Islay Life gets back to ‘normal’

Museum of Islay Life

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12,000 years of Islay history will soon be able to be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike as staff and trustees at the Museum of Islay Life – Taigh-tasgaidh Muinntir Ìle – prepare for the safe reopening of the island’s popular attraction.

A one-way route through the museum’s varied displays has been designed and a hand-sanitising point at the entrance has been set up.

Museum manager, Jenni Minto, said: ‘We are really looking forward to opening our doors and welcoming visitors again.  Eileen MacKenzie, myself and the trustees have worked very hard to ensure our treasured collection can be enjoyed safely.’

The museum will feature an entirely new display telling the story of how the island’s iconic Georgian villages were created.  Each village has a section looking at how they were established containing maps, information and photographs.  For example, Free Church Minister, John McNeill, gave the following evidence to the Napier Commission on crofting in October 1883, about Portnahaven:

‘The village of Port-na-haven was formed on exposed, bare, barren rocks in the year 1818 by Captain Walter Campbell of Sutherland, Islay.  It contained a population of 361 souls.  The original idea was to make it a fishing village, but practically it has been a haven of refuge for the migratory individuals of rural families who had been dispossessed of their homes. They were allowed to erect one-storied dwelling houses, consisting of one room and kitchen as a rule.’

Eileen MacKenzie said: ‘It has been interesting researching and designing the display, gathering together the stories of the villages on Islay from the museum’s archive and importantly getting help from Catriona Bell,  Eleanor McNab and Sharon McHarrie.’

This work has been supported by Museums Galleries Scotland and Friends of Bruichladdich. The creation of this display was prompted by many questions from visitors about how Islay’s beautiful planned villages came into being.

Campbell of Cawdor seal

A new case, funded by Ben Reavey and family in memory of former chairman of the Museum, Carl Reavey, displays the 1593 Campbell of Cawdor Seal, unearthed during the Islay Heritage excavation of Dunyvaig Castle in 2018.

As a result of a continuing agreement with Jennifer Jones, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the museum is pleased that the American Stars and Stripes sewn by Islay women in 1918 for the funerals of American soldiers lost in the Tuscania tragedy will be displayed on Islay for a further three years.  The flag is now framed in a new case, funded by Professor Richard Kurin, Ambassador-at-large, Smithsonian Institution, which is mounted on a specially-made wooden case by Alastair MacLellan and Malcolm Wilson.

The flag from the Tuscania

Said Jenni: ‘Having the flag here for an extended period is fantastic – it is such an important piece of Islay history, illustrating how our community just over 100 years ago came together in respect to mourn the loss of young men during the First World One.  On behalf of the museum, I would like to thank Jennifer, Richard and their colleagues for allowing the flag to remain on display so that more people can experience the thrill of seeing it back on Islay.’

Unfortunately when the museum opens its reference library will not be available and the iPads containing the museum’s photograph and postcard collection which visitors could look through have also been taken off display.  The hope is that both will be able to be returned next year.

However, the new one-way route has allowed Eileen and Jenni to change around some of the much-loved displays and dig into the museum’s collection to bring out some new items.

For example, the Tuscania display has been enhanced with the addition of the blue-print of the ship which belonged to Captain Peter MacLean, along with his medals, donated by his family.

Over the winter months the museum has benefited from a few new items being donated, including the bell of the Rothesay Castle, by the Hymas-Shackleton family from North Yorkshire, who wanted to ‘find it a home in which it can be treasured’.

The Rothesay Castle was  an iron steamship which having left New York in on December 27, 1939 became stranded near Islay on January 4, 1940.  An SOS message was received by the Coastguard was passed on to the RNLI at Port Askaig.  The following day the ship was still firmly stuck on the rocks and the remaining crew were taken off.  A court of enquiry found that the Captain was found guilty of the loss by serious default and his Certificate of Competency was suspended for one year.

The wreck lies near Nave island, although it is now broken up.  However, one of its lifeboats was put to important use, becoming the Gordie’s boat which ferried passengers between Islay and Jura.

The museum will be opening on Monday July 27, Monday to Friday, from 11am to 2pm.  Please come and visit.