Auchindrain: why impose crisis managment on the heritage sector?

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A week ago, the Convener of the Auchindrain Trust, Alison Hay, issued a statement on the Auchindrain website.

This confirmed that Scotland’s last preserved highland farm township was caught in the throes of a funding crisis. With no core funding and a series of funded projects completed, the Trust has had to use its carefully  harvested reserves to keep its key staff employed.

Those reserves are now almost exhausted and, at best, will see the township – whose buildings are part of the National Collections of Scotland – to the end of July.

Ah that point its two permanent staff, Development Director Bob Clark  and maintenance and groundsman, Karol Chodorowski, will be paid off. Both are pictured below in a successful inaugural Food Fair at Auchindrain in 2012, where Karol, facing the camera, demonstrated the traditional churning of butter.

Karol after buttermaking at Auchindraion

The township, of enduring interest to visitors, will then be kept open until the end of the visitor season in September or October.

A permanent constraint for the Auchindrain Trust is that there are limits to the numbers of visitors the site could accept without permanent damage to its fragile authentic infrastructure.

This means that the answer to sustainability for Auchindrain is not another business plan showing how the Trust can ratchet up visitor numbers. These have been regularly hitting records as it is.

Imposed crisis management

Essentially, we keep places like Auchindrain or we let them go. There is no real value in any middle way. That simply uses money on rudimentary  ‘life support’ that keeps the patient alive but dying.

Our national approach to heritage is one of unresolved philosophical conflict, failing to exercise discrimination in what is important from the past; and so creating a policy and a funding culture which the word ‘confused’ under-describes.

Our national approach to ‘heritage’ is also classist. It would be very much easier to get funding to preserve a run of the mill mansion than for a place like Auchindrain, which vividly makes present the nature of the life of the many.

Much of our heritage sector – and indeed our arts sector – is supported not through ‘core funding’, a known annual revenue grant which includes permanent staff salaries but through ‘project funding’ – grants made in response to applications for specific and time limited projects, with an element of project staffing support embedded in them.

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Heritage facilities, like Auchindrain, are compelled to live from hand-to-mouth by this method, constantly trying to invent a project that will catch a funder’s eye or fit the theme of the moment; constantly working up persuasive applications; and constantly producing business plans.

This imposed management style:

  • displaces core responsibilities
  • makes staff permanently insecure, often leading to the loss of good staff
  • pushes ‘development’ into responses to project funding on the basis of what’s available rather that  what best fits the nature of the resource.

This is ‘kedgeree’ funding – throwing what you’ve got into a mix with whatever comes to hand. It actually inhibits and derails good development.

It has absolutely no intrinsic merit. It exists for political not heritage reasons.

The denial of ‘core funding’ [or revenue funding] avoids commitment into the future. Short termist politicians and governments at all levels are commitment-phobes.

The competitive availability of ‘project funding’ means that crumbs can be scattered widely around from year to year, keeping the local supporters of more resources quiet and keeping a greater heritage facilities on a distracted tick over and in essential decline.

We have to be prepared to create and execute a transparent set of criteria for the heritage resources we chose to pay to keep available down the generations. The vague criteria we have inherited are blurred by time and ‘flexibility’ [often translating as response to powerful influence] and urgently need to be rethought.

We need uniquely preserved places like Auchindrain to understand the hardship that won all of us the inheritance of the very different lives we enjoy today – and to identify the valuable elements of those other lives that we have lost by the wayside but might recover, if we chose.

A living place that really matters

There was, not long ago, a suggestion that Historic Scotland might take responsibility for the care and maintenance of Auchindrain, opening it from April to September-October with minimal volunteer staff and a non-resident supervisor who would have it added to a portfolio of responsibilities.

This offer has now been withdrawn – but would, in any case, have been terminally damaging to Auchindrain.

When Historic Scotland take properties into care, they ‘improve’ them for the visitor experience, laying paths etc. This irrevocably destroys their presence and the organic evidence of other lives that they present on a daily basis.

