Feature image: villagers at the tacksman house

Highland Folk Museum: Scots history comes alive

In Con's Corner, Scotland by Con JagerLeave a Comment

Peat fires, chickens, thatched roofs, tartan weavers – and Outlander film sites! The Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore is easy to miss: blink while zipping along the A9 between Pitlochry and Inverness and you’ll deprive yourself of a fascinating peek into the Scots past.

A wee bit of history

In the mid 1930s, Dr. Isabel Grant started her Highland Folk Museum on the Isle of Iona. Calling it “Am Fasgadh” (Gaelic for “The Shelter”), her collection soon outgrew the space and she moved to an old church in Inverness-shire for a few years. Further growth made her move again, and in 1944 Dr. Grant re-opened on a 3-acre site with outdoor space in Kingussie. In the early 1980s the Highland Council enthusiastically took over, with drastic expansion plans. They obtained a huge 80+ acre site for the Museum in nearby Newtonmore, proudly showing Scots roots and “living history” for the 1700s-1900s period.

Fun fact: how’s one to know the correct pronunciation of anything Scots? Ask the locals! Stop for tea or a pint somewhere and strike up a chat. Kingussie is pronounced “King-YOU-see”. You see?

Highland Folk Museum visitor basics

Once you do find the Museum, things get easy. Plenty of free parking, and the entrance fee? None! Of course, donations are always welcome. The Museum has a large Teashop/deli-type restaurant too, if you need some fortification before walking. Pick up a map at the entrance, so you’ll know where you are – and when!

A tale of two sections

The site is a mile wide and roughly divided into two sections. Looking from the entrance in the middle, the left side consists of two parts: on the far side, a working farm (crofting) village area, and near the middle a collection of relocated historic buildings.

The left-side buildings stretch back as far as the 1700s. There’s a schoolhouse, an Outer Hebrides “Black House”, and crafts people sheds and ateliers, from tailor to clockmaker.

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The inside of the cottage is fascinating too, from the “china cabinet” to the bed built into a closet. I remember seeing these – and experiencing them! – at old farms, growing up.

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Thread carefully

The “Tweed Cottage” was especially neat inside. Ever heard of “Harris Tweed”? It’s not made by a Mr. Harris but rather originates on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides (see my “Ferry Tales” blog on how to get there). The cottage has a loom, collections of yarns and other materials, and finished tartan and tweed products.

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Township tales

The section to the right of the entrance is a bit of a walk – which felt great after sitting in the car for several hours! Plus it’s healthy, especially since I couldn’t resist wolfing down a nice pastry with my cuppa…

Follow the easy paths through the forested Pinewoods part and you’ll arrive at the “living history” area known as The Township. Re-enactment actors abound, showing you the world of the 1700s and beyond, from weaver to blacksmith to tacksman.

A taxing life

Fun fact: no, “tacksman” is not a funky Scots spelling for the dreaded English “tax man”! A tacksman is someone leasing his land – his “tack” – from the land-owning Laird. The tacksman was often related to the Laird and the lease could go for generations. The plot was typically substantial and a tacksman had the right to sub-lease out parcels to other tenants, called cotters or cottars. The Township has examples of housing for tacksman and cottar.

Hammer time in the Township

Approaching the Township from the Pinewoods, you’ll appreciate how real it feels. Smoke rises from chimneys, chickens run around clucking, the blacksmith’s hammering fills the air.

Villagers walk around, greeting each other, and welcoming you with a friendly chat. They’ll tell you all about who they are, what they do, and what their lives are like. This far corner of the Highland Folk Museum does not feel like a museum at all: here, the past is real.

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Don’t trip or tip

Now, before you get any ideas: the actors are in character and they like it that way. It’s best not to waste your and their time by trying to trip them up or be funny: enjoy the moment and respect their craft! After all, they’re volunteers and do this largely for you. It’s a unique form of education and if you want to reward them and the Highland Folk Museum’s admirable efforts, remember the Donations Box at the entrance!

For peat’s sake

Check out the craftsmanship of the village buildings: they’re constructed like the originals, with thatched roofs, dark inside, fires burning using real peat. Step inside and wonder how on earth they could breathe with all that smoke!

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Coming in from our modern central heating era, you may not have experienced peat. I grew up in a peat-rich area and remember the very distinct and strong smell. Peat smoke will get into your clothes for sure – a treat for whisky aficionados like myself, as it smells like a nice Islay-type peat-distilled dram!

But it’s not exactly healthy air, and while the warmth was pleasant, I was happy to boogie back outside rather quickly, and breathe the cool and fresh November pine woods air. On to the kiln barn, sawmill and then walk back!

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Sing me a song: Outlander!

Did you spot Jamie or Claire? Dougal? The Highland Folk Museum became “MacKenzie Village” for the famous “Outlander” series. In Season 1, episode 5 called “Rent”, Clan Chief Colum sent Jamie, Claire and Dougal to MacKenzie Village to collect rents. We spotted some information in the Teashop: some of the Highland Folk Museum’s volunteers had bit parts as extras!

Carving out a historic niche

Walking back through the Pinewoods, look around and you’ll spot some small treasures. There’s a wood-carved cat in a tree near the sawmill. Other wood-carved animals are staged left and right of the paths, from adorable hedgehogs to a fox to a really neat owl! I totally enjoyed this stuff and arrived back at the car with a big grin.

The Highland Folk Museum is easily worth half a day. Visit on your own, with your partner or especially with the kids. Travel is always fun but it gets even better with a bit of learning, gaining some understanding of what makes the local people tick. We felt we gained a better understanding of Scotland’s history, its unique challenges, defeats and triumphs.

Squirreling away

I would have even stayed longer – but walking back by the Fraser joiners workshop, I spotted a fierce-looking guy in a kilt glaring at me. Was it the fearsomely violent Dougal MacKenzie, collecting rent? I’ve been traveling so long, I’m probably behind on that, so I’d be nuts to stay! We quickly hightailed it back to the 21st Century – after squirreling something into the Donations Box 🙂

DISCLAIMER

My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.

(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert

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