Glencoe Folk Museum

The Glencoe Folk Museum has a challenging balance to strike. For a village so small, Glencoe is remarkably complicated. To some it is a place of serenity, to others a place of exhilaration, it is also a place of real scenic and historical drama. 

In many ways the visitor experience at the Glencoe Folk Museum is a microcosm of this complicated variety of expectations. The building itself is an 18th century cottage, complete with the roof thatched with heather. It is quaint, traditional and more than a little quirky. Yet within it are stories of local and national trauma, events that are cited as a cause of Jacobite unrest and stir strong emotions to this day.

As I drive towards Glencoe from the direction of Tyndrum my own expectations are framed by childhood memories. I recalled sunny days in the Glen, lone pipers by the road and the first herd of red deer I had ever seen. This brought into sharp focus the consideration of the audience of small independent museums in the Highlands.

The village of Glencoe

It is essential that museums such as Glencoe reflect their own sense of place and reflect the history of the communities around them. It is equally necessary that these museums offer tourists the opportunities to see representations of themselves. There are moments where this balance is seamlessly met here.

In the first instance there a numerous references to travel writers, photographers, and the bringers of the railways or sporting technologies. The myriad influences from around Scotland and wider world upon the glen. There is real parity of esteem in the collection pertaining to sporting pursuits. Side by side there are displays of shinty, or Camanacdh in Gaelic, and mountaineering. Shinty is a way of life for many a highlander and is televised with Gaelic commentary. Mountaineering however, has predominantly been a draw to visitors and migrants to the Highlands.

Shinty equipment and apparel

This is evidenced by the collection with the inclusion of Hamish MacInnes’ all metal ice axe. MacInnes, who was low-land born and became a prolific climber around the globe, resided for a long period of his life in Glencoe. MacInnes doubtlessly saved many lives when he developed the all metal axe which replaced wooded shafts that tended to break; just when their owners’ lives depended on them.

Hamish MacInnes’ all metal ice axe and other winter sports gear

There are occasions where the collection is would benefit from more space, and a diversity in its interpretation. I, for instance, was intrigued by textile pieces which might have interesting back-stories. The interpretation is dominated by text in the form of small labels written exclusively in English. Here the museum is presented with countless opportunities in its current state of redevelopment.

Glencoe textiles display

The museum’s ability to tell a story provides us with the evidence that the redevelopment of Glencoe Folk Museum is being undertaken by able hands. The story of the Glencoe Massacre, the source of afore mentioned trauma, is ably and poignantly undertaken. The Glencoe massacre, recalls a story of horrific treachery in which the Glencoe MacDonald clan were slaughtered in their sleep by government troops they had housed, fed and entertained for the days and nights prior.

The Massacre room is set in a small outbuilding to the rear of the museum. Its use of audio storytelling, and models of varied scales bring a much needed diversity to the interpretative media and allows for fresh opportunities to learn. That government soldiers, showed leniency beyond their orders to the fleeing members of the betrayed clan, is a fact new to me.

A model of the Glencoe massacre

Another source for optimism in regards to the redevelopment of Glencoe Folk Museum is its determination to retain its quaint and quirky character. With the museum’s many potential storylines to pursue in redevelopment all enthusiasts of Highland museums should look forward to absorbing this new lease of life. The Glencoe Folk Museum is a charming and engaging visit; there are multiple ways to support its encouraging redevelopment on the museum’s website.

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Michael James

Michael James is a freelance museum educator. He has previously worked in heritage site and visitor attractions in the Isle of Skye and Perthshire, Scotland. Michael has an undergraduate degree in English and History and Masters in the History of Scottish Islands and Highlands. Most recently he has completed a PgDip in Interpretation Management and Practice.