Look at the Historic Scotland property of the old Iron Works at Bonawe in Taynuilt. The buildings are magnificent industrial structures – with the charcoal shed unforgettable. But the place has had its intrinsic worth sanitised out of existence. You walk the place and you have no sensory awareness whatsoever of how the working lives lived there carried on.

The whole point of Auchindrain is that it remains as it was, giving as authentic as possible an experience of what survivalist living in such a place was like. The old paths and tracks are there, linking the northern and southern parts of the township – and visitors walk them.

In good weather, the paths are firm enough on the stones that over the years have been trodden into them to make them drier to walk on; and the tracks are relatively dry.

But this is Argyll, with clay soil and wet weather. When it rains, the tracks are soft and sodden and the paths less reliably firm.

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In good weather, standing in the sun outside the cottages, with their bright whitewashed stone walls and red corrugated roofs – looking at the meadows, the stone walls, the sheep, cows and hens that are kept there and the hills beyond, you can feel the occasional idylls and almost hear the calls and the laughter.

On a bad day, you dive for the minimal shelter the cottages offer, with the rain a chilling percussion on the roofs, the walls damp, the smell of it pervasive and chill draughts everywhere. Outside, the land quickly soaks. The harvests from the kail yard vegetable patches can have been no better than uncertain. Winters and short days will have been an annual test of endurance and stoicism.

When the cattle drovers came through – with their traditional stopping place at Brenchoillie, about a mile west of Auchindrain, in a valley more or less parallel to the A83, the socialising, the music, the ceilidhs and the opportunity to sell foodstuffs and artisan craftstuffs will have included Auchindrain.

But life here was never more than subsistence and survival – aggravated by the fact – now making the place historically unique – that, for whatever reason, Auchindrain remained an ‘unimproved’ farm township.

It did not adopt the new efficient farming practices as they evolved but carried on the traditional runrig collective farming, with the old lazy beds still discernible on the hillside across the A83. In the summer, the menfolk went off to live in bothys, staying with the herds grazing on land stretching to Loch Awe.

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In Auchindrain today, judiciously preserved structurally but not sanitised, not made tidy, not made cosy – it is still possible to get close to understanding an authentic subsistence living on the land, with none of the modern conveniences that today make such living more bearable.

How did they survive? Why did they continue in this way of life? Auchindrain – because it is immediately authentic, forces those questions. None of us today would choose to live like that, regardless of the seduction of the days the sun shines.

Auchindrain is a crucial dispeller of myths and a testament to the slow progress of change in a world with little of what we now call ‘communications’ and where travel was slow or slower.

There would have been little real awareness of alternatives and this was a society so rigidly stratified that such communities were viewed by the well-heeled aristocracy as zoo exhibits. A special treat for Queen Victoria on a visit to the Duke of Argyll at Inveraray Castle, is recorded in her own diary as a drive out to ‘see the poor people’ at Auchindrain.

A world like this leaves scant room for ambition.

Most accepted their lot without thought or question. It was how they lived, how their folk had always lived. Auchindrain was still, just, a working township in the 1960s, when its last established family, the McCallums and its last resident, the shepherd for the Argyll Estates, William Weir and his family, moved out.

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The photograph above shows Trust Convener, Alison Hay, with Eddie McCallum, who was born in Auchindrain before his family became the last township family to leave in 1964. The ‘Welcome Home’ cake was produced for a reception in the Visitor Centre for a little grey Ferguson tractor that used to work Auchindrain, which staff located elsewhere in Argyll and repatriated in 2012.

The balance of preservation and authenticity

When we say that Auchindrain is still ‘as it was’ that does not mean that it has not been subject to active conservation initiatives.

One such took place in the early part of 2012, when the succession of two unbelievably cold winters below Canadian temperatures, showed obvious evidence of structural damage to many of the cottages.

Temperatures then were so low that the ground froze to some depth – and Argyll’s prevalent clay retains water.

Rain running off the traditionally unguttered roofs in the township and snow sliding off it, both in freezing conditions of course did damage to the walls they ran down. But the main damage done in the 2011 winter’s profound cold was much more serious.

