Dunbeath Heritage Centre occupies the old school in the village of Dunbeath. It stands on the south-west side of the steep sided valley formed by the Dunbeath Water and enjoys excellent views to the north and east.
The Heritage Centre fulfils a range of different functions, many of which are intended to give focus to the work of the Dunbeath Preservation Trust, a body founded in 1985 by the then owner of Dunbeath Estate "to support efforts to explore, study, preserve and maintain the unique natural and cultural heritage of Dunbeath and its strath in harmony with its ongoing contemporary community."
The centre acts as a research base and an archive for the results of local research as well as for manuscripts, photographs and items of local cultural interest. It also provides a fascinating exhibition space which is especially strong on the works of local author Neil M. Gunn, and provides a venue for lectures, storytelling and workshops.
In recognition of its importance and professional standards the centre has been made an Accredited Museum by the Museums and Galleries Commission. What you see today is the result of the centre's refurbishment in 2008, and a visit is a fascinating experience that does just much to challenge the traditional idea of what a museum actually is.
Internally the Dunbeath Heritage Centre is divided into a number of separate exhibition areas. The first, and largest, initially leaves you a little puzzled, appearing to be a nearly empty hall with a few scattered items of furniture and a series of large black and white photographs on the walls. Gradually you begin to tune in to what the centre is seeking to convey: a sense of the surrounding landscape of Dunbeath and its strath (valley), especially as seen through the eyes of author Neil M. Gunn, whose early childhood years were spent in Dunbeath and who received his early education in the school now accommodating the heritage centre.
In 1937 Neil M. Gunn published what is arguably his best known work, the novel "Highland River". The book's main character, Kenn, seen both as a child and as an adult returning from the Great War, journeys up the strath that runs inland from Dunbeath to the source of the Dunbeath Water in Loch Braighe na h'Aibhne. As with many of Gunn's works, the journey is both physical and spiritual, and the river that Kenn follows comes to represent many different things before his journey is over.
The main room seeks to evoke a sense of this journey without requiring the visitor to read chunks of text. The approach adopted is threefold. At its heart is the huge map of a river on the floor of the main room, accompanied by illustrations and quotations from the book. The second element is formed by the black and white images, which seem to act as windows onto another time and place. And the third, and most subtle, are the quotations etched into the windows of the room, which tie together very explicitly the interior of the centre and the world beyond: an approach that becomes all the more effective when you realise that the fictional Kenn and the real Neil M. Gunn both gazed out of these windows as schoolboys.
The second main exhibition area is accessed beyond a glass screen which divides it from the main room. It is only when you move beyond it that you realise fully just how beautifully decorated this screen is, and again the idea of maps and worlds beyond these walls are brought home in a very effective way. This area houses the centre's residents, a number of life size figures representing local people from different eras, with, at their centre a small boy writing a quotation from Gunn in the sand. On either side of this room are beautiful stained glass windows.
Other parts of the centre conform more closely to the ordinary expectations of a "museum", so those looking for displays of local artefacts and information about the area will not leave disappointed. Items on view range from carved stones found locally to the yett (or iron gate) that once protected the front door of Dunbeath Castle and the lintel which once surmounted the doorway of the castle.
Dunbeath Heritage Centre also has a nice little bookshop which, as you would expect, is very strong on the works of Neil M. Gunn and other subjects of local interest including archaeology.