“ Address: Kilmuir / By Portree / Isle of Skye / IV51 9UE / Scotland „
An awful lot of people visit the Isle of Skye, and this number has increased substantially since the building of the controversial bridge in 1995. (For what it's worth, I rather like it, though the wildly overpriced, though now thankfully abolished, toll was an utter disgrace.) You can't blame them, either, as it's a fascinating island. However, Skye is also quite a bit larger than many newcomers expect, and so some will venture no further than the rather unexciting, straggly village of Broadford and the island's admittedly attractive capital of Portree.
This is a shame, as Skye has a great deal more to offer than that. Push on northwards into the Trotternish Peninsula, for example, and in the far north of coastal Skye, near the hamlet of Kilmuir, you will find the Skye Museum of Island Life. This is a museum I discovered almost by accident, but what a happy accident it was. The workaday name of the place belies its real mission: to show what life was like in this part of the world in the sort of small, self-contained crofting settlement that is no longer much in evidence on the island. This it does by preserving half a dozen traditional blackhouses.
It wasn't that long ago, either, with at least one of the houses of the six contained in the museum being occupied on a regular basis until the late 1950s. This relative modernity adds an interesting extra dimension that you don't get to see in the much older remains of pre-Clearances settlements from 1800 or so (though these houses were indeed *built* around that long ago) which is the presence of relatively modern trappings (such as contemporary photographs) alongside the timeless features such as the peat fires and hand looms. It really brings home to you that this is a way of life that was still commonplace in this part of Scotland within living memory.
You can actually see a fair amount without going inside the fence, including the very solid construction of the stone cottages - all complete with lines of large stones hanging along their thatched rooflines as ballast against the ferocious gales that are not uncommon in this exposed part of the island. There are also a number of brightly painted pieces of farm equipment dotted around, whose strong greens and reds contrast memorably with the duller colouring of the houses. However, I do very much recommend that you purchase admission to the museum itself rather than just gawping over the fence from the outside.
You must first go to the cottage that houses the shop and reception. There is nobody standing guard to make sure you do so - as with so much else in this region of Scotland, your honesty and conscience are trusted to pull you in the right direction. The admission charge is a very reasonable £2.50 for adults - which, unlike most things, has not gone up for several years now - and there is also a small but interesting gift shop. When I was there, the man selling the tickets, though entirely fluent in English, was a native Gaelic speaker; this is one of the few places on Skye where substantial numbers still speak the language.
The most interesting of the other blackhouses is the crofthouse; this is the place that was lived in until half a century ago, and (so long as you mind your head on the way in!) you will probably be surprised at just how comfortable and cosy it feels inside. The construction of the cottage, with very thick walls and small windows, allowed it to stand up to weather that would have some modern dwellings feeling draughty and cold, though the house's inhabitants paid for this with the absence of much natural light. There is also no chimney, so the smell and smoke from the peat fire in the kitchen get absolutely everywhere!
You might not think so to look at the place from outside, but there is actually a fair amount of space in the crofthouse. The hub of daily life would have been the kitchen, for obvious reasons of warmth, where the "interesting" smell is complemented by means of a lamp burning fish oil; unsurprisingly perhaps paraffin usually took over once that became generally available! Here too would be the centre for music (a very important feature of island life) and a Bible, in Gaelic of course, while visitors to the house would also be received in the kitchen. The bedroom, with its striking curtained box bed, also seemed surprisingly comfortable. (No, I didn't get to lie on the bed myself... but there was a cat curled up there, looking very cosy!)
Of the other houses, which were originally crofthouses themselves but which have been got up to emphasise different aspects of traditional life here, the most interesting is probably the ceilidh house. In those days, a ceilidh was not necessarily the often rather commercialised event it tends to be today, but was a more homespun affair wherein locals gathered together for an evening of music, poetry, chat and general conviviality around the fire. The house contains a lot of documents and photographs which are easy to glance past, but which if you peruse them closely contain vast amounts of fascinating background information.
Two of the most important aspects of practical life here are illustrated by the next two cottages: the smithy and the weaver's cottage. In an age when the horse was a vital aspect of the everyday economy, the smith played a hugely important role, and his premises acted as a sort of community centre too. Weaving, again, was vital, as very little cloth was brought in from outside the community, and although by the end of this community's working life the looms had been automated, up until around 1900 they were still worked by hand, as was every aspect of production, spinning wheels and all.