The rain running off the roofs on to the ground around the cottages soaked into the clay and was retained by it, with no warmth in the air to let it evaporate. Then came the freeze up.

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When the water-soaked clay froze deep down, it expanded significantly, rising and lifting the buildings. Then, when the thaw came, it sank again. The impact on these old stone walls of this lift-and-drop sequence left, as we recorded here at the time, bellied walls, cracks, dislodged corner stones and doors that no longer worked.

Funding was secured for land drains to be dug close in around the cottages in the east township [below - and the major extant collection] , given perforated piping, backfilled with gravel and topped with soil. The purpose was to collect and conduct roof water away from the buildings.

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Proof of the need for the drains came in the speed with which water drained in to them from their clay sides and started running almost at once. And then there were the springs…

So far, the conservation of Auchindrain has been judiciously and well handled. The West of Scotland Dry Stone Dykers Association have given inestimable help in rebuilding walls and Stoner’s barn, as association projects.

There is a lot more that can be done to recover the actuality of Auchindrain.

The responsible compromise would be for very basic core funding to be quickly assured, given the current predicament – to secure the continuing input of permanent staff; leaving the Trust and the staff to raise development project funding from public donations campaigning, events [as with the Crafts and Culture Fair below]and applications for appropriate grants.

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Basic maintenance is more cost effective if delivered by a capable all-rounder on staff than by bringing in squads of mean and machines at intervals and by paying for for specific repairs as they occur.

Core funding could be by guaranteed percentage contributions from a range of bodies. It would allow measured management of development at Auchindrain for the first time, with continuing challenges to be faced and innovation ever-necessary – but it would remove the insane crisis management that is endemic to too much of the sector, with neither the Trust nor its staff ever sure that the resource can continue to be kept open and jobs assured.


With Auchindrain a common heritage, it needs all of us to help in this crisis, not only through personal donations -  visit the Auchindrain website here and scroll down to the bottom of the page [better up top] for the Donate button – but through any interventions anyone can make with funding bodies and with potential private sector donors.

We’re talking about the real possibility of effective abandonment of part of the National Collections of Scotland.

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14 Responses to Auchindrain: why impose crisis managment on the heritage sector?

  1. Scotland has its fair share of enlightened benefactors – folk who’ve prospered mightily and are committed to using some of their wealth for the ‘common good’ where it can make a real difference, so it’s surely unthinkable that no-one will step in to endow Auchindrain with the relatively small sum that would give it the security that it so clearly deserves.
    Some people might say – aye, but blink and you’d miss Auchindrain, and besides, those folk are mostly only interested in grand gestures that bring fame and glory.
    Those people are missing the point, that Auchindrain is hugely important to understanding the history of this country – and of the ‘real’ people – and is an inspirational place to visit.
    I think of this humble township as occupying just as important a place in the history of this country as other perhaps grander settlements, all the way from Skara Brae to Culross.

