A 'Virtual Tour' of Dunbeath Heritage Centre
with Paul Basu

[Click on the highlighted text to display the corresponding image in the right-hand frame]

Like so many, I first came to Dunbeath in search of Neil Gunn's Highland River. I was a budding film-maker and longed (and still long!) to make an adaptation of the novel which I felt articulated so many of my own feelings about the complex and intriguing ways in which landscapes "mean" to us. I arrived on a dark, stormy afternoon, the waves violently pounding the harbour wall casting up great clumps of spume. Yes, I thought, Gunn had it just right when he described the sea "the colour of lead," "rolling from under the dark weather," the foam "unearthly white as the gull's feathers." The weather cleared overnight, and the next day I was myself "off and away" up the Strath. But not before I first stopped in at the Heritage Centre, where I found myself regaled with stories, invited to make use of the archives and photographic collections for my script research and provided with refreshments to fortify me on my imminent adventure! Little did I realise that, a few years later, I would again be sitting there, coffee and chocolate biscuits to hand, discussing with the folks at Dunbeath Preservation Trust proposals for the redevelopment of the Centre and its displays!

From my own point of view, the opportunity of working on the redevelopment of the Heritage Centre allowed me to put into practice some ideas I had been exploring in an academic context concerning the boundaries between “landscape” and “museum.” There is a tendency in some places to treat the landscape as if it were a museum itself: to label it and explain it. This, I feel, does a violence to our “sense of place,” remaking the landscape as if it were purely an object to be gazed upon. Picturesque though the Dunbeath landscape may be, it is so much more. A landscape means different things to different people – a botanist perceives something different to an archaeologist, who in turn perceives something different to a geologist or a farmer… or a poacher… or a novelist… or a child… in fact no landscape is ever singular. Landscapes gather stories – botanical, archaeological, geological, etc. – and it is quite wonderful to be told them as one walks the strath: to be shown the very places. Alas, this is not always possible and this is where the heritage centre becomes so important – as a storytelling space.

Thus, a few basic objectives underlay our plans for the redevelopment. First, we wanted to create an interior environment that would encourage visitors to engage more fully with the landscape outside, to perceive that beyond that picturesque surface lay more complex significances. Second, we wanted to articulate the fact that Dunbeath’s landscape could be seen through a multitude of perspectives, that the “same” landscape could be perceived in disparate ways. Third, we wanted to create a space that would present opportunities for the telling of stories, a space that would provoke as many questions as it would provide answers and therefore encourage response and dialogue. We wanted to create a space which people could inhabit and use in different ways: a contemplative space, a research space, a learning space, an administrative space, a social space, a fun space, a special space. Last, we did not want to rely on visitors reading texts to engage with what we were attempting to articulate. We wanted to explore the poetics of the representation of place: to develop more effective and affective ways of telling.

Dunbeath was, of course, the birthplace of Neil Gunn. The heritage centre is based in the old school building in which he studied. Although he moved away at the age of 12 and never dwelt in Dunbeath again, he certain dwelt on the place throughout his literary career. Indeed, few landscapes can have been written about either so prolifically or so sensitively as Dunbeath and its strath. In novels such as Morning Tide, Sun Circle, Highland River, The Silver Darlings, Young Art and Old Hector and The Serpent, Gunn evoked powerfully the capacity for place to ‘mean’ – and to mean simultaneously at social, personal and phenomenological levels. For Gunn, the Dunbeath Water – his Highland River – was an especially resonant metaphor and the journey to the river’s source described in that novel presented us with a wonderful motif to draw upon in the design of the heritage centre’s exhibitions.

For Gunn’s young hero, Kenn, the Dunbeath Water is profoundly ‘real’, but, as Douglas Gifford has noted, it is also profoundly symbolic, at once becoming a river of time, of memory, of humanity, of consciousness.

In the entrance lobby of the centre, then, we wanted to establish the relationship between Dunbeath, the place, Neil Gunn, as an author born in the place, and Gunn’s literary representation of that place. Our approach has generally been a graphic one, using the principles of collage and, given the temporal nature of the visitor’s progression around the displays, of montage too. Thus this composite image of Dunbeath harbour, Gunn, Gunn’s textual description of the harbour and the covers of three of his books is juxtaposed with a second panel entitled ‘Other Landscapes’ (the title drawn from Gunn’s last novel, and one of those pictured, The Other Landscape). In a few words, this second panel provides the basic information about Gunn and his connection with Dunbeath, and describes Kenn’s pilgrimage in Highland River to the source of the Dunbeath Water: that it was also a journey to the source of his cultural heritage and his ‘self’. The panel ends with a short, but significant, quote from the novel, ‘Within, you will find the spirit of our River…

This is echoed in the glass of the door leading into the main exhibition room, transforming the quote into a personal invitation to the visitor to discover the spirit of ‘our’ place (hinting that the journey will be as much ‘internal’ as ‘external’).

