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Issue 87 - Outlander Uncovered: The Highland Folk Museum

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016

 

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Outlander Uncovered: The Highland Folk Museum

Christopher Coates visits the Highland Folk Museum

Speak to any fan of the television adaption of Outlander, and chances are they’ll mention the incredible costumes, sophisticated sets and breathtaking locations utilised to convincingly recreate 18th Century Scotland. In previous editions of this Scotland Magazine column, we’ve visited various Outlander locations that – largely on account of their construction from stone – haven’t changed too significantly over the years. However, in the rural communities of Scotland’s past, wood was often the building material of choice for many township structures. Unsurprisingly, no suitable originals survived the long years since their construction intact.

This could’ve caused something of a stumbling block, particularly when filming scenes such as those seen in episode five of season one (‘Rent’). The protagonist, Claire, having joined the men of Clan MacKenzie, is taken along on a rent-collecting trip in the Highlands, on behalf of Laird Colum MacKenzie, and visits many impoverished villages constructed in the traditional style of the 1700s.

The episode is of particular note for giving an intimate look at the lives of women in such communities, and in one scene Claire joins the local women in a song as they ‘waulk the cloth’ (also known as ‘wool walking’ or ‘fulling’). The process involves pounding a large mass of wool, stretched across a long table, in order to eliminate dirt and thicken the material; songs were sung to help set the pace of work. The scene holds particular weight, as it is such everyday tasks that are often left out of historic fiction.

From our vantage point in the 21st Century, replete with modern comforts, it can be hard to imagine quite how hard life would have been for the occupants of such villages, thus making a faithful recreation of the period environment pivotal for the success of the series. In many countries, film-makers would now be faced with the daunting task of either building a set from scratch or relying on computer generated effects to create the desired environment; both are costly options and, as we have all seen on-screen many times before, the results of the latter can be less than convincing.

Thankfully, Scotland has its very own, painstakingly recreated, 18th Century township at the Highland Folk Museum near Newtonmore, Inverness-shire. Founded in 1935 by Dr Isobel F. Grant, a pioneer in British folk life studies and author of the seminal text Highland Folk Ways (1961), in just under a decade the collection had outgrown its original home, a church on the Isle of Iona, and relocated to a new site in Kingussie. This new museum, which was named Am Fasgadh (The Shelter), included a recreated late 19th Century blackhouse, livestock, crops and activities.

The Highland Folk Museum subsequently relocated once again, in 1996, to a significantly larger (80 acre / 32 hectare) location in nearby Newtonmore, and ever since has existed as a piece of ‘living history’ that is enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year. The collection, which now includes over 10,000 items, from teaspoons to tractors, was recognised in 2015 as a ‘Collection of National Significance’ by Museum Galleries Scotland, an accolade that coincided with its 80th anniversary.

The township itself, named Baile Gean (The Township of Goodwill), is based on a real settlement that once existed at Easter Raitts, high up the Spey valley near the hamlet of Lynchat. Raitts, the main settlement in the area prior to the 1790s era ‘planned town’ of Kingussie, was located on a drove road that crossed the River Spey from north to south, leading to the township of Ruthven.

The recreation was informed by significant archaeological excavation, physical and documentary research and extensive practical experimentation on site. Visitors are invited to learn of the complex techniques employed to build the various structures, which include the tackman’s (principal tenant) house; a barn; a cottar’s house (the house of a tenant who cultivated land); a weaver’s house; a stockman’s house (complete with animal pens) and a kiln barn (that demonstrates how villagers would have dried their grains).

After featuring in
Outlander, the township has become very popular with fans of the series and as a result the museum now holds an annual ‘Outlander Day’ each June. This includes additional costumed interpreters on site (including a redcoat); cooking in the houses; weaving; an exhibition by the herbalist who advised on the TV series; additional animals; a working pole lathe and, of course, a display of ‘waulking the cloth.’

Visitor Information

The Highland Folk Museum
Aultlarie Croft, Kingussie Road, Newtonmore, PH20 1AY
+44 (0) 1540 673 551
www.highlifehighland.com/ highlandfolkmuseum