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  2. It is very sad to see Auchindrain struggling. It is a local and national jewel, but is sharing many of the problems that plague other folk museums throughout Europe, which have financially draining buildings to maintain and sites to preserve. But unlike most other folk museums, which are collected buildings brought onto a site, Auchindrain is the genuine in situ article, and so it is there that the comparisons have to end. The Highland Folk Museum, the first in Britain, can handle as many visitors as it can get, likewise the Ulster Folk Museum and so on. The real comparison and source of inspiration needs to come from delicate architectural sites particularly in Europe, some of which do handle vast quantities of visitors, but there are inevitable compromises that go with the coralling of people. There are also compromises that go with NOT accommodating enough visitors to be sustainable (if you are lucky enough to be able to get them!), and this is one long debate which I would enjoy having with Bob Clark and other museum buffs. Every museum has a sacred cow within in that curators worry about and want to protect and it is very hard to make that call. Do you control numbers and protect the site, risking its survival; or do you compromise the authenticity of the site and let ‘em in? Glad I am not in the Trust’s shoes to be making that decision.
    As for core funding – well, good luck to those museums and sites which had it and have managed to keep even some of it; I fear the boat has sailed post-recession for all those who haven’t. I do agree that some non-visitor or non-project grant funding for Auchindrain is probably essential, and again I wouldn’t want to be in the Trust’s shoes trying to find that.
    However I don’t agree entirely with the stated position on project funding. Some of the dullest, most staid and slow moving museums I have ever visited are those sitting on regular annual grants, and some of the best, liveliest and most interesting are those that have needed to stay light on their feet and keep creating new ideas. I certainly don’t advocate total reliance on grants, but they have their place in keeping the story fresh, and opening new horizons.
    Museums and heritage are expensive things to keep, but let’s not at any point in this debate even allow for questions over whether it is a luxury. Sweep it away and watch what happens – China, Russia, Aboriginal Australia, Native American Culture. I am not going to insult your intelligence further.
    And no, heritage cannot be endlessly turned around to make money. It is not a renewable resource in the way that if you sell out of a new line of chocolates you can always make more. On the contrary it is usually old and always in the process of decay. The only way to continue its economic value is to look after it so that it remains marketable and safe for visitors. Repair and conservation is its renewal, and again no, in answer to anyone who thinks Auchindrain can be left alone and will be fine, it won’t. It takes roughly 25 years for a roof to fall in, and another 25 for the walls to crumble. That is not long; our generation will be fine, but our grandchildren will be saying “that is where Auchindrain used to be”.
    I have no answers, I wish I did, Argyll is full of places that need them. Some as important as Auchindrain. Aren’t we lucky. And aren’t we all responsible for our heritage? After all, it is all of ours.

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    • This powerful and honest situation analysis needs to be read by all concerned and by everyone interested. And the arguments raised should be seriously discussed.
      The call to envisage the consequences of the loss of our heritage should being everyone up short. It is unanswerable. Thin cultures are those without organic contact with where they’ve come from.
      What you seem to be suggesting is that the optimum solution for Auchindrain [IF it could be brought about] would be a minimum assured core funding, with the incentive to continue the constant drive for appropriate project funding.
      Hard to think that the Auchindrain Trust would not welcome such an outcome – although as you say, how and where it might be brought about is another matter.

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      • I think one of the problems Auchindrain has is that it is very hard to pigeonhole, and therefore quite difficult to pinpoint how to securely fund it. I would lay my cards on the table and say that I don’t think it is the place of local authorities to core fund a nationally important rural township, any more than it is their position to look after Tirfuir Broch on Lismore or the carved stones on Islay.
        However, Auchindrain is also a museum with a critically important story of a way of life in Argyll, and just as local authorities everywhere (including A&B) safeguard stories in paper format in their archives, so I believe there is also some level of responsibility for the linked material culture. You can’t separate them, and should not seek to do so.
        However I have huge sympathy for the council with regard to the museum situation in Argyll. Historically they haven’t supported museums, that goes back for several rounds of elections and the current crop of councillors and officials have inherited a problem not created it. No benefit be had from going over that old story or from pointing fingers; it is just circumstantial and that’s where we are so lets move on.
        A new and inventive package for supporting AND MANAGING our heritage strategically and on the ground is what we need to investigate, and excitingly that is what the Council is keen to look at. Any day now they will issue a tender notice for a consultation process which as far as I know (I haven’t seen any detail on it yet) will aim to get an honest evaluation of our heritage and arts situation, assess its economic importance, and take a hard look at how it can be supported and developed for the future. This is really good news, I think, and I certainly wouldn’t want to prejudge the outcome.
        Auchindrain is bound to be an important part of the probing, but I worry that it could still end up sitting on the fence in terms of who should pick it up. God forbid it completely falls between the cracks, and hopefully flexible and integrated funding proposals can be formulated that prevent that happening. Maybe time will run out for it for now in terms of staying open but we have to find solutions for keeping heritage going in Argyll for our communities and our sense of place, for children and learning, and critically for the economic strength of our tourism industry. Auchindrain MUST be part of that story longterm, and I believe one way or another it will. I feel it in my water!