Finally, there is the barn, in which is displayed a pretty comprehensive selection of agricultural implements and associated equipment (horse collars, for example) many of which were made locally either by the crofters or in the aforementioned smithy. At this point, I should caution visitors that photography is not permitted inside the buildings, presumably to avoid flash damage to delicate artefacts; I managed to overlook the notice stating this and only realised after being shot a filthy look from another visitor when I took a (thankfully non-flash) photo!
A short walk up a track from the museum entrance is a graveyard, in which is the final resting place of Flora MacDonald, the woman best known for helping Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape after the disastrous defeat of his Jacobites at Culloden in 1746. There's nothing to do there other than to look at the grave, but it's a reasonably pleasant walk (unless it's pouring down!) so you might as well do so if you are interested anyway. There is actually a further royal connection to this area, in that the future King George VI and his wife (later the Queen Mother) visited the crofthouse in the early 1930s, when it was still inhabited by a working family.
There is a reasonable gravel car park off the road very close to the museum, with public toilets a short way away, though there are no other facilities. It should be noted that the museum does *not* have a café, although if you are here on one of Skye's sunny days (which I am assured do exist!) then there is a nice expanse of grass which looks as though it would be excellent for a picnic, so long as you weigh everything down; look to the cottage roofs for inspiration! There are also wonderful views out to sea towards Harris, though you won't see that far unless it's clear.
The A855 you will need to follow to reach the museum is one of the Highlands and Islands' many single-track roads, but you shouldn't let that put you off. It's quite well maintained as single-track roads go, and the open (though windswept) countryside means that visibility is generally good. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is an off-the-beaten-track byway, though; the sight of the Portree-Uig bus thundering towards you will soon wake you up! On which note, there is a bus stop very close to the museum, but it is important to check timetables before setting out.
The museum has a charmingly homespun website at www.skyemuseum.co.uk - it shouldn't be long before you find the page headed "Really needs some blurb here as an introduction..."! Despite the rough edges, though, it's a very informative site. However, nothing can really substitute for making the trip yourself, and given the dramatic scenery of the Trotternish Peninsula the journey itself and the museum's setting both add to the interest. It is a long way to come for most people, but you're unlikely to find making the effort unrewarding.
(A final note: the museum is only open between Easter and October, so you're going to be disappointed if you try to visit in the winter.)
Even with all of today's mod cons like electricity and running water the Isle of Skye can still be quite an inhospitable place. In Gaelic it is known as Eilean Cheo (The Misty Isle) and its winters are amongst the harshest endured anywhere in the British Isles. Despite all of this humans have inhabited Skye for at least the last eight thousand years and over this period these people have adapted to cope with the environment. This way of life, which is unique to the Scottish Highlands, is known as crofting and crofting is still widely practised today.
A croft is traditionally a stone built house with a small patch of land around it that was used to grow crops and support a few animals. Typically a croft would have a few sheep, a couple of cows, some hens and even a pig or two. They would cut and dry peat from the land that provided fuel and fish in the sea everyday. Such communities were virtually self sufficient, making their own clothing from sheep wool and growing their own produce.
In recent years the crofting way of life has however largely disappeared and it is now only practised in a few isolated pockets on Skye although it is still quite prevalent on the remoter Western Isles of Lewis and Harris. The Museum of Island Skye is an example of a typical crofting community on the northern peninsula. All across Skye crofts were abandoned and fell into disrepair but thankfully a cluster of six different buildings were preserved. These have been converted into the museum that we find today with each of the different buildings furnished to represent a different part of the community. These buildings are the shop/reception, the crofthouse, barn, weaver's cottage, old smithy and ceilidh house.
The Crofthouse is furnished to resemble a typical croft in which a family would have lived. Like all of the buildings the first thing that you will notice is that the building is incredibly low and it is necessary to bend down to get through the door. You could be forgiven for thinking that these people were all midgets but in fact there is,like everything that you find within this community, a practical reason. The low height sheltered these buildings from the winds and in fact part of the dwellings are actually sunk into the ground so once inside it is possible to stand upright and they look deceptively largely than they do from the outside. The roofs are lined with moss and lichen and then thatched with heather and small branches.
The first thing that I noticed as soon as I stepped into The Crofthouse was that it felt surprisingly warm and cosy. There was a small peat fire burning in the middle of the floor with cooking pans hanging above it but it was May after all, but I am reliably told that even in the winter months these houses are much warmer than the modern houses of today. Oddly there is no chimney, presumably to help keep in the heat, so there was a strong smell of peat and because the windows are so tiny only a little natural daylight penetrated the rooms so they were rather dark. To compensate for the lack of daylight there were oil lamps burning everywhere, originally these would have been filled with oil from Whales, Seals and also the regurgitated oily pellets of a local seabird, the Fulmar.
