Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (CEN) was constituted in 1977 as the first Historical Society in the Western Isles. Now in its 45th year, CEN is viewed as the flagship historical society in the islands. It has become one of the main cogs within the Western Isles Heritage Trail and one of the largest employers in the north Lewis area. CEN is managed by volunteers and currently employs 7 people, increasing to 12 during the busy tourist season.
CEN operated from various abandoned buildings throughout the district over the years. It had long been recognised that none of these locations provided a suitable environment for the storage and display of its heritage assets. On learning of the local authority’s decision to close Cross Primary School in 2011, an offer to purchase the property was submitted by CEN and subsequently accepted by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in November 2011.
In 2017, following a community consultation and having secured funding to redevelop the buildings, CEN procured a design team, led by a very able young architect from the island who had recently set up his own practice. The architect, Ruairidh Moir, was already known to us as he had previously held an exhibition at CEN and had expressed a keen interest in the work of the organisation and the buildings long before the project funding was in place.
CEN is a community led, community focused organisation with a desire to develop an asset for the local community. Since relocating, CEN has become an innovative and welcoming community hub. The building is centrally based within the community and on the main spinal route of the designated Hebridean Way Cycle Route. Cutbacks in local authority funding have highlighted the need for regeneration at community level in areas such as North Lewis which are classed as ‘fragile’. CEN has an established track record with a reputation for delivering innovative projects and regularly host visitors from other groups coming to visit the centre as they strive to replicate the CEN model in their own communities.
Over 50% of the population of the CEN catchment area is over 60 and many live on their own in socially isolated situations. CEN host the weekly Ness Day Club where housebound and elderly members of the community come together, assisted by volunteers, for lunch and activities based around the CEN archives. This is a lifeline service for many who would otherwise be unable to leave their homes. Social gatherings are held with school pupils, to encourage inter-generational transmission through the medium of Gaelic as the community is home to the largest number of Gaelic speakers in the country.
Having a local facility such as CEN generates a real sense of community and the local people are very attached to the former Cross primary school building. Small local producers are supported through the shop and café, helping each other brings economic sustainability to the community. High transportation and commission costs are also eliminated. The centre attracts in excess of 25,000 visitors annually.
Supporting StatementThis project looked to save the rapidly deteriorating parts of the building (including those earmarked for demolition), improve the zoning and functions of the existing and extend where necessary to provide greater floor area for museum display, and create a welcoming and open frontage. The prevailing multi-cellular nature of the former classrooms was modified sensitively to suit the new gallery and museum display areas.
We were conscious of the communities’ attachment to the buildings, especially those who were previously educated there. We therefore ensured that through the adaptations the parent volumes of the original construction remains of greater emphasis to the additions. Furthermore through design elements we place emphasis on being able to ‘read’ the changes by combining former windows into new doors, for example.
As well as saving 140 year old buildings from demolition we adapted the building to new uses. This sustainable approach maintains the pattern of the local built environment typology mix. We decided to treat the buildings with the same respect as those which are scheduled listed even though this placed a greater burden for doing so. The schoolhouse had deteriorated so badly that it required to be totally rebuilt internally. The stone, ballachulish slate roof and sash windows were all restored.
It was important to ensure that running costs were minimised despite a greater footprint. Aside from high levels of insulation, renewable technologies were selected and form central design features in the museum.
Materials were chosen for their durability as well as their local significance. Red brick screens were selected to reference the nearby Lighthouse, a local landmark, as well as recall the lost brick tradition of the island. Community ‘buy in’ was reinforced through engraving bricks with names, which raised £15,000 towards the project costs also creates a memorable and future historical feature for forthcoming generations.
A distinctive housing for the “Rona Cross”, a c.10th century artefact from the Island of Rona was also created. Three holes in the cross is said to have allowed islanders to peer through and foretell the future. It is now possible for people to look through the stone once again, 1000 years hence. The stand also is positioned to allow the Cross to be seen and appreciated from passers-by on the street – placing it at the heart of the community as well as the museum itself.
We have also re-landscaped with recycled stone a car park at the front of the building to host artefacts and invite passers by in. A community garden increases public participation.
The community were central during project development due to continual consultations including visualisations and models as tools for interaction and their views recorded. The budget was tight, and several obstacles were overcome to achieve the outcome seen today.
Now they feel renewed ownership of the building and the increased footfall to our organisation allowing for the creation of new jobs has put the area ‘on the map’. We are tremendously proud that we exceeded our stated aims for the project.