Newtonmore residents take horse and cart protest to streets of the Highland Folk Museum

By Ben Miller | 04 August 2010
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A photo of a horse and cart with a dog on the back

(Above) The horse and cart used by local residents in Newtonmore to protest against the proposed closure of the Highland Folk Museum last week. Image: Ruaridh Ormiston

For an 80-acre museum dedicated to thousands of years of social and agricultural history and folklore, there could be few more fitting weapons to protest against the threat of closure with than the traditional horse and cart.

Last Friday, more than 100 residents of Newtonmore marched through the host village of the Highland Folk Museum, waving placards and noisily opposing Highland Council plans to save £700,000 by closing the popular venue within three years.

The proposal, mooted in a budget statement last month, is hardly supported by figures – the day before the demonstration, the council website announced that the museum had enjoyed a "significant rise" in visitors, including one day when 770 heads were counted, beating the previous record by 30%.

A photo of a woman cooking in a Victorian style on a fire

The museum opened in 1995. Image: highlandfolk .com

More than 85% of them rated their visit as "excellent" in an accompanying survey, and earlier this year the venue was pipped at the post after being nominated for the Guardian Family Friendly Museum Award.

"Ever since the administration issued its crass and simplistic consultation document there has been huge local apprehension in Badenoch and Strathspey that the Folk Museum was at risk, and, indeed, might close," says Badenoch and Strathspey Councillor Dave Fallows, who claims the council is torn between funding the Folk Museum, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery and private museums across the region.

"The Folk Museum is a major asset to the whole of the Highlands, and ever since admission charges were done away with three years ago there has been a substantial rise in visitor numbers, coupled with consequential rises in income from both donations and retail and café sales.

A photo of people on horses in a forest

Jockeys from Newtonmore Riding Centre showing their support for the campaign. Image: Ruaridh Ormiston

"Historically, the Folk Museum has premises in Kingussie as well as the large outdoor site in Newtonmore, but the Kingussie buildings suffered massive neglect over many years of previous administrations and are now dangerous."

Councillor Fallows says many elements of the vast collection of archive material and artefacts of Highland are stored in "disgracefully bad conditions" in Kingussie, and there has been a substantial plan to move these to a new, special purpose building on the Newtonmore site.

"It didn't help our worries that when the budget was approved at the last council meeting, an entry for a new museum store did not specify this was to be in Newtonmore, and indicated that a further report would be produced to see if costs could be reduced," he added.

"Locally, we have been working with the community in Newtonmore and Kingussie to keep the pressure on so that councillors realise just how important the Folk Museum is."

A photo of a man with his back turned to the camera showing a t-shirt reading don't let our museum become history

More than 1,000 supporters have joined a Facebook group against the proposals. Image: Yvonne Richmond

A Facebook group, Don’t Let The Highland Folk Museum Become History, has attracted more than 1,000 supporters, winning media attention for a campaign whose next stop comes at the Newtonmore Highland Games on Saturday.

"I love the Highland Museum," wrote one 44-year-old member. "I first came with my family when I was about eight and was completely transfixed by it.

"It would be awful if this glimpse into our heritage was lost. I still remember my first visit as a child and the effect it had on me."

In a letter to the group, Newtonmore and Vicinity Community Council Chair Rob Ritchie pledged support from his organisation and the local Business Association alliance.

Campaign leader Angela Cox says the council made the plans as part of a £36 million round of cuts.

A photo of a green garden in woodland

Part of the gardens at the 80-acre site. Image: highlandfolk.com

"I have worked in tourism all my life, including several spells at the Highland Folk Museum in both Newtonmore and Kingussie, and I know how important it is to the local area. I feel it is such an important museum and a wonderful visitor attraction," she argued.

"If we lost it, it is our heritage we would be losing, as well as lots of local jobs, both seasonal and full-time."

Councillor Fallows said he doesn’t agree with the group's advocacy of reintroducing entry fees in order to save the Museum, and urged the council to keep the "superb record" of the area's history free of charge.

"It should be a reference source of all of the archives and artefacts relevant to the aims of the museum in a single place," he added.

"No matter what the financial pressures on the council, we must never abandon the legacy for the future that is represented by the Highland Folk Museum."

Read the online petition against the plans.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: