Timespan: a remote museum in the Scottish Highlands that supported its vulnerable village through lockdown

The cultural centre has international ambitions if it wins the £100,000 prize

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Read more about the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award 2021 here

The 800 residents of Helmsdale live within sight of Timespan, a long grey and mustard-yellow shed sloping down to the river in the shadow of Thomas Telford’s elegant 19th-century twin arch bridge. It was a disaster for the little village in the Scottish Highlands when Covid-19 closed the museum’s doors in March 2020.

Timespan opened in 1987 as a Highlands heritage centre but has evolved into a museum, archive, contemporary art gallery and workshop, herb garden, cafe, shop and bakery. The village has artists, musicians, lawyers, accountants and a taekwondo master, but the nearest secondary school, sports centre, cinema and library are a long drive or an expensive bus journey away. Losing the visitor attraction hardly mattered with no tourists around, but Helmsdale residents immediately missed the home of myriad activities, from the children’s gardening club to the Tuesday afternoon knitters.

Sadie Young, director of Timespan Photo: Anyuta Gillespie

Sadie Young, Timespan’s Glaswegian director who has spent almost half her term behind closed doors, says: “We took a big deep breath. From day one, the imperative was to protect our community—we knew how vulnerable many were. The village looks lovely, but is high on every deprivation index: 150 households were classified as acutely vulnerable.”

Most of the 12 full- and part-time staff were furloughed on full pay, but the way that Young, the remaining staff and volunteers filled the void during the pandemic won their place on the Museum of the Year shortlist. They transferred materials online but also delivered weekly activity packs to the doors of local children, encouraged teenagers to exchange analogue letters and sent a van out with book loans from the archive.

Their efforts bore fruit: new research projects, clubs and activities have been launched. A museum redevelopment plan is complete, funding applications are in, and construction should start in winter when Timespan moves to weekend-only opening. Even the scarlet-wrapped Christmas gifts, hand delivered to isolated elderly people as far as 80 miles away in a care home in Inverness, set landlines buzzing and added information to the archive.

Timespan, a long grey and mustard-yellow shed sloping down to the river © Marc Atkins/Art Fund 2021

Though Timespan continued to receive its £95,000 core funding from Creative Scotland, it lost a year’s £60,000 earned income and only survived by arguing hard for emergency grants from Museums Galleries Scotland, the Scottish government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Now, being shortlisted for Museum of the Year with a guaranteed £15,000 prize will secure two key staff posts that are currently project-funded: the heritage curator Jacquie Aitken and the youth worker Fenella Gabrysch.

The team has hardly dared imagine winning the big prize of £100,000, but Young says they could use it to develop more ambitious loans, acquisitions and partnership programmes, including a dream scheme to link the Tuesday knitters with Zapatista embroiderers in Mexico, women using traditional skills to spread a radical political message.

In any case, the future redevelopment should restore the original theatrical quality of the Timespan displays to the current, rather bland design. It will include a celebration of an improbable friend of the village, the late romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, who inaugurated the museum clad in regal pink coat and hat. She donated gowns and books to the fondly remembered Cartland room, and the main display still includes an impressive salmon she caught. Young now hopes to reinstate some Cartlandia in her only available blank spaces, the lavatories.

Originally a heritage centre, the museum was opened in 1987 by the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland Courtesy of Timespan

The museum’s traditional exhibits include a crofter’s home and a blacksmith’s shop, as well as a threadbare taxidermy wolf stroked to near destruction by visiting children. (Jean Sargent, a retired scientist and chair of the board, believes she is descended from the local man who killed the last wolf in Scotland in 1700.) But in recent years, Timespan has set a striking new direction, tackling complex issues including climate change, land distribution and post-colonial history, and forging connections with international social justice groups.

Helmsdale looks idyllic but the winters are long, employment scarce and poorly paid, and its history harsh. In 1814, the Duchess of Sutherland created the village to house tenant farmers evicted from her land to make way for sheep—clearances referred to as “improvements”. The farmers were expected to make alien new lives as fishermen; many chose emigration instead.

Timespan delves into this history in Real Rights, a gallery exhibition years in the making that instead went online during the pandemic, cheerfully attacking “the Scottish ancestry industry and its role in promoting a mono-economic tourism strategy for the Highlands”—an industry on which the village is almost entirely economically dependent. The mixture of polemic, archival documents and objects including a 19th-century plough share and part of a North Sea oil rig drill bit got hits from all over the world.

Much of the museum’s current research and programming is serious and political, but it also does fun. An online video series, Recipes for a Disaster, featured noted local cooks in their own kitchens. Created as a lockdown diversion, it was so popular it is being revived. Coming soon: Don Sinclair’s meringues, another Helmsdale legend.

“We’re looking at very big ideas,” Young says, “but there has to be a sense of joy that runs through everything we do.”

Herring Creel Basket Photographer Anyuta Gillespie. Model Ann MacDonald.

Must-see show at Timespan, according to its director, Sadie Young: Herring creel basket

“Hardy Highland fishwives used to carry the creel basket on their backs to sell the newly caught ‘silver darlings’ across the townships. Expert travelling basket weavers would weave dried willow branches into wicker creel baskets, which had to withstand many years of heavy carrying work. Helmsdale was a fishing village planned in 1814 by the architects of the local Highland Clearances, the Sutherland Estate, to employ the displaced tenants and to exploit the herring boom. The Highland herring industry followed the transatlantic slave trade routes and exploited the former colonies in the West Indies, selling the lower quality herring to slave plantations. After the abolition of slavery in 1833, herring was exported to the Baltic and Europe, and by the early 20th century and onset of war, the market collapsed and never recovered.”

• Read about the other shortlisted museums here