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  • Julian Grant

Four Profiles of Community Heritage in the North Highlands

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

Prepared for Scottish Community Heritage Alliance blog, 23 November 2022

My name is Julian Grant and I am a PhD candidate with the University of the Highlands and Islands and trustee of the Scottish Community Heritage Alliance. Over the last four years my PhD research has drawn me into the diverse and vitally important world of community heritage.

My research looks at the impact of the North Coast 500 coastal touring route on local communities across the North Highlands. In three case study locations located around the route of the NC500 – one in Caithness, one in Easter Ross and one in Sutherland – I partnered with a community heritage organisation on a series of photography projects in which local people took pictures and wrote captions portraying their sense of place and the way tourism impacts them. After this, public exhibitions (both online and in person) based on these projects were held with the aim of showcasing these local perspectives and encouraging a more sensitive and mutually beneficial form of tourism.

This process of community-generated collaboration gave me a close insight into the way in which heritage organisations operate and the key role they play in their communities. Here I’d like to share profiles of four of the organisations I worked with in order to give readers a sense of the diverse and creative forms of community heritage at work across the North Highlands as well as the opportunities and challenges facing the sector at the present time. I am grateful to the volunteers and staff of these organisations for their generous support and the rich and fascinating expressions of place and past that they’ve opened to me over the course of the past four years.

Castletown Heritage Society, Castletown, Caithness

The Castletown Heritage Society (CHS), established in 1986, has as its mission statement to ‘preserve the character, traditions and history of the village of Castletown and the parish of Olrig.’ CHS originally operated from a small shopfront on the village high street before moving to the Castlehill Heritage Centre in 2007. This is a spacious and well-appointed facility located in a remodelled set of farm steadings adjoining the substantial defunct flagstone quarries and workings near the village’s small harbour. The heritage centre is home to a rotating set of new and recurring exhibitions on – for example – the local flagstone industry, changing methods of transportation or schooling through the centuries. It is open two or three days a week year-round to visitors. The heritage centre also hosts monthly history lectures and a programme of traditional skills and crafts workshops. In this way it is an example of a successful and well-established small Highland community heritage organisation which has the benefit of an excellent physical premises and a track record of delivering high-quality, inclusive heritage programming.

CHS has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic in a good position with solid finances. One significant revenue source is the rental of spaces in the heritage centre to various local groups. CHS was also diligent about seeking out forms of funding available to community organisations affected by the pandemic. During the pandemic CHS significantly expanded its digital footprint, expanding its social media profile and launching a successful local history podcast series on Spotify.

The major challenges facing the organisation are (in my experience) common to small community heritage organisations across the Highlands. Without any professional staff, the running of CHS is left to an aging and overstretched base of committee members and volunteers. Recruiting new volunteers is difficult and absolutely necessary to ensuring that organisations such as these are able to adapt to changing social and cultural circumstances and survive. Additionally, CHS faces the eternal question of how to continue reaching out to and engaging with the wider local community in an era in which traditional practices and industries have receded further back in collective memory. How can organisations such as these continue telling stories about the past which remain relevant to the dynamic and increasingly diverse local society of today?

Seaboard Memorial Hall, Seaboard Villages, Easter Ross

The Seaboard Memorial Hall (also known as the Seaboard Centre, or simply ‘the hall’) is a community-run third-sector organisation located between the interlinked villages of Shandwick, Balintore and Hilton in Easter Ross. Originally built as a simple village hall during the Second World War, the building was completely rebuilt and expanded in the 1990s and is at the centre of many aspects of community life in the Seaboard Villages today – including heritage. However, unlike the other bodies in this survey, it is not principally a ‘heritage organisation.’ The hall has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic on a solid financial footing with ten part-time employees and a partner limited company in charge of revenue-generating operations (including a café and facility rentals).

The hall undertakes a significant amount of heritage programming funded from within or through project-specific funding channels. This includes the installation of several display boards in the hall itself, storytelling and arts events, and the annual Fisherfolk Festival. A major recent project for the organisation was the purchase of the former Free Presbyterian church in Hilton and its conversion into the John Ross Centre. John Ross was a local man who became a missionary and the first person to translate the Bible into Korean; he was crucial to the dissemination of Protestant Christianity in Asia. Beyond telling the story of Ross and his links to the Seaboard Villages and Korea, the facility also has display boards and objects relating to the wider social history of the local area. Since the Seaboard Memorial Hall itself does not have a dedicated heritage space, this fills an important gap in the local heritage landscape. Funding for the conversion of the church came from a grant from HIE, the Seaboard Memorial Hall’s own funds and also from a substantial donation from a South Korean Presbyterian church.

