Over the years several people have asked me to write about the projects and the places I visit as part of my freelance work. Having completed, for the time being, the posts connected with my research and the 38th Voyage in 2014, I am changing my focus to a different kind of voyaging.
Consulting for the Heritage Lottery Fund and others provides wonderful opportunities to travel to some very beautiful and sometimes remote parts of Britain as well as for engaging with the people who work with heritage as staff or volunteers and are passionate about what they do.
I have just returned from travelling in the highlands, peatlands and coastal districts of the far north of Scotland in Caithness and Sutherland. At Forsinard I explore the extraordinary world of the Flow Country, Europe’s largest blanket bog and a hugely important carbon store, with its wealth of mosses, insects, plants and wildlife. I walk out to the stunning and sculptural watch tower along the new boardwalk rippling like a pale carpet over the peat bog and its pools.
The rich warm colours of the bog astound me – an artist’s palette of russet, lime, gold, ochre, crimson, dark plum, burnt sienna. Jewel-like dragonflies hover above the dark waters and the calls of invisible meadow birds – skylarks, meadow pippets – intrude on what would otherwise be the deep silence of the place. From the tower you can appreciate the extent of the bog, its intricate patterns and colours laid out like a glorious patchwork quilt. We talk about whether the tower needs interpretation for visitors. In many ways the surroundings are so breathtaking that words seem unnecessary. Then again, opening people’s eyes to the beauty and the complexity of what they are seeing – once regarded as bleak and useless waste land – is important in the wider scheme of things. Listening to the land is a powerful experience but at times we need trained ears to hear!
One of the project staff is responsible for working with landowners and managers to communicate the importance of conserving the peatlands in their natural state. This often means undoing or modifying practices encouraged and funded by past governments like bog drainage and planting thousands of conifers. As we talk about his work, I become more aware of just how painstaking and challenging undoing mistakes of the past can be. Draining the peatlands to create grass and heather growth for sheep, grouse and other economic uses and planting conifer plantations means disturbing the delicate balance of the bog, drying out and degrading the peat and ultimately creating conditions where carbon will be released. He shows me the myriad of GIS mapped drains up and down the peatlands and explains the intricacies of decision-making to determine whether they can be blocked again and how and where so the bog will return to a healthy state. I am impressed by how technology can be used to both record and explain what happens and why.
Heading further north, the next morning I drive along single track roads from Helmsdale through Kinbrace and across the awe-inspiring landscape to Syre and up Strathnaver, the valley in which the Naver river flows. For many miles the only other signs of life are a red Royal Mail van, men filling potholes along the narrow track, and hundreds of deer and stags almost camouflaged in the red-gold landscape.
In the river valley, I keep stopping for large black shiny SUVs carrying fishing rods and men in the universal “hunting, shooting and fishing” uniform and one lone Tesco delivery van. As I turn onto the main road along the north coast from Tongue to Thurso, a vivid blue sea sparkles among the gold-black fields and green-black cliffs. There is so much beauty in this northern landscape.
Later I join a workshop in a primary school in Thurso run by the Flow to the Future project’s learning officer and volunteers, where P5/P6 students are getting their hands dirty comparing ph levels and drainage-water holding ability in sands, potting mix, clay and peat. Relating this to their study of the causes of climate change and understanding the process of decomposition, using maps of the world, photographs and small national flags, they consider the planet’s variety of climates, wetlands, desert, peatlands. Using local to teach global is vital if today’s young people are going to make a difference for the future of the planet.
I visit a small volunteer-run local museum in a former church in a small dispersed settlement on the north coast. They need funding for repairs and refurbishment of the building and its interior and we meet with the volunteers and part time staff to discuss a way forward. Like so many small volunteer-run museums, they lack funds and resources and access to professional expertise. At the same time the museum plays an incredibly important role in their local communities, a focus for meeting people in an isolated place, a welcome for newcomers, a place to explore stories and the history of the local area, to contribute, to communicate, to learn and to share that learning. When we start exploring the variety of engagement with the community and the opportunities the museum provides, the discussion became very animated. One volunteer talks about how the museum has “saved her life”, offering her a focus, company and inspiring her interest at a very bleak time in her life. She is now undertaking a museum studies course and is a passionate advocate for what might be possible. Another who moved up from England, explains how she knew no one and the museum gave her an instant community and offered new friendships and connections. Talking about their vision for what the museum could be rather than focussing simply on the repairs and building issues hopefully will give them access to what was missing in their application for funding.
While the building has significance in connection with the Clearances, the museum is not the building! Many museums are hampered by the box they inhabit, whether it be an historic but redundant church, school, cottage, or country house. Having to fund repairs, display collections and engage with modern visitors and groups in entirely unsuitable conditions or spaces makes their job so much more challenging. Too large collection items – transport vehicles, agricultural machinery, furniture and maritime objects – shoulder display cases with small and delicate items up against walls and into corners. Poor and damp climactic conditions make paper-based and photographic items curl at the edges, or mean only scans or photocopies can be displayed, and fluorescent tubes glare down on items that shouldn’t be so exposed. Steps and narrow doorways create accessibility issues and volunteers have to make cups of tea in tiny dark sub-standard basements and protect all supplies from visiting vermin. Specific collections built up by an interest group and donated to the museum at some point in the past end up taking up valuable public space even though few visitors may share that interest.
Should a museum focus so much on the box it exists in by historical accident however well-meaning, and is now limited by, or should it re-invent itself as a community space? If it is housed in a listed building which is entirely unsuitable for housing a museum, what other options does it have? Should it reconsider its collection and make some hard decisions about the significance or otherwise of all this “stuff”? These are difficult questions and I am not proposing to answer them here but working so much with small groups of hard-working volunteers committed to conserving and communicating their past for the present and future, I can’t help but feel that some more radical solutions might be considered.
I was hoping that I might see the northern lights for the first time but it was not to be. But for my final evening in Thurso, the sunset and its reflection on Dunnet Head more than made up for the disappointment.