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Tomintoul Museum stands in the corner of the main square in the heart of the remote and attractive village of Tomintoul, nestling high on the northern slopes of the Cairngorms. The museum occupies one side and the rear parts of a building it shares with the tourist information centre, and is an excellent way of getting to know the area a little better. It goes without saying that it also an excellent way to spend a rainy morning or afternoon if you are staying in an area not oversupplied with wet weather attractions!
The museum can trace its origins back to 1976. As part of celebrations to mark Tomintoul's bicentenary in that year, an exhibition of artefacts was held in the village hall. This proved highly successful in gathering together a wide range of items of historical interest, and after the celebrations were over, these formed the core of a collection in need of a home. In 1978 village residents opened discussions with the then Moray District Council, with the aim of establishing a permanent museum in Tomintoul. The council responded by leasing, and later purchasing, the old Spalding Bakery in the corner of the main square.
The original museum comprised a recreated farmhouse kitchen in the front of the building. In 1979 it was extended to include the building to the rear, which had originally housed the production area of the bakery. This was refitted to become a suitable home for exhibitions that feature local wildlife, as well as the climate, history and landscape of the an area which includes Tomintoul itself and Glenlivet, to the north.
Meanwhile, a display telling the story of peat cutting in the area was added to the front of the museum. Peat was an important domestic fuel in the area until the mid 1900s, and also fired the many legal (and, in years gone by, the even larger number of illegal) stills which had helped cement the area's reputation as a centre for whisky production. Traditional hand cutting of peat has all but disappeared from the district, but commercial peat cutting still takes place not far from Tomintoul.
In 1986 a further expansion of the museum took place, when a reconstructed blacksmith's shop complete with forge, tools and a blacksmith, was established in a building off the yard to the rear. This addition was made possible when the last working blacksmith in Tomintoul, Raymond McIntosh, ceased work and gave the complete contents of his smiddy to the museum.
In 1996 and 1997 local residents participated in a project entitled "In Heath and Heather. Tomintoul and Glenlivet ... Portrait of a Place". The award winning exhibition which resulted subsequently became a permanent part of the museum, and elements of it remain on view today.
From a visitor's perspective there is much to be said for combining the local museum and the tourist information centre. Apart from anything else, the mingling of functions presumably means that both can be open for longer, and for less cost, than would otherwise be possible. It is also a blend of functions which works well together, and probably draws more people into the museum side of the operation than might otherwise think of visiting.
One side of the front of the building looks and feels much like any other tourist information centre. This all changes, however, when you wander past the peat cutters' cart (and Scottish wildcat in the front window) into the recreated farmhouse kitchen: a description which though fairly accurate leads you to expect something rather smaller and narrower in scope than you actually find. With a cooking range over an open fire at one end and a well equipped kitchen table at the other, this will be a real trip down memory lane for some visitors, and a glimpse into a different world for others.
The rear of the museum formed a single open space when we visited, with exhibitions around the sides and a display of skis in the centre beneath a golden eagle in flight suspended from the ceiling. Amongst the gems on view here are the cabinets of wildlife at one end, one of which is home to a second Scottish wildcat and to a cutely posed red squirrel. Off to one side is a display about the life and work of the village cobbler.
A window close to the door to the rear yard comes complete with a surprise: prints of old photographs applied translucently to the glass itself. We've never seen this done anywhere else, and it is a highly effective way of bringing old photographs to life.
The blacksmith's shop helps retain another aspect of village life which would otherwise have been lost, so that future generations can appreciate just how different their world has become. Meanwhile, uncommented on in the rear yard is what may be the museum's heaviest exhibits, a very decrepit artillery piece and what may have started life as the chassis of a tractor.