Beyond this, the hall serves as a valuable space for fostering social capital, networks of resilience and celebrations of the local area’s past and present – critical ingredients for the continuance of an everyday collective practice of community heritage. At the evening dinner and dance held as part of the Fisherfolk Festival in 2019, a pen and paper was left at each table and guests were invited to write down any Gaelic words or phrases that came to mind. Despite the fact that intergenerational transmission of Gaelic as a first language had ceased in the mid-twentieth century locally, the sheets of paper at each table were filled with dozens of contributions by the end of the night. Some were overheard from parents and grandparents in decades past, while others are still used today in the pub, at sea or in the home; many were written down phonetically rather than in modern Gaelic orthography. These contributions were then collected and written into a series of blog posts organised around themes which expressed the deep interweaving of language and heritage locally: family by-names influenced by Gaelic; vernacular terms associated with fishing, landscape or wildlife; greetings, idioms and turns of phrase.[1] This example demonstrates how community heritage organisations drive the grassroots continuation of cultural inheritances from the past.

However, it is important to underline that the organisation’s foremost priorities lie with a more holistic array of activities and services aimed at wider community needs. This distinguishes it from more narrowly-defined heritage bodies. The hall hosts the local branch of the Post Office, a community-run café, weddings and events, and a litany of weekly and monthly meetings and events. The hall also is an important channel for securing and directing funding for community projects, including a new playpark, a rebuilt toilet block by the harbour and improved facilities for overnight caravan sites and waste disposal. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the hall was instrumental in coordinating local resilience efforts. This is a reminder that heritage is often deeply interwoven with the wider agenda of community development. In fact, many of the most important and locally relevant bodies ‘doing’ heritage may not consider themselves members of the community heritage sector.

[1] Seaboard Gàidhlig (website), ‘Gàidhlig ann am Machair Rois 1. Ainmean-iasg / Seaboard fish names’,; Accessed 13 July 2019.

Historic Assynt and Assynt Community Digital Archive, Assynt, Sutherland

These two organisations based in the west coast crofting parish of Assynt display marked contrasts with the previous two examples. Historic Assynt was originally formed in 1997 to preserve three threatened historical sites in the parish: the Old Parish Church at Inchnadamph, Ardvreck Castle and Calda House. Unlike the previous two organisations, Historic Assynt’s principal focus is on preserving and maintaining the archaeological historical environment of Assynt. There is less emphasis on intangible cultural heritage, skills workshops or more holistic community development goals compared to the Seaboard Memorial Hall or Castletown Heritage Society. Once the original three sites were preserved, Historic Assynt has undertaken a series of further restoration projects and public history displays at (for example) the Iron Age broch at Clachtoll and countless smaller sites ranging from Neolithic chambered cairns to pre-Clearance townships.

At the moment Historic Assynt keeps a fairly low profile. The website is defunct; volunteers staff the church at Inchnadamph over the summer months, while there is a fairly regular flow of social media posts and occasional community archaeology events throughout the year. The COVID-19 pandemic had little impact on these operations besides closure of the church.

The Assynt Community Digital Archive (ACDA) aims to collect and digitally store historical and contemporary information about community groups and individuals. Spearheaded by several interested local residents, the ACDA began in 2009 as an offshoot of another community initiative before more recently coming under the wing of the Assynt Crofters Trust. Today there are oral histories related to different themes and events in Assynt life, including the crofters buyout of the North Assynt Estate in 1993 and various organisational histories. The ACDA’s collection is not publicly accessible except through a computer located on the physical premises of the ACT. In her PhD thesis focused on community digital archiving in the Highlands and Islands, Maya Darrell Hewins explained the thinking behind the approach to accessibility taken by the ACDA:

There were access and rights concerns in relation to donors of material to archives and their expectations for their own access and ability to control access for others. Material in the Assynt Digital Archive is not made available on the web – a workstation connected to the archive is necessary to access the collections.[1]

In other words, this archive exists on terms defined clearly by the local community according to their needs and concerns; access to the archive is on a restricted and conditional basis. This represents a dramatically different approach to digital accessibility than that taken by Castletown Heritage Society or the Seaboard Centre, each of which share extensive heritage content – including the photovoice exhibitions stemming from my PhD – on their openly accessible websites. As a result the ACDA’s keeps a low profile locally and has little regular programming for the public. In addition to the ethical approach outlined above, this low profile also reflects the fact that volunteer community efforts in Assynt require time and effort which is not always available for many residents who are already overstretched.

[1] M. R. Darrell Hewins, Supporting community-led digital moving images archives: between grubby flesh and insubstantial pixel (PhD thesis, University of the Highlands and Islands, 2021), p. 199.

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