The Museum of the Isles forms part of Armadale Castle, Gardens & Museum of the Isles, just ¾ of a mile from from the terminal for the Mallaig ferry at Armadale. First established in 1975 within the only remaining inhabitable part of Armadale Castle, it moved in March 2002 to a purpose built museum set within Armadale Castle Gardens. Armadale Castle ruins and gardens are the subject of a separate feature page.
Scotland is home to some magnificent museums: Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum and Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland are obvious examples. But size-for-size, the Museum of the Isles must be the best museum in the country.
Your first impression, as you glimpse the museum through the surrounding greenery of the castle gardens, is not overwhelmingly positive. A plain, single storey white-harled building, its lack of windows except around the entrance gives it a slightly intimidating air. Don't let this put you off. The absence of windows is a totally practical feature in a building designed from scratch as a museum: the last thing that rare historical exhibits need is sunlight. Another real benefit of the purpose-built premises is that they have been designed to be full accessible.
The entrance area is, in fact, full of natural light. From here you can visit the museum gift shop, on your right. To the left of the main entrance are the core areas of the museum. These comprise a series of six interconnecting galleries, each telling a different part of the story of Clan Donald, whether as Lords of the Isles or as landlords; and of the people who lived in the West Highlands through the ages, whether as clansmen, soldiers, crofters or - as so many became - emigrants forced to leave land their families had lived on for generations. A seventh gallery houses temporary exhibitions.
At the end of the day, museums are about objects, about images, and about words: and through those objects, images and words, museums seek to bring to life something of the lives of people, often people who are remote from us in time and culture.
In any museum, what you gain from the experience of a visit will depend partly on how interested you are in the subject to start with; partly on how well selected and presented the objects and images are and how well written the words are; and partly on that hard to describe "feel" of the place. Does the museum itself help give its contents added life and impact, does it allow a better understanding of its contents and the people they represent?
Anyone not really sure what we are talking about here could do far worse than spend some time in the Museum of the Isles. The objects on show are superb, and the presentation of the background information excellent. But it is the museum itself that sticks in the memory, the way the galleries are each given a clear and distinct theme that makes each unique.
The result is a series of rooms in which your attention is focused on the subjects and topics the designers want to highlight. The clearest demonstration of the impact of a room on the overall experience is found in the first main gallery you enter. This is a dark space that is made to feel circular despite its underlying square shape, and which houses, amongst other things, a beautifully lit recreated stone circle. It is as far from the traditional image of a dusty museum as it is possible to get.
The story that is told in the Museum of the Isles is a fascinating one, in part because it is so little known, even by many Scots. The story starts with the ancient settlers, before moving on to the time of Dalriada, to the Celtic Church, to the Norse, and to Somerled, the man who displaced Norse power in western Scotland and the islands, and who, through one of his grandsons, started a dynasty that went on to become the Clan Donald.
It was the descendents of Donald son of Ranald, who over time acquired enough power to found the Tighearnas nan Eilean or, in English, the Lordship of the Isles. The museum goes on to relate how the Lordship of the Isles thrived from the late 1300s to 1493, when it was forfeited to the Scottish crown, and how its reign marked one of the most stable and prosperous periods in the history of the Hebrides: up until then or since.
The period of the Lords of the Isles was followed by what the Museum calls linn nan creach or "the age of forays", a lawless and violent period of cattle raids and clan feuds. Then came na Seumasaich or the Jacobites, in whose aftermath things took a serious turn for the worse for the ordinary people of the highlands and islands. This was the period of change: for the higher levels of society from cinn-cinnidh nan uachdaren or "chiefs to landlords": and for everyone else from tuath gu croitear or "clansman to crofter".
And it was inevitably followed by the time of clearance and eilthireachd or "emigration". Each of these phases is illustrated strikingly, beautifully and at times poignantly within the museum, and the accompanying guide book on sale in the shop makes an excellent souvenir of your visit.
Finally, it is worth noting that one wing of the Museum of the Isles serves as the Clan Donald Library and study centre, offering a collection of over 7,000 books covering all aspects of Scottish culture and history, natural history, topography and biography.