Caithness Horizons is a superb modern museum occupying what were previously Thurso Town Hall and the Carnegie Library. It draws together collections previously in the care of Highland Council, Thurso Heritage Society and the Dounreay Visitor Centre to present a comprehensive and highly impressive picture of mankind's past and present interactions with Caithness.
The museum stands in the heart of Thurso, on the High Street at the north east end of the pedestrianised area. Parking is available immediately opposite, and there is more within an easy walk. The exterior of the old own hall is Victorian Gothic in dark stone with lots of pinnacles while the neighbouring Carnegie Library uses a pinker stone. The contrast between the exterior and the interior you find as you walk through the door could not be more striking.
Throughout much of Caithness Horizons you get the impression that the previous interior was simply removed to allow its designers a free hand in making the most of the available space: though in places attractive original features were retained, ensuring that there are links to the origins of the building itself.
The tone is set by the large and welcoming reception area, with lots of light wood panelling and a well stocked gift shop. The museum's ground floor is also home an excellent cafe, at the rear of the building, and to some very contrasting displays.
Off to the right of the reception is the Dounreay Room. This charts the story of Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment, which is currently in the process of decommissioning its site eight miles west of the town. At one time Dounreay was home to five nuclear reactors, three owned and operated by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and two by the Ministry of Defence. The story of the development of the site is told through a series of displays, with a sense of the scale and technical complexity conveyed through cut-away models of reactors and a display of remote handling equipment.
The exhibits in the Dounreay Room give a fascinating insight into a world which is little understood by many of us. Whatever your views about nuclear power, there is no doubting the importance of Dounreay to the Caithness economy over the past half century: nor its continuing importance for decades to come as decommissioning of the site takes place. Beyond the Dounreay Room, and very easy to overlook, is an exhibition area about fuel and energy, covering everything from oil and peat to renewables. To the rear of this end of the museum is a large education room.
Back in the reception area look out for Ye Auld Fish Stane. This stood in Thurso market place from the 1850s to the 1970s and marks the spot where fishwives traditionally gathered to sell their fish. It is the beginning of a journey back in time which continues in the other main exhibition area on the ground floor, off to the left of the reception area. Here you can find tourist information, an open learning centre, and the resources of the Caithness Family History Society. But mostly this area is home to two hugely impressive and beautifully displayed Pictish standing stones.
The taller of the two is known as the Skinnet Stone. It was found forming part of the interior west wall of Skinnet Chapel near Halkirk in 1861. It was moved to Thurso Museum in 1890, but in the process was broken into six pieces. For much of the intervening period the pieces have been displayed wrongly assembled, but this has since been corrected and the stone as you see it today is as near to the original as it is possible to get. The Skinnet Stone is 2.1m high by 0.6m wide and is unusual in having crosses carved on both sides along with other symbols. There is also carving on one of the edges of the stone.
The stockier of the two stones is known as the Ulbster Stone and was unearthed in the burial ground of St Martin's Chapel in Ulbster in 1770. This is 1.6m high by 0.9m wide and also has crosses carved on both its front and rear faces. It is also said to carry a larger array of different Pictish symbols than any other single stone found to date. At some point after it was found someone saw fit to deeply engrave "The Ulbster Stone" in highly ornate script on one side of it.
The first floor of Caithness Horizons is home to its main collections, as well as to the gallery, home to changing exhibitions of artwork. The main first floor room is a hugely impressive space, reaching up to the upper level of the old town hall and allowing a fine stained glass window to be viewed for the first time in a very long time.
The main room carries a series of exhibitions about the history, archaeology and landscape of Caithness, as well as topics such as sustainability and transport. One object on display stands out. It is a roughly carved stone cross carrying a Runic inscription by someone commemorating their father, Ingulf. It seems to date back a thousand years and was found in a grave at Old St Peter's Church in Thurso.
This room is dominated by a huge map of Caithness on one wall, and from a raised platform on the other side it is possible to project lights onto the map showing the location of, for example, all of the castles, or brochs, or visitor attractions in Caithness. It's a little like something out of the set of an early James Bond movie, but very striking and great fun. A mezzanine floor up in the eaves of the building is home to a comfortable audio visual theatre showing material about the history of Caithness.
Another room on the first floor in the aptly-named Thurso Room contains a fascinating exhibition about Thurso itself. Elsewhere the focus is on natural history and, in particular, the collection of Robert Dick. He established a bakery in Thurso in 1830 and began studying and collecting the plants and insects of Caithness. His interests later expanded to include rocks and fossils, but it is for his herbarium, which included an amazingly complete collection of mosses, ferns and flowering plants, for which he is principally remembered.