Though the winds increased in intensity as we drove up through the Highlands on the second day of our Scotland trip, and there appeared to be a promise of rain in the not-so-distant future, I could nonetheless see that the Highland Folk Museum, was still a pleasant place to be, set as it was on acres of picturesque countryside and sloping heather-lined hills.
The museum was reminiscent of a less elaborate, pastoral version of the Black Country Museum, only happily, it was free (quite a bonus, as most living history museums charge upwards of 20 quid for admission). The property is quite extensive, and it’s probably a good half an hour walk from one side of the site to the other, which was a nice chance for us to stretch our legs after the car ride up from Pitlochry. Because it’s based outdoors and in unheated buildings, it’s only open from April until the end of October (meaning I’ve left it a bit late for this year, but hopefully someone can use this post for future reference).
We headed first to the extreme left side of the grounds, which turned out to be fortunate as we discovered a small old timey sweet shop selling a range of peculiar Scottish boiled sweets I’d never heard of before. We opted for soor plooms (Scottish for sour plums, invented, according to Wikipedia, after a battle where the English were easily defeated because they were busy stuffing their faces with unripe plums (though I rather suspect the real reason for the defeat may have been the ensuing diarrhea from eating unripe fruit)), which turned out to be an excellent choice, but means that my boyfriend was hard pressed to get a picture of me from that point on where I don’t have a sweet stuffed in my cheek. We passed a number of small cottages and workshops we could poke our heads into and investigate – I think this part of the museum was representing the first half of the twentieth century.
As we travelled the opposite way on the path, we seemed to be moving back in time, as the properties became grimmer and more Victorian in appearance (to be honest, even the more “modern” buildings looked draughty and dark). I love old Staffordshire figurines (I am inordinately proud of one I own of Daniel Lambert, Georgian Britain’s fattest man), so I was delighted to find one of that Scots hero Robbie Burns adorning a mantle, even if the cottage itself wasn’t particularly appealing.
Accessing the 18th century village meant a trek through the woods on a very muddy trail (mud and wind were common themes of the Scottish countryside, so I definitely advise bringing wellies and a good warm jacket. And seriously, my hair was probably the knottiest it’s ever been after a day getting whipped around by the wind, but it was too cold to put it up, so I’m not sure what to suggest there), but it was also a chance to see some red squirrels, which my boyfriend was thrilled by for some reason. I don’t know, to me a squirrel is a squirrel, and we have all different coloured ones in America, but apparently red squirrels are special somehow.
Anyway, we eventually made it to the village, which had a couple costumed interpreters in it to explain just how brutal life was for Highlanders (in case the tiny cottages don’t make that clear enough. You can see that my 5’4″ frame looks giant compared to one in the picture at the start of the post). People back then slept in box beds in an attempt to keep out the cold, which if you’ve never seen one is this horrible claustrophobic looking enclosed wooden frame with a mattress thrown inside. It gets worse; because of the smoke, they couldn’t even lay down without risking respiratory problems, so they slept sitting up in these contraptions, often 5 people to a bed. It’s pretty obvious why despite the beauty of the land, many of them chose to immigrate to America.
There was a grouping of about five of these stone-walled, thatched roof huts in the village, and two more further up the trail; because the only light came in through the door (windows would have meant letting more heat out), they were virtually pitch-black inside, and we couldn’t even see what was lurking in the corners of the rooms. I think in some of these living history museums, there is a danger of romanticising the past, with twee rows of cute shops and quaint trades, but the Highland Life Museum fully conveyed the harsh reality of 18th century life for the average country-dweller, particularly in this section of the museum.
Of course, it wasn’t all unrelenting bleakness, at least for modern day museum visitors. In addition to the aforementioned sweet shop, there was also a farm building with animals; random cat statues, and the digger pictured above (there were no children in sight, so I had a go). One odd thing about this trip in general was that although pictures of Highland cattle are available on postcards, calenders, in stuffed toy form, and pretty much every other form of tat you could imagine, I didn’t see an actual Highland cow on the entire trip. Plenty of regular cattle, but no Highland ones. Where are they hiding them all?! (although I wouldn’t want to run into one in the wild…sometimes there are big cows wandering free around the North Downs when we go walking there, and they freak me out)
I don’t really want to get into politics here, but I have to admit I was initially apprehensive as we approached Newtonmore and I saw all the “Yes” flags lining their high street a good month after the referendum, since folk museums can sometimes verge on being creepily nationalistic at the best of times, and I wasn’t sure if my boyfriend’s English accent might mean we’d receive a frosty reception. But although all the signage was in Gaelic in addition to English, I didn’t get that impression here, and I didn’t feel at all unwelcome. In fact, it was a very agreeable outing, and I’d definitely recommend checking this museum out if you’re in the area. Though they seemed a bit short on staff, and weren’t able to do the many craft type demonstrations that a lot of these kinds of museums feature, to be honest I preferred this, as I always find interacting with the actors really awkward, and this felt like a more honest, less contrived experience. The website suggests a visit will take 3-5 hours; it only took us about an hour and a half, but we don’t have children slowing us down and we’re fast walkers and readers, so I’d probably allot at least two hours for this so you have time to see everything. I’m impressed that a museum of this size is completely free, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. 3.5/5.