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Caithness Museums


Wick Today

Congratulations to Wick Heritage Museum on the launch of their new web site
Wick Heritage Centre
19 Bank Row, Wick, Caithness KW1 5EY
Street Map of Area

Latest Gallery Of Pictures     Isabella Fortuna

Open Easter to October 
10.00 - 5.00 (Last Admission 3.45)  Admission £3  child 50p 

Guide Books in 10 languages - 50p
Admissions for groups may be arranged out with these times by special request.

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The Wick Society
Introduction to the Heritage Centre.
The following is an extract from a full guide to the museum which is available in 10 languages.  Four are shown here -
Dutch   Italian   Norwegian  Spanish

Caithness Glass Through The Years On Show At Wick Heritage Museum

Sadly the Caithness Glass factory at Wick is no more.  A collection of the glassware through the years has been donated to Wick Heritage Museum and is now on show in an area recently improved by the museum committee members.

Isabella Fortuna

30 June 06
Wick Heritage Museum Launch Their Own Web Site
The new web site covers many aspects of the Wick Heritage Museum and is intended to grow over the years. No doubt we will be highlighting new sections and updates as they are added.  Well done folks on another great addition to putting Caithness on the digital map.

28 March 05
Caithness Gansey

If you are interested in knitting then you might take look at a recently added item to the museum of an example of a Caithness Gansey once worn by fishermen up and down the country.  Many places had their own distinct patterns.  Judy Harper who knitted the one on display also added the photo of a Wick crew at Yarmouth.  She has knitted up some small samples of the local patterns.

16 September 04
The Wick Society Looks to The Future
The Wick Society’s premises at Bank Row are bursting at the seams with documents, pictures and artefacts of all kinds chronicling the history of Wick and the surrounding area.

With detailed studies now completed, the Society recently agreed an action plan for conserving and developing the Wick Heritage Museum and its important collections.

As a first step, selection of a suitable architect is under way. The architect will oversee the urgent repairs required to keep the existing premises in good condition, before attention turns to the construction of a museum and archive store on the adjacent property formerly known as Cowie’s Yard. The new, purpose-built store will include workshop and study areas and will be open to the public.

This will relieve pressure on the current building and enable it to be refurbished over the long term.

In parallel the Society plans to move ahead with the digitisation of the Johnston Collection of glass plate negatives, conserving the fragile negatives and enabling access to the digital images.

Donald Sinclair, chairman of the Wick Society, is sure that the ambitious plans will encourage more people to become members of the Society. “This is an exciting time for us, but it will take a lot of hard work to achieve our aims. The Society’s Boat Committee has done very well in attracting new recruits to work on renovating the Isabella Fortuna and other projects. We now hope that we can welcome more new members to help with other aspects of the Society’s activities. The Museum and its collection are the heritage heart of Wick.”

The Society has now begun to apply for the funding needed to carry out its plans. It is hoped that one of the first things to be achieved will be the creation of a project officer post to deal with the preparation and administration of the many funding applications that will be required.

Wick Heritage Centre
The Wick Heritage Centre is run by Wick society on an entirely voluntary basis by members who give up their spare time to work in the Centre. The Society was founded in 1971 by three people who were concerned about the redevelopment of the town and the way that the demolition of old buildings was affecting its character. At first they met in Wick Assembly Rooms and in 1974 opened a small museum in the Carnegie Library. Membership gradually grew and in 1979 Caithness District Council, whose property the Heritage Centre is, offered the then empty buildings to the Society for the creation of a Heritage Centre. The Society accepted the offer in 1980 and opened the first displays to the public in 1981, gradually extending them, as more items became available. 
See Also Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1979 Editorial

The Council is responsible for the outside of the buildings and the gardens, while the Society carries out all the interior work from wiring to the construction of the displays. All of the new building work on the extensions, and on the garden terraces, was carried out by the District Council, using Manpower Services Schemes, to Society designs. The co-operation between the District Council and the Society, who were often at loggerheads over redevelopment, is unique as both recognised in their different ways the need to preserve the town’s heritage and the Heritage Centre is the result of this co-operation.

With a few exceptions, all the items are on loan by individuals or their families as the Society refuse to accept anything unless it is on loan and a receipt issued. The exceptions are where items of a strong local collection came up at auction and had to be bought.

All the work in the Centre, from cataloguing to construction is carried out in the closed season, from October to May. As a general rule no more than 2 hours are spent per session with the members working on whatever their particular interest is. Regular work times are held on Monday and Wednesday nights and Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. The formal business of the Society, which has four office bearers, is conducted on the first Monday of every month. There is no elected committee as such and all members are eligible to attend and speak at each meeting.

In summer, when the Heritage Centre is open, most of the general work ceases as members then help to guide visitors around, although at busy times this is not always possible. During this time the Society make one of the art galleries available free of charge for local creative talent to exhibit their creations.

The Museum

Take a browse through this random selection of items and views of Wick Heritage Centre which gradually builds it into an insight of the depth of this museum and the Wick Society that runs it.  You will be amazed as he was at the extent of the work the volunteers led by Ian Sutherland have done in preserving Caithness Heritage.  Nothing has been to big to tackle. 

