IT is a building with a considerable past of its own, dating back hundreds of years and touching on some of the most pivotal moments of the history of the Highlands.

And now the future of the Strathnaver museum in Sutherland is to be secured with a £650,000 refurbishment which aimed at transforming it into a heritage hub for north west Sutherland.

Built in 1774, the former parish church which houses Strathnaver Museum is a category B-listed building which lies close to the popular North Coast 500 tourist route. 

Dedicated to the history of the Highland Clearances, the Museum building is itself an important piece in this story as it was from the pulpit which still dominates the main room that Rev David Mackenzie read out eviction notices to his congregation during the main Strathnaver Clearances of 1814-19. 

The clearances in Sutherland were particularly brutal, with tenants moved from their homes to the coast to make way for sheep. Factors would move in as soon as the crofts were empty and tear down their roofs or burn them, to prevent them from being re-occupied. 

In one notorious case the Sutherland Estate’s man on the ground, Patrick Seller, was charged with culpable homicide after an old woman, who had to be carried out of her home as it was destroyed, died in the days after her eviction.

Sellar, who was dismissed from his job during the trial, was acquitted of all charges. In all, around 1,400 crofters and their families were cleared from the land, with 1819 becoming known as “the year of the burnings”.

In 1883 tenants and crofters from across north Sutherland met within the church to give evidence to the royal Napier Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands eventually led to providing security of tenure to crofters across the crofting counties.

Strathnaver Museum’s refurbishment project is part of a new £5 million Scottish programme of projects to invest in the Highlands and Islands to provide better quality opportunities for visitors to enjoy the region’s natural and cultural heritage. 

The Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund is led by Scottish Natural Heritage and is part funded through the European Development Fund (ERDF).

It is hoped the fund will encourage people to visit some of the more remote and rural areas and create and sustain jobs, businesses and services in local communities.

Strathnaver Museum is a volunteer-led accredited rural history museum which explores the social history of the area of north west Sutherland, almost 2,000sq km known informally as Mackay Country. Situated in Bettyhill on the North Coast 500 Strathnaver Museum is a popular visitor attraction attracting over 6,000 visitors in 2019.

The refurbishment project will enhance the visitor experience with the creation of an annex building to the north of the church, which will explore the agricultural story of the area. 

Improvements to the internal layout of the church will also be carried out to open up access to the collection and create dedicated research spaces where people can study some of the records held by the museum.

As well as the vital building work, Strathnaver Museum will also run a three-year community programme of activities to help share and gather knowledge about the heritage of Mackay Country. The main theme will be the Highland Clearances and explore topics such as land use, culture, migration, industry and politics.

In 1882 internal alterations saw the removal of the two galleries and the insertion of some party walls. The refurbishment plans have been drawn up by Bonar Bridge based CH Architecture and will see the removal of some of these party walls and install a bridge link which will give visitors an idea of the view from the galleries of the pulpit and lower gallery.

Tommy Mackay Strathnaver Museum Chairman said “We are delighted to have been awarded funding by the Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund towards our refurbishment project. The funding will allow us to enhance the visitor experience, sustain jobs and the services we deliver and enable us to continue to promote the natural and cultural heritage of our area and the Highlands more widely.”

Francesca Osowska, SNH Chief Executive, added: “A key priority for SNH is to help ensure tourism and other sectors benefit from, and invest in, Scotland’s high quality environment.

 “Nature and culture are closely linked in the Highlands & Islands, and in many places they are central to the local economy, maintaining rural populations, jobs and skills. This project will bring significant benefits to the local area for years to come, and give visitors even more to enjoy in these iconic areas of Scotland.”