The Museum of Islay Life
The Islay Museums Trust was formed in 1976 by the Islay Historic Works Group and the Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Islay. A Management Committee was formed of Trustees resident on the island and other interested islanders. The Museum building, the former Free Church of Port Charlotte, was purchased for a nominal sum in the same year and work was started on converting what was a dilapidated ruin.
The aims of the Museum: To hold in trust collections reflecting the history of the island of Islay, for the advancement of the education of the general public, and to maintain and enhance those collections. The Museum holds around 2,000 objects over a wide range of subject areas. The Museum has developed a policy for the display of the collection, allowing the rotation of existing items in and out of storage, as well as providing space for short term displays linked to a particular theme, for example, the shipwrecks, the wee museum of childhood and Islay House upstairs and downstairs.
The collection: The Museum protects and displays this important collection, which shows life from the Mesolithic age to recent times. There are finds from archaeological excavations, displays of tools used by wheelwrights, coopers, leather and distillery workers, as well as an illicit still. Living conditions in the nineteenth century are portrayed in room settings, including a croft room featuring a fireplace removed from a house on Islay, a box bed and all the usual features of a home of that period. A more lavish Victorian bedroom illustrates a way of life typical of the more wealthy. Open displays of kitchenware used in ordinary homes on Islay contrast with the more elaborate items from Islay House. A children’s room, “The wee Museum of Childhood”, features a delightful model farmhouse, toys, and children’s clothing. Quizzes have been a very popular attraction for all ages. Hands-on items such as irons, slate boards and drawing facilities are available to interest the younger visitors as well as local school children. The importance of the sea is portrayed in a display of photographs of the many wrecks around the coast and also by the clockwork mechanism from the Rinns Lighthouse.
Gordon Booth Library: The library contains one of the most important collections of books, papers and documents relating to Islay, including nearly 2000 items. Also, housed in the library, 1,500 colour transparencies of Islay and several hundred old black and white photographs and postcards, many of considerable historic interest. A complete library, slide and photograph list are held on computer.
Other activities: The Museum has over the years published a series of pamphlets on various aspects of Islay life and history, covering such diverse subjects as the Kildalton Chapel and Cross, the Whisky industry, Agriculture, Place Names and how to pronounce them. One of the most successful has been a Guide to Places of Interest. In 1995 a “The History of Islay from earliest times to 1884”. The publication, “Looking back with Bobby Hodkinson”, a book of old photographs from 1880 to 1977 is now on sale at £7.95.
Mesolithic Neolithic and Bronze Age: The earliest sites so far positively identified in Islay are the burial places, or chambered cairns, of the first agriciultural communities to live on the island, for example the cairns at Port Charlotte and Lower Cragabus on the Oa. Such cairns date back from before 3000 BC to before 2000 BC, and six are known from Islay, two in the Rhinns and four in the south. Some of the single standing stones of which there are so many on Islay, may be of similar date. Given the wide distribution of the cairns and stones, and the skill and organisation needed to erect them, there must have been several well organised communities on Islay at that time, and not insignificant population. The Museum illustrates the prehistoric period of Islay Life with a set of panels and photographs and a number of artefacts. The panels describe the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages for those unfamiliar with these terms, with photographs of sites on Islay which have been attributed to each period. In reading these brief descriptions, it is important to remember that the so-called ages often overlapped.
The discovery of metals and the making of bronze from a mixture of copper and tin must have had a dramatic impact on the quality of life, making hunting, fishing, cultivation and house building much easier. The Bronze Age also saw the introduction of decorated pottery of a very high standard, but not until metal was used for domestic pots at the end of the Bronze Age and in the Iron Age did its introduction mean that food vessels could be placed straight on the fire and the need for pot boilers eliminated.
One important result of the establishment of the Museum was that, with the agreement of the local landowners, finds from archaeological excavations on Islay are now deposited in the Museum, instead of, as in the past, taken off the island. Sadly, artefacts from excavations made prior to this have been widely dispersed away from Islay. The existence of the Museum, and the maintenance therein of the correct environmental conditions, should ensure that all future discoveries in Islay will be kept on the island, where they rightfully belong.
Opening and admission: The Museum is open Monday to Saturday from Easter to the end of September. A small sales area is available with interesting pamphlets and books about Islay’s rich and interesting history.
A small entrance charge is made, with concessions for pensioners, students and families. Prices for 2006 are: Adult £3.00, Concession £2.00, Child £1.00 and family (2 adults 2 children) £6.00. Annual Membership is £5.00., giving free entry to the Museum and two or three newsletters a year.
Museum of Islay Life
Port Charlotte, Isle of Islay, PA48 7UA
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