Timespan Museum and Arts Centre, to give it its full name, occupies a site in Helmsdale that extends from the side of the River Helmsdale at its lower end uphill towards the heart of the village. One side of the site is bounded by the approach road to Thomas Telford's Old Helmsdale Bridge, and the other by the road from Helmsdale's harbour back into the village.
Timespan describes itself as "a meeting place between our past and our future" and is a superb blend of a modern high quality museum; a gallery showcasing the work of international, national and local artists; and a community workshop and archive. It also offers the excellent River Café, overlooking the herb and geology gardens and bridge; and a gift shop. Entry to many of the facilities is free while there is an admission charge for the museum (see panel on the right).
There is ample car parking opposite the entrance to Timespan and your first view of the interior is of the reception area, opposite which is the gift shop, well stocked with books of local interest and craft and gift items.
Timespan's museum heads off up a sloping corridor to the right, the length of which provides a timeline, a series of illustrations each depicting a time or era, accompanied by descriptions of what was going on in the world, in Scotland and in Helmsdale at the time. The effect of moving forward in time as you move up the slope is a very striking one.
The first room you encounter gives background on aspects of the history of Helmsdale and of Sutherland more widely. Here you will find informative displays about the area's archaeology, about the Highland Clearances, about the 1869 gold rush in nearby Strath Kildonan, about Gaelic, and about Helmsdale's once important sea fishing industry. Another room contains a fine collection of vintage agricultural equipment.
Timespan's Storytelling Room is a relatively small room in which a series of five bespoke animated films are displayed on the excellent audio visual equipment when live story tellers are not in residence. The cushions you sit on have been hand knitted by Timespan’s knitting group.
A recreated shop at the time of the Strath Kildonan gold rush marks a change in approach within your tour of the museum, from objects on display to objects being shown in their original context. The shop is fascinating in its own right and comes with evocative items like a sugar cone. Off to one side is a stack of three bunk beds, reflecting the use of every available space for accommodation during the short-lived gold rush. As with most gold rushes, those providing goods and services tended to do far better financially than the men actually attracted to the area by the lure of a quick fortune. Some gold was found in the area, and can still be found, and a little is on display in the museum.
At the upper end of the museum is a series of recreated interiors. At one end is a blacksmith's forge, complete with the forge itself and all the tools that would have been used by the smith including an anvil. A fascinating touch is the collection of bespoke horseshoes, each sized and fitted to an individual horse's foot.
You can also look in on a croft house, complete with thatched roof. This comes with the traditional dresser and box bed, and a fireplace. Croft houses replaced the earlier black houses used right across the Highlands and Islands, a process encouraged by the Sutherland estate with monetary prizes for the best new crofts, and assistance with the supply of timber and lime.
To reach the River Café you turn left from the reception. A door at its far end opens out onto the herb and geology gardens. Stairs or a lift from the reception area give access to the first floor. The largest space here is given over to the art gallery. Here you find regularly refreshed exhibitions of international, national and local artists. The aim is to ensure that residents of and visitors to Helmsdale and Sutherland should have access to the very best in contemporary art right on their doorstep. Some exhibitions feature the work of artists who have travelled to Timespan to produce art inspired by the area.
The first floor is also the location of the community workshop, a multi-purpose space for groups of all ages from all over Sutherland and beyond: everything from art, dance, film or drama workshops to a table sale in support of Timespan itself. Nearby is the Community Archive, full of historical and contemporary information about Helmsdale and the wider area, much of it provided by the local community.