Nicola Sturgeon has described the new Gaelic-led museum as ‘really special’ as she officially opened the restored Lews Castle and museum in Stornoway.
Since public opening in July last summer, over 34,000 people have visiting the museum and archive, with many more enjoying the beautifully restored public rooms of the castle and visited the Café in the glass roofed courtyard.
She said: “I’m hugely impressed by the castle. It is beyond my expectation and the quality of the restoration is very special and the museum and the archive is wonderfully done.
“There is so much to see there and anybody who visits here will thoroughly enjoy it but the Lewis Chessmen are obviously the centrepiece of it and the great thing about having them here is that they will attract more people to the museum who will then see the other wonderful things on display.
“I think it is wonderful to see the Chessmen wherever they are situated but there is no doubt it is extra special for people to see them in the context of the place where they were discovered.
“So it is a real achievement and centrepiece of this museum and what has been created here is really special.”
She continued: “Being Gaelic-led is really special and this is probably the first Gaelic-led museum anywhere and that is symbolically and practically important for the Gaelic Language.
“We were talking about heritage and how we use it to build for the future and the Gaelic language is part of that. It is a really important part of our heritage and history as a country particularly here in the Western Isles.
“But it is also a really important part of our future as a country.
“I represent a constituency in Glasgow where a new Gaelic Medium school has been opened so there is a real resurgence and vibrancy about Gaelic now and places like this really help.”
The official opening of Lews Castle saw a number of invited guests celebrate a range of local and national partnerships who were crucial in bringing this challenging project to fruition. Representatives of a wide range of partner organisations and funders will attend the opening, including National Museums Scotland (NMS), the British Museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund and local heritage organisations.
The museum galleries examine the long human occupation of the Outer Hebrides with themed displays focusing on the relationship between the people the land and the sea, working life, community life and contemporary issues.
An innovative Gaelic-led approach to interpretation mixes objects, images, audio visual displays and interactive exhibits to provide an accessible and family-friendly experience which is proving popular with local people as well as visitors to the islands.
Particular highlights include a stunning cinematic gallery which takes the viewer on a virtual journey through the diverse landscapes of the Outer Hebrides across the seasons and in all weathers and the ‘Eileanaich’ (islanders) gallery in which a cross section of people talk about life in the Outer Hebrides.
Through a partnership with the British Museum, six of the world famous Lewis Chessmen take their place as a centrepiece within the main gallery.
These fascinating playing pieces, carved from walrus tusk and whalebone some 800 years ago were discovered on Uig beach on the west coast of Lewis in 1830.
Over one third of the objects on display have been loaned by National Museums Scotland, including archaeological finds from across the Outer Hebrides, a spectacular Viking hack-silver coin hoard and a three-wheeled Morgan car from the 1920’s which was the first private motor vehicle on the Island of Berneray.
Comainn Eachdraidh (local historical and community heritage societies) have played a key role in the project and are signposted in the new museum to encourage visitors to explore the unique and rich local collections that exist across the Outer Hebrides.
The restoration of the Lews Castle fulfils a long-held aspiration of the local community to see the iconic building brought back to life. The 19th century castle had lain vacant for almost 20 years and was at risk by the time the initial repair works started in 2012.
The ballroom has already hosted what is believed to the first wedding ever held at Lews Castle.