After crossing the threshold, the visitor is confronted with a serpentine image of the river painted, burned and silver-leaved onto the floorboards. A route through the exhibition is thus suggested – just as a route through the landscape is suggested by the course of the real river. The imagery of this ‘floor-map’, beautifully realised by Tim Chalk, is drawn from Gunn’s evocation of the view of the buzzard as it circles above: ‘From high overhead,’ writes Gunn, ‘the river in its strath must look like a mighty serpent, the tip of its tail behind the mountain, its open mouth to the sea’. The particular design of the serpent’s head was taken from a fragment of an eighth-century brooch found in Dunbeath in 1860 and now residing in the National Museum of Scotland. The floor-map is peppered with quotes from Highland River and more and less abstract images of places which feature in the novel and which, of course, have their origin in the Dunbeath landscape itself.

The idea to create a kind of map on the floor had a number of influences. Primarily the great pavement labyrinths of European cathedrals, along which the devout could make a symbolic pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a symbolic journey of a symbolic journey. But I was also struck by the work of the District Six Museum in Cape Town. District Six was a multi-cultural area of the city demolished at the height of the Apartheid era, its inhabitants resettled in segregated townships. A street map of the razed neighbourhood has been painted onto the museum floor and those who were displaced are invited to add their memories to the map – reinscribing themselves into the place as it were. I was also interested in other kinds of mapping: from the familiar iconography of the Ordnance Survey to the less familiar approaches of, say, Australian Aboriginal art in which landscape and narrative are embedded inextricably within the imagery. Between these two poles, were alternative Western attempts to map narrative and place: I was particularly struck by the work of the artist Simon Lewty, his contribution to Common Ground’s Parish Map project.

The floor-map subtly leads the visitor through an interior, representational, storytelling landscape. This is reflected in the images on the walls and glass panels. Thus from the harbour in the lobby, the visitor passes further old photographs of places near the river’s mouth – the castle, the school, the village, the mill and so forth – and on to a series of six large black and white photographs, leading one upstream and progressively nearer the river’s source, each is captioned with a quote from Highland River. Image and text stand in tension with one another, such that the visitor must make sense of the relationship – sometimes it is quite literal, in other cases more abstract.

Central to our strategy was the relationship between this interior space and the space beyond the windows – the Dunbeath landscape itself. This is accentuated by the use of static, black and white photographs contrasting with the ever-changing views through the windows. This has the effect of drawing in the landscape from outside. Especially powerful is the ability to see many of the features of the lower strath from the windows: the village, the house where Gunn was born, the mill, the broch, Chapel Hill, Cnoc na Maranaich with its standing stone and chambered cairn. Thus the visitor may be struck by the multiple representations of the broch, for example, within the heritage centre, may be fascinated to learn of local stories told about it or of its excavation in the nineteenth century, but even more thrilled when it is pointed out in the landscape and they are encouraged to visit it for themselves. They venture forth with new insights, as they approach perhaps they will recall the quote which captioned its photograph – ‘The mind that secretly quickened before a broch’.

Gunn immortalised Dunbeath’s school in Highland River. It is through these windows that Kenn sat day-dreaming of the river while the master taught his pupils such irrelevancies as the names of Henry VIII’s wives or the principle industries of English cities. Thus etched, graffiti-like, into the window panes are quotes which call the scene to mind – for those who know – and which provoke the question ‘why?’ in those who don’t. Essential to the strategy we adopted was the knowledge that there would always be someone on hand to address such questions to: a volunteer or staff member, someone with their own stories of Dunbeath – even of the school!

This display is concerned with Dunbeath place-names and place-stories. It is, in many respects, a response to that wonderful scene in Gunn’s 1942 fable, Young Art and Old Hector, in which Hector introduces his young friend to some of the “little places” of the strath and explains that “Every little place, every hillock, every hill and slope, has its own name.” To know the names and the stories attached to places is what keeps them alive, and Hector willingly agrees to teach them to Art, “and gladly, for I would not like the little places to die.” The conversation between Hector and Art literally frames the panel. The background is a composite of the First Edition Ordnance Survey sheets covering the full-length of the Dunbeath Water. Here then is a topographically-accurate representation of the same landscape evoked in the floor. The 1871 map is fascinating in itself, but we have overlaid this with other kinds of information: snippets of local place-lore, multiple and sometimes contradictory accounts of the same place, excerpts from the OS Object Name Books, place name translations, and a key to common Gaelic place name components so visitors can translate other names for themselves.

