At first sight, the mile and a half wide strip of green belt land that separates the conurbation of Glasgow from the new town of East Kilbride might not be your first choice location for the National Museum of Rural Life.
In practice the location is ideal, being within easy reach of a large proportion of the population of Scotland. And although it is virtually on the doorstep of our largest city, the museum succeeds in giving visitors from all backgrounds a deeper understanding of our rural heritage, and an excellent and unusual day out.
The museum comprises two main parts. The first, and the closest to the car park and to East Kilbride itself, is the vast exhibition building. This houses all the main visitor facilities including a shop and restaurant, and includes the full range of galleries and displays you would expect from such a museum. The second is Wester Kittochside Farmstead, a little under half a mile north of the exhibition building across part of the 175 acre estate, still actively farmed as part of the museum's activities.
The exhibition building and the farmstead are linked together by a passenger carriage pulled by tractor along farm tracks; or by separate footpaths. Our advice is to catch the tractor ride up to the farm, then (assuming good weather) follow the footpath back down the hill to the exhibition building once you have toured the steading. The tractor ride, like the exhibition building and much of the steading, is fully accessible. You book for the tractor ride (the price is included in admission) at the reception desk in the exhibition building.
The National Museum of Rural Life is a joint project between the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) and National Museums Scotland (NMS). NMS were looking for somewhere suitable to house and display their enormous collection of rural artefacts: and in 1992 the NTS was gifted Wester Kittochside farmhouse and steading. Over the 1990s the project slowly came together, and the new exhibition building was constructed between 1998 and 2001.
The broadsheet available to visitors about the museum talks of the new exhibition building in fairly glowing architectural terms. The aim, we are told, was for "a modern industrial vernacular for the 21st century". The end you enter via the access bridge is timber clad and meant, the broadsheet says, to make you think you are entering a single storey agricultural barn. In practice, the location of the car park means that most visitors first see the exhibition building as a very large concrete box with a glass front and a tall chimney. This means that as you cross the access bridge the illusion of a timber barn has already been punctured.
Never mind, because although the exterior of the new exhibition building is rather brutal and unwelcoming, the interior more than makes up for it. Here you find a central display area that extends the full height of the building and comes with views through the glass frontage up towards the farmstead. Surrounding it on three sides are secondary areas containing a range of exhibitions. Finding your way from one part of the building to another is not wholly intuitive: the trick is to go with the flow and follow the square spiral path that links together most parts of the interior and gives superb views down into the main exhibition area from a high level gallery at the rear and from a walkway at the front.
Highlights include the amazing collections of agricultural machinery, including a cutaway tractor whose internal parts operate when a button is pressed: a sure-fire hit with children of all ages! Once you have finished exploring the exhibitions, the tractor ride to the farmstead will appeal to the same audience.
Wester Kittochside Farmstead is in many ways an opportunity to experience the practical application of what you have already seen in the new exhibition building. The farmhouse itself was built in 1780 and is designed to appear from the front like a minor version of the stately homes that were then going up across much of southern Scotland. The preserved interior supports this view of the gentleman farmer as minor aristocracy, with good sized and well furnished dining and sitting rooms.
The rear of the farmhouse forms one side of the farmyard, around which are a ranges of ancillary buildings. These include stables, a milking room, cattle shed and more. Remember that this is a working farm, with real animals, and though they may be out to pasture when you visit, they are still likely to have left evidence they were there: wearing sensible shoes is a good idea.