The Centre is designed to gradually lead you through all aspects of life in the town.  The contents run to many thousands of items in rooms and cases.  Even more is held in storage and shown from time to time.  A massive collection of photographs over half of which is derived from the Johnson collection.

With 50,000 plus negatives from the collection catalogued their is a massive amount of information available.  The pages on the web site can give you only glimpses of what is contained.  The atmosphere of the various rooms and original buildings must be experienced.  An original smoke room which still carries the smell of the time is like stepping back in time..

As with so much of this incredible museum the depth and range of items is staggering. Most of the items are on loan from local people and families.  A number of paintings and works of art show local life in the gallery where you can also examine many of the pictures reproduced from the collections.  Many of the photographs are available for sale in various sizes to help the funds of this voluntary organisation.

From the smallest object like tools or whistles made from cabbage roots to major items like sea going boats - one of which the Isabella Fortuna now restored and sea worthy is housed in the old lifeboat shed. 

Several other boats and even the whole light from the top of a light house stretching through two floors completely taken down and reassembled inside the museum - Do ask how they achieved that little feat?  And on it goes to restoration work on Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles and the  Whaligoe Steps.

If you have never been inside what looks like a small museum on the outside you will be amazed by the time you are half way round.  Do not think you will see it all in an hour.  You could spend a week looking at the photographs alone.  The complex actually extends though several buildings and stretches further back than the front of the building would suggest.

Do not forget the harbour area brimming with much memorabelia. Equipment, diving suits. old signs.  The machinery room with every kind of machine and engines from old fishing boats to masons tools and every conceivable tool from old craftsmen.

Many pictures will appear here in the next couple of weeks.  They will barely scratch the surface of the Wick Heritage Museum.  You will step back into several times when you enter this gem in the north.

The lighthouse is one of the very few dating from the middle of the nineteenth century and which is still in complete working order. It is on loan to the Wick Society from the Lighthouse Commission and was designed and built by Alan Stevenson, uncle of the famous author of Treasure Island and many other books.

The lighthouse is in three main parts. Beginning at the top you can see 16 triangular mirrors with 16 lenses and prisms in the shape of an umbrella and underneath 16 vertical lenses and prisms. One of these has been left out to give a good view of the lamp, which was made in France in 1848. This originally burnt oil but the Society has fitted electricity for ease of maintenance. As you know, the lighthouses flash every now and again so that seamen can tell which one they can see and this is done by making all the lenses and mirrors turn around the lamp which does not move.

The lenses are turned by clockwork, which you can examine, downstairs, and the lenses magnify the lamp as they pass, which gives the appearance of a flash. If you stand away from the lamp as far as you can and look at it through one of the lenses you can see how powerful the lenses are. The mirrors are to reflect all the light, which is shining upwards, back into the main lenses so that no light is wasted. This lighthouse flashed every 20 seconds and came from Noss Head which is 3 miles north of Wick. You can see the mechanism downstairs.

The lighthouse was dismantled and rebuilt by members of the Wick Society.

The museum has a unique collection of pictures both paintings and photographs. In the small gallery you will find books full of photographs and you can browse through them at your leisure. They contain 2000 examples from the Society's collection of negatives which is in the society's custody. Nearly all the photographs have been printed in the society's dark room.
The Johnston collection is called after three generations of a local family who took photographs in Wick between 1863 and 1977 and they produced about 100,000 negatives during that time; of these about 50,000 survive in the Society's possession. Many of their photographs are regarded as outstanding examples of Scottish photography and there are examples o the walls. You can examine several examples or purchase copies made in the Museum.  You will also see the work of another local photographer, Humphrey, copies of rare postcards, private family photographs and accounts from local businesses to their customers.

Art Gallery
In the Art Gallery there are many examples of the work of local artists, mostly on local subjects, and during the season the society allows local artists to exhibit in their main gallery. The door at the end of the gallery leads you down to the printing and engine display.

Reconstruction Kiln
The centre has within its walls an actual kiln used for smoking herring which were considered of too poor quality to be cured in salt, and these smoked herring were called kippers.  This is an actual kiln and was used for about 100 years.
It could hold nearly 10,000 herring when full, as the racks went right up to the roof.  There were 50 companies in Wick making kippers at one time and all of the work of preparing and packing the herring was done by women, men hung them in the kiln.  the herring stood in smoke for 24 hours and fresh quantities were made very day.  the largest kiln in wick held 90,000 kippers and Wick kippers were sent all over Britain.

The museum holds a substantial collection of clothing some of which is well over 100 years old.  One of the items is the teddy bear which was used to advertise bear brand stockings in a local shop for 50 years, where it was a great favourite with children.

Barrel Making
In the 1860's there were 650 coopers in Wick and they made 125,000 barrels a year, nearly all for export.  Wick at that time exported almost as much herring itself as all the other ports in Scotland put together.  there were five different sizes of barrel but three mainly were used.  There were the largest, the whole barrel, the next called the half barrel and the least used the quarter barrel.  there were also smaller sizes used to carry samples when new customers were being sought. The display shows exactly how a barrel was made and the last coopers ceased to work in 1980.  All herrings are now packaged in plastic containers.