Gairloch Museum


Completion Date:


Building owner/client:

Gairloch & District Heritage Company Ltd

Architect or lead designer:

LDN Architects: Peter McIlhenny

Local Authority Area:


Nominating Body:

Gairloch & District Heritage Company Ltd

Project Description

‘Our Land, our People, our Story’ – the relocation and development of Gairloch Museum

Gairloch Heritage Museum opened in 1977 in a converted farm steading, its mission always to “promote and encourage interest in, and care for, the history, culture, beauty and character of the Parish of Gairloch”. Our acclaimed exhibitions include the first Pictish Stone found on the west coast (our logo still) and the brilliant Fresnel lens of Rubh Re lighthouse.

More than an independent Accredited museum and 4* VisitScotland tourist attraction, we are the centre for historical and genealogical study in Wester Ross and organise events and activities all-year-round for visitors, residents, schools and community groups, including the disadvantaged and socially isolated. Our area is designated as ‘fragile’ by Highlands and Islands Enterprise “characterised by weakening of communities through population loss, low incomes, limited employment opportunities, poor infrastructure and remoteness.”

With irrevocably-ending lease and increasingly-leaky roof, a new Museum home had become critical. In 2011, Highland Council’s soon-to-be-redundant Roads Depot, originally a Cold War-era nuclear bunker (c.1952), offered the innovative, creative though demanding potential to meet the need. Its location, directly on the ever-more-popular North Coast 500 tourist route, was ideal.

Amazing efforts from our sparsely populated crofting townships raised the community target of £200,000 for ‘Our Land, our People, our Story’. The project ticked funders’ eligibility boxes for heritage, economic regeneration, social cohesion, community sustainable development and learning. Nearly thirty different grants financed the £2.4M costs.

The semi-derelict concrete box was re-clad in an insulated jacket. Now, consequent of our ‘leap of imagination’, it sits dramatic and pristine white with hills behind and views over the sea to Skye. Cores cut from the 600mm-thick reinforced-concrete let in natural light. Inside, the building has largely been left as-found with grit-blasted concrete floors, walls and ceilings. Against this ‘brutalist background’, authentic to the heritage, our designers installed modern exhibits and structures using a materials palette of blackened metal and birch plywood.

The immense lighthouse lens commands the central atrium. Song, poetry and spoken word celebrate the Gaelic dialect of Wester Ross. A reinstated gallery provides context for the Cold War bunker, revealing local stories of the three 20th century wars. The first floor offers a ‘Walk Through Time’ from our unique geological history to the natural environments (mountains, moorland, sea), from fishing and crofting to school-room and village shop. Listening posts, films, touch-table, jump-mat, jigsaws and other interactives are integrated throughout, to engage our audiences, young and older.

In the film theatre, a commissioned video illustrates life in Gairloch parish since World War II, using the memories and photographs of local people. Two exhibition rooms and the shop, (with café to come soon), are also presented in the same ‘austere cement’ design, ‘cool in every sense’. West Highland College’s learning centre shares our premises.

So, it was a time of great celebration for us all when, on 9 July 2019, the new Gairloch Museum was officially opened by HRH The Princess Royal.

“Super day, super Museum and a super turnout! Very proud to be part of this Community.” Facebook 9/7/2019

Supporting Statement

Local people founded the Museum to preserve the artifacts, photographs and memories of a way of life at risk of being lost. As volunteers, they have always welcomed visitors, collected and conserved objects, undertaken research, offered outreach to schools and care homes, and baked, baked, baked! The freely-given commitment, effort and skills of 120+ volunteers was recognised through gaining the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. New recruits keep signing on, appreciating the camaraderie, sense of wellbeing and purpose.

Community involvement was integral to 'Our Land, our People, our Story': at sessions in all five villages we invited ideas to plan displays and activities; through social media, the local radio and newspaper we reported on progress, and many came, intrigued, to the open days we arranged on-site. Most significantly, four years of enterprising local fund-raising, from a population of only 2,000, raised an astounding £200,000. TripAdvisor Reviews (July 2019) recognised the significance:

"The new museum - WOW!
…thrilled to see it up and running, a wonderful tribute to the community!"

"Ingenious use of a redundant building.
Extremely good depiction of local people and area…everything very professionally displayed…What comes across strongly is that this is a community project and that the community has a genuine interest and pride in its past."

The project secured the Museum’s future and assured our sustainability as a community asset. Now open year-round, (previously not possible), quality exhibitions and events in-house are expanding our audience profile, with visitor numbers and retail income far exceeding expectations. Longer ‘dwell time’ and appointing more staff has contributed to the local economy.

The repurposing and stunning restoration of the last blot on the landscape of an otherwise-redeveloped brownfield site was a huge community benefit:

"We admired the audacity of the committee in taking on the herculean task of ridding the village of an eyesore and transforming it into the “artist’s impression”. This vision has been achieved and it manifestly enhances our pride in a place we call ‘home’."

"…the move to the newly-renovated building is not only a wonderful opportunity for the Museum, but also a celebration for Gairloch in finding such an exciting and worthwhile way of adapting an unsightly post-war building into a major asset for the community and beyond.
This is how history is made!"

Avoiding the significant detriment of demolition secured considerable ‘regeneration’ funding. The bunker, with its mass concrete construction, is inherently energy efficient. Given the installation of high-specification roofing, external insulation then rendered finish, new heating system and double-glazing throughout, the thermal performance is excellent, with ambient temperature/humidity remaining stable as longer-term gains.

So, the project has been transformational: we have physically transformed the village and changed our name, our home, our displays and our business model. A ‘tweet’, posted during our presentation to Scotland’s 2019 Community Heritage Conference (theme: “Making Places: Connecting People”), summarises our achievement:

"From Pictish Stone inspiration to Cold War AAOR, amazing story of determination & passion of Community to sustain & develop @GairlochMuseum
Our Land, our People, our Story"