This building is split into three large rooms. The first room, which you enter, is the living/kitchen area and to the left and right there was a bedroom. The bedrooms had strange box beds that were built into the walls with thick deep red curtains draped across them. The mattress and pillows were stuffed with hay and an information placard told me how the curtains had been made using a coarse hand woven linen and locally grown flax, whilst the deep red dye was obtained by a type of sea lichen that grows on the shore nearby.
The living room was anything but sparse, in fact it was a little bit cluttered. There was a spinning jenny in the corner and a small hand loom for spinning wool in the other corner of the room, plus chairs with comfortable cushions and wooden tables, chests and drawers.
In 1933 the Duke and Duchess of York visited Skye and as a part of their tour they visited numerous croft houses to experience this way of life. The croft house at the Museum of Island Life was one of the actual cottages that was visited by the future King and Queen and continued to be occupied by the same family until the late 1950's.
All of the buildings in this cluster were originally croft houses but the remainder have been furnished to represent different aspects of community life so the second building that we come to has been converted into a barn. This building like the others is long and narrow and arranged at a 90 degree to the coast, which sheltered it from the winds that swept in from the sea.
Inside the barn there were examples of agricultural tools like hand ploughs and peat cutting spades and also horse pulled ploughs which replaced the smaller hand pulled ploughs during the 18th century. Many of the tools like the peat spades were quite crude and basic and would have been made locally over two centuries ago and passed down through the generations.
Whilst most homes would have a small hand loom for spinning wool there would be a much larger loom within each community which was used for making garments, tweed and upholstery. The particular loom in this room dates from the 1890's and is a rather late example as they were automated during the early part of the 20th century. Surrounding the loom there are a number of tools associated with the wool spinning and dozens of buckets filled with natural dyes. The dyes were extracted from seaweed, heather, birch, grasses and pretty much anything else that they could find locally but some of the colours are so bright and vivid it is quite remarkable.
The smithy was vital within the community, and the bulk of his work would involve making horseshoes and other small tools. A huge peat fire in the middle of the room created the heat and all around the room there were examples of the typical tools that were made here.
The shop/reception is actually the first building that visitors will find themselves in as this is where the admission fee is paid. It contains a small gift shop along with ultra friendly staff who will happily try and answer any questions that you might have.
Admission prices are:
Concessions (OAPs) £2.00
Children (In School) £0.50
Ceilidh is the Gaelic word for a social gathering and The Ceilidh House is where all of the members of the community would meet and entertain each other, especially during the long dark winter nights. Songs would be sung and the older generations would tell tales to the younger generations.
Gaelic was the native tongue of these people and only a few members of the community would have an understanding of the English language. Today almost the entire communities, with the exception of a few elders on the Western Isles, are now fully bi-lingual but the tales told here would have been conducted entirely in Gaelic.
The Ceilidh House is furnished with general memorabilia and artefacts from the community and includes a lot of photographs. Amongst the displays there are photographs relating to a wedding that took place in the 1920's and the original wedding dress, which was handmade in the croft of course.
The buildings here were abandoned by the late 1950's when the residents were re-housed into local purpose built houses by the council. The six remaining buildings date from the late 1700's through to the mid 1800's but they are typical examples of the dwellings that stood here over a thousand years ago and historical evidence suggests that this community has existed for much longer than that. It is assuring to know that at least some of this way of life has been preserved.
I would definitely recommend a visit to this place and I think that the admission charges about right. It's the sort of place where you would spend a couple of hours rather than a full day and it can be visited even if its raining as most of what to see is inside buildings and it's only a short hop between each building. Having said that I visited on a lovely sunny day and there were plenty of people sat on the grass picknicking or simply soaking up the stunning views. The only downside of my visit was that it was spoilt somewhat by two coach loads of American visitors that completely took over the place, pushing and shoving and being generally very rude and arrogant (not all of them but certainly a fair few). Despite signs advising visitors not to touch anything I witnessed some of them removing the signs from the seats so they could have their photos seated around the kitchen table and others clambering onto the beds. Frankly I was appalled but obviously and voicing my opinions very nearly led to a punch up before my other half intervened. This unruly behaviour is no fault of the museum itself and it didn't exactly spoil my visit, it just agitated me so I certainly still recommend it to others.
The Museum of Island Life is open daily (expect Sunday) from Easter until early October. The opening hours are from 9.30am until 5pm.
An outdoor museum with thatched cottages, old highland houses.