The centre-piece of the Heritage Centre is a superb glass installation which divides the main exhibition spaces. Like the floor-map, this was a collaboration between ourselves and an artist we commissioned to work on the piece: in this case, Alexander Hamilton. The process of finding sympathetic artists and then articulating our ambitions for each of the displays was by no means easy. We had long discussions with Alex, for instance, concerning our desire to communicate the semantic as well as physical stratigraphy of landscape, the relationship between the “cultural” and the “natural” environment, the course of the river through all. It was not until we walked – and talked – the landscape together that it all finally fell into place. Alex collected samples of mosses, lichens and wild flowers to photograph in his studio and, utilising the translucence of the glass, produced a powerful series of panels which show features of the cultural landscape – archaeological plans of hut circles, the broch, a long house and Bouilag Hill with its intersecting multi-period remains – emerging out of, and, indeed, retreating back into the natural landscape. On one side is etched the shape of a stretch of the river. Just as the dynamism of the actual landscape seems to reach through the windows into main exhibition room, so the “outside” is brought “inside” through the play of light on and through Alex Hamilton’s installation such that it constantly changes throughout the day and through the different seasons. At certain times the installation becomes quite literally a reflection of the landscape beyond the windows.

The second exhibition room was designed to be a flexible space: thus, at the drop of a hat, a projection screen drops from the ceiling, free-standing display units are moved aside, blinds pulled down, chairs set up, and the space is turned into a great lecture room for slide shows, talks and other events that the Trust organise. Arranged in front of a huge photographic image of Wag Hill (taken just after the sun has set from one of my favourite spots on the river) is a tableau of figures entitled “Shadows of My Past” by Tim Chalk. Visitors to the Centre often make a “double-take” when they see a young boy – our Kenn, perhaps – sitting amongst the monochromatic “shadow figures” from Dunbeath’s past. In Highland River Gunn described how, when least expected, the past could come upon one at certain ancient spots: “From two thousand years back time’s fingers could touch them in less than an instant.” To feel such a presence is not unusual when venturing alone into the “beehive chamber” of the broch, or among the lonely ruins near Achnaclyth, or beside the standing stone of Cnoc na Maranaich…

Such a presence is also palpable at Chapel Hill. In local oral tradition, Chapel Hill, with its enigmatic ruins, has long been identified as the site of an early monastery known as the House of Peace. If any doubt about this tradition existed, it was forever dispelled in 1996 by the finding of the 7th century Ballachly Stone. Just as the House of Peace would have once been the spiritual heart of Dunbeath, so the Ballachly Stone is at the heart of the Heritage Centre. Thus we wanted to create a quiet, still space for the stone – what we call the “Shrine Room” – a place in which the visitor may encounter the stone aside from the encumbrance of labels and interpretative panels (these are provided outside the room). The tiled floor was created by a local potter, Jenny Mackenzie Ross, a response to the stone itself and to Gunn’s evocation of Chapel Hill in The Silver Darlings. As a child, Finn, the hero of the novel, would escape to the top of the knoll, where he would find sanctuary at the heart of a circle of low flat stones – the foundations of what had been a small cell. The quote, “describing the circle of sanctuary,” is inscribed on the floor, and, appropriately enough, the best view of the Ballachly Stone is obtained by standing within the circular motif at its centre.

There are of course other more conventional features of the Heritage Centre: a series of free-standing and wall-mounted panels, a book-selling area, a computer terminal where visitors can check their email, for instance. But, of course, the Heritage Centre is not just an exhibition space: it is also a study centre and an archive. Upstairs, the study room is often busy with people pursuing their family history research, children working on school projects and academic researchers working in any number of fields. It’s a wonderful facility and one that visitors are encouraged to make use of.

The redevelopment of Dunbeath Heritage Centre was funded by Dunbeath Preservation Trust, Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, The Robertson Trust, Lloyds TSB Bank and private donations.

CREDIT LIST (Alphabetical)

Paul Basu, overall concept and design, photography
Tim Chalk, Chalk Works, “Shadows of My Past” tableau, floor-map
Alexander Hamilton, glass installation
Alisdair Mackay, AM Woodware, reception desk and bookshop furniture
Jenny Mackenzie Ross, North Shore Pottery, shrine room floor
Dennis Mann, lobby door and window glass engraving
Shane Rodgers, architect
Maggie Stead & the Tim Stead Workshop, bench at source



Links to archaeological survey for further details of places mentioned above:
Chapel Hill and the Ballachly Stone
Cnoc na Maranaich
Dunbeath broch