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  3. A lot of the discussion on funding seems to point to dependence – away from a “light on feet” approach. Is there any way we could hear what those closest to Auchindrain think – the volunteers,staff and managers?

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  4. Core funding would of course be nice for sites like this across Argyll and Scotlnad but who really thinks it is feasible in this current economic situation. More places are losing their funding, not gaining it.
    There must be plenty of valuable “projects” that could be found that would not require thousands of people to invade the site and would improve the knowledge of the site and that of similar places in the highlands.
    Surely it would be better to build on all the work that seems to have been done in the last few years according to the reports here and what is visible on site.
    There are lots of grants and funding sources available, large and small, maintain the momentum, develop the resource, build up a stronger base and thence make the argument for national money more powerful when the public coffers are somewhat fuller and less stressed.
    There is plenty of work to be done as a museum and tourist site.

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    • Yup. See my reply to ‘Newsroom’ above. However, you also need someone to run the programme, and at the moment Auchindrain can’t pay the salaries. What is not realistic – and anyone who has ever done this, as I have, will agree – is expecting this programme to be built and run by volunteers. It is a more than full-time job which will only truly work if someone can focus on it. Volunteers are the lifeblood of heritage in Argyll, but we need a few paid grafters to drive it along and do the grisly and time consuming project/funding development. Core fund a few people and we will get along famously. That is how it works elsewhere. We just need to work out how to do it.

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  6. When I was up there with my husband a year ago (we are expats living in the States) we met a number of staff onsite who conveyed a real passion and enthusiasm for the place. We were given a brief talk and really enjoyed it. Its a shame to hear that it has now changed so much to the point of closure.

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    • Charlotte, I can assure you there is no change in the passion and enthusiasm of the staff! The funding problems have been ongoing for a long time but now they are at a critical state.

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      • Some grants encourage a source of renewal and team building within many museums, in addition to the development of a core of staff. This would likely be an ideal solution.

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  7. Auchindrain for me has a special connection. My 4th great grandmother, Mary Munro, the daughter of Marin Munro and Janet McVicar are recorded on the site in the 1779 Census conducted by the Duke of Argyll. I read the article above with interest and I am sympathetic to keeping the site pristine and atrue reflection of the people who lived here and the conditions of their lives. However, there is a way somewhere to fund this enterprise in such a way that it survives which I think is the first objective. I have visions of it slipping into a derelict state and finally falling down and becoming an archaeological site with mounds of earth and stones.

    There seems to be some reluctance to really get it rolling. It may have to compromise with hard pathways so it survives the volumes of visitors it needs to pay for its preservation. A worst compromise is that it disappears altogether! There must be a distillery that could somehow connect its product line to this worthy cause without fracturing its integrity? There must be someone in the tourist business who can help set up a financial trust to keep Auchindrain up and running.

    Yes Scotland is in hard times and governments are in cutback but it is also true that to break out of a this depressive cycle Europe needs to think of funding its heritage for those of us abroad who regularly visit Scotland and spend money there. Economic development for Argyll and the Highlands is not letting your heritage slip into oblivion. It is a dollar earner for you an important economic stimulus to make Scotland a place to come to.

    I was at Auchindrain this year in April. I was shocked to find that my family heritage in Argyll is on the ropes. The Argyll experience needs to be linked into Inveraray Castle, cross promoted hard in all tourism materials, websites and particularly in family history Government of Scotland websites such as Scotland’s People. Auchindrain needs sustaining corporate sponsorships from Scottish companies. It needs to shed its reluctance to make it an attractive place to come to. It doesn’t have to become Disneyland to become survive financially.

    Lastly, Auchindrain should begin the process to become a World Heritage Site. It also needs to connect beter to the family history community and the Scottish diaspora outside of Scotland. How can I help get this rolling? Contact me .

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    • Thank you for this, Tom. We have drawn the attention to it of Bob Clark, Development Director at Auchindrain who will be in touch with you.

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