Mallaig Heritage Centre stands immediately next to Mallaig's railway station, close to the roundabout at which the A830 enters the town and not far from the ferry terminus. The nearest car park is on the sea front, on the left immediately after you enter Mallaig, about 200 yards from the Heritage Centre.
The Heritage Centre was built in 1993 on the site of what had previously been a dormitory for railwaymen, no longer needed in the modern era of lower manning levels. The Centre is owned and operated by a local charity, the Mallaig Heritage Trust, and for the first seven years after it opened in 1994 it relied entirely on admission fees from visitors and the goodwill of the volunteers who kept it staffed. Since 2001 the Centre has operated under a Service Agreement with the Highland Council. This arrangement has allowed it to become part of the family of excellent museums located across the Highlands. It has also placed the Centre on a more secure financial footing and enabled it to improve its facilities and services to meet the standards set by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.
The result is a diverse and eclectic collection of objects, images and documents which together help reflect a number of different aspects of the heritage of Mallaig and West Lochaber, or to put it slightly differently, the districts of Knoydart, Morar and Arisaig.
And these are areas with some very diverse strands to their stories. The Centre is largely open plan, and there are no strict or artificial divisions between one subject area and the next. Nonetheless, there are a series of quite distinct themes running through the exhibitions.
Mallaig was founded during the 1840s when the owner of the North Morar Estate, Lord Lovat, divided up the farm on the coast here into a series of parcels of land and encouraged his tenants living around Loch Morar and Loch Nevis to resettle in what became Mallaig and establish a fishing village. Between 1841 and 1851 the population increased from 24 to 134, and many were making at least part of their living from the sea. The sea has remained central to the lives of many who live in Mallaig ever since, and it is fitting that a significant part of the Centre is given over to a series of nautical themes.
For obvious reasons, the local fishing industry is one of these. Mallaig was once Europe's busiest herring port, while today its fishing fleet goes out after prawns and other shellfish. You can find many reflections of this heritage within the Centre, including a modern marine engine. Fishing boats themselves are represented by models, and there are also displays about the herring industry and the work of herring girls in gutting and salting the fish. At the front of the Centre a different aspect of the marine heritage of the area is represented by the boiler from the steam launch "Falcon", used by the Meoble Estate on Loch Morar between 1901 and 1939.
The role of Mallaig as a hub for, first, steamers and more recently for ferries is also well represented. As well as background information, there are artefacts on display such as a ship's bell and a lifebelt, both from the M.V. Lochmor, which served as the Small Isles ferry from Mallaig between 1979 and 2000. The final nautical theme relates to the lifeboats that have served with distinction from Mallaig over the years since 1948.
It would be fair to say that although fishing became of great importance to Mallaig during the second half of the 1800s, Mallaig's fishing industry only became important to Scotland, and its population only really took off, when the railway arrived. The Mallaig Extension of the West Highland Line opened for business in 1901, and it transformed the outlook and economy of the town. The Centre is very strong on the railway heritage of Mallaig. We particularly liked the large model of Mallaig railway station in OO Gauge presented to the Centre in 2009. It seems to reflect the late days of steam in the middle decades of the last century, and of particular interest is how extensive the network of lines once was, covering the area since claimed by the road builders for the route of the A830 into the town. It is also possible to see the building that was replaced by the Centre itself.
A range of other subjects are also covered. One theme looks at "The Rough Bounds": the life of those who lived in the now much more thinly populated areas of Knoydart, North Morar and Arisaig. It is fair to say that whatever your interest in Mallaig, and whatever your reason for being here, a visit to the Mallaig Heritage Centre is likely to allow you to gain a deeper understanding and take away more than would otherwise be possible.