The Wick Heritage Museum stands on a side street a short walk from Wick's bustling harbour. From the outside you could be forgiven for wondering whether a museum housed in such apparently modest premises can possibly be as good as everyone says it is. Be in no doubt whatsoever, this is a magnificent museum run by local volunteers deeply committed to preserving the heritage of their town: and should be considered a "must see" by anyone visiting Wick.
But make sure you set aside a reasonable amount of time to make the most of your visit. The museum's premises may appear modest from the outside, but the reality is very different. Wick Heritage Museum has grown in both directions along the street to occupy a series of internally connected buildings, and extends to the rear to enclose two courtyards. This is not just an excellent museum, it is also a very large and, as you will find out, extremely well stocked one.
The Wick Society, which runs the museum, also owns a number of historic buildings around the harbour which can be viewed externally, as well as a traditional fishing boat, the Isabella Fortuna, which when not in use can often be seen moored in the harbour. The historic buildings comprise the Herring Mart on the harbourside, which was built in about 1890 and is thought to be the earliest purpose built fish market still standing in Scotland; the Pilot House built in 1908 and overlooking the harbour from the south; and the old Lifeboat Shed, also on the south side of the harbour and built in 1915, which doubles as a winter home for the Isabella Fortuna.
The society also cares for The Seven Gates. This is a row of seven metal artworks forming gates over the entrances of Wick Harbour's salt cellars: the large chambers needed to store the salt used when packing herring into barrels. The gates were designed by artists Sue Jane Taylor and Liz O'Donnell and made by blacksmith Ian Sinclair, based on the drawings of Wick schoolchildren. They were installed in 2006 and add greatly to the interest of one corner of the harbour.
The Wick Society was formed in 1971, and in 1974 it opened a small museum in the town's Carnegie Library. In 1979 Caithness District Council offered a number of disused buildings in Bank Row to the society for use as a Heritage Centre. The Wick Heritage Centre first opened to the public in 1981 and has since slowly expanded into the available space as more and more material has become available for display. In January 2004 the Wick Society became a Company Limited by Guarantee and the Wick Heritage Centre became the Wick Heritage Museum, though the exterior continues to carry the original name. The museum's website refers to itself as "Wick Heritage", which is the model we've followed on this page. Looking ahead, further growth is planned, and the museum has space to expand into what is currently a vacant lot to one side of it.
You enter the museum approximately in its centre and from here head off through a warren of buildings in one direction before returning to your starting point to explore the second half of the museum. A good starting point, however, is in the two galleries which occupy the upper floor above the main entrance area and shop. The art gallery is home to a superb collection of artwork, most of Wick and the surrounding area or by local artists.
The photographic gallery gives a clue to one of the real treasures of the museum. On display are many photographs of Wick dating back to between 1863 and 1977. These were taken by three generations of the Johnston family who, over the course of just over a century, took some 100,000 photographs of Wick. 50,000 of their negatives survive in the care of the Wick Society. This is regarded as one of the best collections of Scottish photography from this period and the photographs allow the Society to bring to life the history of Wick in a way that would otherwise simply not be possible. The high quality of even the early images allows large prints to be produced, and many are on sale in the museum's shop.
Heading off the the right of its central area (as you view the museum from the front) brings you to six period rooms, fully furnished from the period between 1900 and 1925. These include a bedroom with a box bed, a parlour furnished with locally made furniture and a kitchen complete with a number of Caithness chairs. You are also able to view an Edwardian nursery and upmarket sitting room.
The nautical theme around which much of the museum revolves is introduced with a two level display, of the workings of a lighthouse dating back to the mid 1800s. On the upper floor is the light itself, while on the lower floor are the clockwork mechanics for driving the rotating mirrors which cause the light to flash. The light and workings were originally installed in the lighthouse at Noss Head, three miles north east of Wick. Not far away is a recreation of a cooperage. It's easy to think of barrels as something associated with whisky and distilleries: and forget that the vastly important herring industry revolved around the ability to pack the processed herrings in salt in barrels.
It is also easy to forget the sheer scale of the herring fishery at Wick, which for a time was the busiest fishing port in Britain. In the 1860s there were 1,100 herring boats operating out of Wick, and they were supported by no fewer than 650 coopers in the town. Most activity took place during a 12 week period in the summer during which the vast shoals of herring were passing around the Caithness coast. During this time the town's normal population of 6,000 increased to 15,000 as migrant workers, many from the western and northern isles, flocked in to help process and pack the fish, mend nets, and provide all the other services demanded by such a high level of economic activity. At the height of the season the town's 47 inns were between them selling 800 gallons of whisky each week. The herring boom was passing by the 1930s and Wick's diminishing fishing fleet turned instead to catching white fish.
Fishing is also reflected in the nearby kiln, used for curing fish and in a display of fishing techniques. Then you move into some of the largest spaces in the museum, all given over to fishing and the sea. You enter one large room through a pair of whale's jawbones which is packed with fishing equipment and memorabilia. Of particular interest is the array of early life saving equipment. The final room in this end of the museum is the boat shed. The boats on show here were built in the 1890s on the now deserted island of Stroma: an island in the Pentland Firth just north of John o' Groats. The green boat shown in our header image is equipped as a herring boat, but was originally used in real life as the ferry for the island of Eilean nan Ron, also now uninhabited, off the north coast of Sutherland near Tongue.
Having returned to the centre of the museum, you progress beyond it to view the other areas. These include a room displaying the trappings of civic life, in which you find the ceremonial robes of the Provost and Councillors of The Royal Burgh of Wick. Other rooms house the museum's collections of engineering equipment and machinery, and its fascinating array of printing machinery and it is also possible to explore the courtyards and terraced garden behind the museum.
Nicely rounding off the tour is a recreation of the photographic studio of the Johnston family, complete with much of their photographic equipment, while nearby is a room in which you find a recreation of a schoolroom from a century ago. Pride of place here is given to the schoolbag of Willie Grant. 11 year old Willie contracted influenza at school during the epidemic of 1919 and died. His mother kept his schoolbag, complete with books and a cabbage root he was carving into a whistle, until her own death 50 years later. The family subsequently gave it to the Wick Society. It is a sobering reminder that every single one of the vast number of objects on view in the museum was once owned and perhaps treasured by someone: and that the real role of the objects on view is to open, however narrowly, a window on the long gone world in which the people associated with them lived.