As plans for an even bigger and better Scottish Crannog Centre get underway MD Mike Benson tells Caroline Lindsay all about it
The Scottish Crannog Centre, a living Iron Age history museum, on the north shore of Loch Tay, is one of Scotland’s most popular attractions. And now plans for a £6m project to redevelop the centre are one step closer to being realised, thanks to Forestry and Land Scotland’s Community Asset Transfer Scheme (CATS).
The project includes plans for multiple crannogs that will become the focal point of a new state-of-the-art museum.
“Over the past 20 years, the Scottish Crannog Centre has developed from its origins as part of a research project carried out on Loch Tay by the pioneering underwater archaeologist Dr Nick Dixon OBE, to become an internationally recognised and hugely popular attraction,” says Scottish Crannog Centre MD, Mike Benson.
“I doubt anyone would have anticipated back then just how successful the museum would become. So successful, in fact, that the current site is just too small, both to cope with the thousands of visitors we get every year and to cope with our plans to expand.”
The crannog is already a much-loved iconic building and the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology intends to ensure the development is sympathetic to the natural environment.
So what is the centre’s secret to success?
“It’s got the lot,” says Mike. “A brilliant story, a small but nationally significant collection with a big story to tell, it has real heft sitting in the landscape from where the collection came and, really importantly, the people who work and volunteer there – the crannog community 2020, they are brilliant!”
With a background in industry, having worked in the steelworks on Teesside for 28 years, Mike came into the museum sector because he believes that connecting people to who they are and to a place is really important.
“My job is simple – to set the tone so our brilliant crannog community can sing the centre’s many different stories to many different people, telling folk about the amazing day to day life of the amazing crannog dwellers.”
Mike explains that the new heritage centre will come in phases.
“We’ll be working alongside our communities as we masterplan the development but there will be a museum designed to capture the DNA of the story, traditional skills and materials meshed to the latest technology to make it Scotland’s most sustainable museum,” he says.
“It will have a feel of belonging and real heft as if it’s been in the beautiful landscape there forever.
“We’ll have multiple crannogs to explore all the theories on how they were built – there will be an Iron Age village; woodman’s yard; studios for crafts people and artists; ongoing research – a special place telling a very special story.
“It will be building on the success of our current site so we’ll be keeping everything human sized, keeping that real sense of community – a social museum,” he continues.
Mike is excited about being part of the project: “It’s a great story – everyone seems to ‘get’ what’s possible, and I suppose to be part of something bigger than ourselves, but with a chance to influence, to play a part in the development.
“We are absolutely delighted not only to have been working so closely alongside Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) but also that our application to the FLS CATS scheme has been approved,” he says.
“Finding a site in the same vicinity was crucial to our plans, setting ourselves upon a path to being a sustainable, special place that is respected, loved and admired, a national treasure with social justice at its heart that, more than anything, matters to the public we are here to serve.”
So what are the main challenges of a project like this?
“Clearly the world has changed with divisions being laid bare and the disastrous pandemic effects will be with us for a long time,” says Mike. “It’s been heartbreaking listening to the news but maybe in times like this as we slowly get to grips with the virus and hopefully a cure comes along there will be more need than ever for places like ours where all kinds of folk can come along and together reflect and with a renewed sense of togetherness and to celebrate who we are.”
But don’t expect the new look centre to be ready any time soon.
“We’ll be taking our time as we consult and work alongside the communities we are here to serve both near and far as we together shape the project,” says Mike. “That said, wouldn’t it be great if we were starting work in three years’ time?
“Clearly, the new centre will have a positive impact on the area’s economy, and being financially secure is, of course, important but, for us, it is the social impact of the way we want to work that will make the new centre what it will be,” he muses.
“Understanding about the Iron Age and their way of life is a great way of connecting to a whole range of folk, and about what can be achieved when communities come together with real ambition – to make the most of the world around them.
“I’d like to say a great big thank you to everyone who has helped and supported us so far, the support has been just brilliant – it feels more like we are a football team with everyone cheering us on.
“We hope everyone is keeping safe and following the guidelines but we are hoping to open up again in August so we hope folk will come along and spend some time with us as part of the crannog community.”