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WITH smoke drifting lazily from barely visible gaps in heather-thatched roofs, filling the clear Highland air with the pungent odour of burning peat, you could be forgiven for imagining that you’ve travelled 300 years back in time as you make your way between the low-lying stone houses of Baile Gean.
In fact, the cruck-frame dwellings and other structures that make up this compact settlement – “Township of Goodwill” in Gaelic – are all faithful re-creations based on the layout of a former Spey valley community, and they combine to give an intriguing glimpse of rural life in the early 1700s.
Baile Gean is one of several distinct areas within the Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore, an award-winning attraction covering an 80-acre site bordered by the Kingussie road to the north and the River Spey to the south.
Aultlarie, at the far end from Baile Gean, includes a farmhouse and a large assortment of agricultural equipment from the more recent past, along with a post office full of all the paraphernalia associated with the mail service at a time when telegrams were the height of technology.
Nearby there’s the Aultlarie railway halt, a throwback to the age of steam. Like several of the museum’s buildings, it has been carefully dismantled and moved from elsewhere in the Highlands, and this authenticity adds to the sense of “living history”. So too does the presence of staff members in period costume who are happy to answer questions about the museum and pose for pictures.
The school, originally built in 1925, has been re-interpreted for 1937 and will surely provoke a sigh of nostalgia among those who remember when classrooms consisted of serried ranks of wooden desks complete with inkwells. The rear wall is dominated by a huge Navy League map showing continents that would be substantially reshaped in the aftermath of World War Two.
Indeed, every installation on the site – from the joiners’ workshop and tailor’s business to the shepherd’s bothy and the curling cub hut – has been assembled with painstaking attention to detail. Inside there are cups and saucers, bottles and jars, pots and pans, tools and receptacles, books and timetables, pictures and ornaments… all manner of knick-knacks that create a delightful feeling of being immersed in the past.
The mile-long site also makes for a pleasant walk, especially the area of pine wood near Baile Gean where red squirrels can be seen. This is where you’ll encounter a very realistic-looking travelling people’s camp.
The museum has a spacious car park leading to a reception area where there’s a shop, a café, a toilet block, a children’s play area and an audiovisual facility that shows an introductory DVD.
Admission is free during 2010, with donations welcome. A modestly-priced 46-page guidebook is on sale, providing lots of background information as well as a helpful map.
The museum owes its existence to Dr Isabel F. Grant MBE (1887-1983), a pioneer of Scottish folk life studies who took her inspiration from open-air museums she visited in Sweden and Norway. Dr Grant gradually built up a huge collection of artefacts reflecting day-to-day life in the Highlands and Islands.
The original museum, known as Am Fasgadh (“The Shelter”), was opened at Kingussie in 1944. The present site on the outskirts of Newtonmore was acquired in the late 1980s and the museum – known locally as the “folk park” – opened there in 1995.
Find out more about the Highland Folk Museum at www.highlandfolk.com
Standing near the confluence of the Calder and the Spey, the friendly village of Newtonmore is at the very heart of Badenoch. In fact, Newtonmore could be said to be at the heart of Scotland as it is the nearest settlement to the geographical centre of the country. A stone on the shores of Loch Ericht, three miles from the village, marks the site.
Like the village of Laggan nearby, Newtonmore is surrounded by magnificent scenery which was used in the filming of the popular television series Monarch of the Glen. The gentle Glen Banchor, with the wooded banks of the Calder, leads down from the remote Monadhliath mountains. Creag an Loin (the wool rock) and Creag nam Bodach (rock of the old man) flank either side of the village and the mighty Spey winds its way around the outskirts.
With the variety of landscapes within such a short distance of the village, it is no surprise that Newtonmore has become “the Walking Centre of Scotland”. The Wildcat Centre provides information on the surrounding walks and trails including the Wildcat Trail – a footpath of just over six miles (10km) which takes you to all the spellbinding scenic sites around the village which link the lands managed by various estates, woodlands, crofting townships and individuals.
Badenoch is Macpherson country and the clan museum in the village charts the history of this spirited family. “Creag Dubh” is the battle cry of the clan, and the mountain between Laggan and Newtonmore has close links with the family. After the battle of Culloden, the chief of the Macphersons hid out on its sheer slopes living in Cluny’s Cave near Lochan Uvie for nine years. The loyalty of the people in the area proved true as the clan chief avoided capture, despite the huge reward on his head.
For those days when the mountains and moorland remain shrouded in mist or rain, Newtonmore offers a different type of watery attraction. Waltzing Waters in the centre of the village is a spectacular show with fountains and sprays leaping to traditional Scottish and classical music. Browse around the craft shops in town or pick up an heirloom at the antiques store. If it’s still raining, head for one of the tea shops, settle yourself beside the window and watch the world go by over a cup of coffee and some home-made scones.