A MUSEUM recalling one of the richest periods in Scottish prehistory has won the country's top accolade for its contribution to the public's understanding of Scotland's past.

Kilmartin House in Argyll fought off fierce competition to win the Hydro-Electric Scottish Museum of the Year Award, which was presented yesterday at Scone Palace.

The museum, opened in May 1997, tells the story of Scotland's early years through local architecture and artefacts retrieved from as far back as 1502 BC.

Surrounded by burial mounds, standing stones and the remains of ancient forts, the former manse north of Lochgilphead has attracted more than 24,000 visitors since its inception.

The exhibits are housed in the old servants quarters of the house and the adjacent barn. One of the forts, Dunadd, is believed to have been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada.

Although there are few original artefacts, the exhibition includes several important loaned items, including two beakers retrieved from the nearby Glebe Cairn, and some replicas. One of its centrepieces is the Glebe Pot, believed to be 3500 years old and on loan to the new Museum of Scotland.

Judges voted unanimously to award the title to Kilmartin House on the basis of the attention paid to detail, the welcome provided by staff, and even the food offered in the restaurant.

A sophisticated audio visual presentation in the museum was also singled out for praise and won a separate prize.

Scottish Hydro-Electric chairman Lord Wilson said: ''This award is a great achievement for the team at Kilmartin House who have put in so much effort into the tremendous improvements which have taken place there over the past year.''

Other prizes included a special commendation awarded to Verdant Works in Dundee, an old jute mill telling the story of the local textile industry.

Callendar House in Falkirk also received a commendation for its collection relating the story of the house and its owner William Forbes, and covering Scotland's wider history from the Covenanters to the Carron Iron Works.

Tain Museum was presented with a publication award for A Balance of Silver, a history of the old silversmiths of the Tain area.

Colin Thompson, the judges' chairman, said: ''We were very impressed by the genuine enthusiasm and dedication of the staff who greeted visitors at the museums we saw, particularly as so many of them were volunteers.

''Kilmartin is a truly impressive achievement. Its introduction to the museum is a very sophisticated audio-visual presentation, which combines in an unusually imaginative way the primitive sounds of the instruments at that time with haunting images of the timeless landscape, seeking to put viewers in a frame of mind rather than assaulting them with words.''

The Scottish Hydro-Electric Museum of the Year Award recognises the most significant additions or improvements to museums and galleries in Scotland over the last 12 months and rewards museums for their value to the local community.