stone, perhaps half a metre high which carries a remarkably clear runic inscription. The stone is illustrated below left, and can be seen in the background to the footer image. It was found at Inverkirkaig, a few miles south of Lochinver, in 1987 and created a considerable stir. The language was eventually found to be an Icelandic form of Old Norse, and when deciphered, the runes turned out to read: "Angela carved these runes in memory of her father. May Thor consecrate these runes." Meanwhile the carving was judged to have been made some time in the middle of the 1970s. Who Angela is, and who her father was, has never been established, but her secretly carved memorial to her father is a beautiful one.
Herons play a large part in the exhibitions on view in the visitor centre. As well as the tiled display in the window, there is a recreation of a heronry within the centre, complete with a high level nest. At the appropriate time of the year a nearby TV carries live images from inside a real heron's nest located not far from the centre. Pictures can also be beamed in from inside a blue tit's box.
The visitor centre is on two floors, and visitors are encouraged to explore the upper floor, housed within the narrowing apex of the roof. At one end this offers lovely views out over Loch Inver, while at the other it offers a different perspective down to the exhibits of the ground floor. The upper floor tends to be more activity and educational based than you find on the ground floor. One display allows "stones" to be peeled away to reveal the various creatures who make their lives within a dry stone dyke (or wall). On the floor a large-piece jigsaw allows an image of the mountains behind Lochinver to be constructed. Or you can browse the wealth of information about the wildlife of Assynt that lines the walls or can be found on the tables running along them: covering land, sea and air based creatures.