New series to celebrate Fort museum’s 100th anniversary

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This month we are launching a new regular series of articles to coincide with this year’s 100th anniversary of the founding of the West Highland Museum in Fort William.

To mark the centenary year, the museum asked visitors to identify their favourite things in the museum and the objects displayed in the online West Highland 100 gallery are the results.

And it will also be celebrating this milestone birthday with a major exhibition of Stuart paintings imported especially from Europe for a three-month exhibition opening in August.

The portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie painted when an older man in exile in Rome. NO F47 BPC Rome
The portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie painted when an older man in exile in Rome will be among the paintings on view at the special exhibition on the Stuarts later this year.

Over the coming weeks and months, the Lochaber Times will be featuring a number of these favourite 100 items.

And in a special article for the museum newsletter and this month’s issue of Lochaber Life, member of the museum board and chairman of its Collections and Learning Committee, Chris Robinson, looked back at the history of the museum.

Dr Robinson explains how the museum was the brainchild of Victor Hodgson of Culilcheanna, Onich, whose family is still actively involved in supporting the museum.

One of the first items in the collection was The Secret Portrait, a cleverly hidden depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie, which Mr Hodgson found in a London junkshop, and is still one of the prize pieces in the collection: it has also been loaned for exhibitions in Paris and Amsterdam over the years.

In 1928 the Strange Plate was purchased at auction – a copper plate commissioned by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 to print banknotes to pay his army.

After Mr Hodgson’s untimely death in 1929 there were some difficult years for the museum when it came to finances, but various ingenious schemes kept the museum going, including annual dances which sometimes made a profit and sometimes didn’t. There were fundraising dinners and even a lady’s football match in 1954 which raised £10.

The footfall was slowly increasing year by year with a policy of a low entry fee until the Second World War when the most valuable items were locked away and the first floor became the Royal Navy Officers Mess for four years.

The museum building dates from about 1850 and keeping it habitable was a constant struggle.

Visitor numbers peaked in the early 1970s with busy tourist seasons – but decreased thereafter as package holidays to sunnier climes enticed visitors away.

School visits and the Saturday club for children became a regular feature and there was a visit from the Queen and even a Māori chieftainess.

The museum’s 50th anniversary was marked with the purchase of a new typewriter, but the memorable anniversary was the 75th in 1997 when the major refurbishment was completed, and the museum reopened to our visitors.

That evening the town turned out in vast numbers, estimated at 3,000, to dance ‘The Longest Strip the Willow in the West’.

The front page of the Oban Times reporting on the longest Strip the Willow dance for the museum's 75th anniversary. NO F02 OT strip the willow
The front page of the Oban Times reporting on the longest Strip the Willow dance for the museum’s 75th anniversary.

Dancers stretched from the Grand Hotel to the Royal Bank with Lochaber Pipe band and the High School band leading off the crowds to line the street.

However, despite the major redevelopment and the display which was praised from the heights – the Rough Guide described it as ‘splendidly idiosyncratic’ – the number of visitors dwindled to less than 10,000 annually.

And so, with much trepidation, it was in 2011 that the museum took the bold step of offering free entry to visitors, and relying on donations and income from an enlarged shop.

This meant the difficult task of making paid reception staff redundant and appealing to the town for volunteers to support the museum.

But the townsfolk responded splendidly, until, in 2019, the museum saw more than 60,000 visitors – a figure not seen for 50 years.

With that there was a buzz about the museum again. The Model T Ford that had been carried in bits to the top of Ben Nevis was displayed on the first floor, leading directly to the casting of the Bronze Ford in Cameron Square and the tyre tracks which lead from the museum.

In 2012, with encouragement from the Commando Veterans Association, an exhibition on Commando Training in the local area was opened in the museum’s Education Room.

But now as Lochaber begins to recover after enforced Covid closure, a whole new life is anticipated for the museum.

It will shortly be sharing our plans with the community to extend the museum onto the High Street with a shop entrance and the redevelopment of the barn at the back of the building to increase exhibition, storage, staff, much needed educational and research facilities.

This will allow the museum to tell many more stories and continue to fulfil the ambition of Victor Hodgson that it will be a museum second to none in Scotland.