Interesting museum exhibits prompt some fond reminiscences

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People living with dementia are being enabled to participate in reminiscence therapy through a pioneering initiative using museum items.

Under the lambent lights of the Alzheimer Scotland Solas Day Centre, in Stornoway, seven excited people sat in anticipation as Donna of Hebridean Connections laid items down on the table for their collective contemplation.

Donna Dorris has been visiting the Solas Day Centre regularly for almost two years and bringing with her interesting artefacts that get the women and men chatting about the past and also the present.

Donna shows an incredible blend of compassion and confidence in her presentations at the day centre. Speaking both Gaelic and English, she prompts the attendees to think back, using the items she brings through her work at Hebridean Connections.

Hebridean Connections is a fantastic historical effort collecting thousands of records relating to the genealogy, history, traditions, culture and archaeology of the Western Isles.

It is funded by the People and Communities Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, and the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations.

These organisations have come together to make a truly unique resource and Donna’s experience in working with the group and its partners clearly had made her all the better as the host of the day centre event.

And to begin? Donna presented to the group a bale of rope that was around sixty years of age.

The first comment made was that a rope of that calibre was once available at a shop gone long ago and at a spot now occupied by Digby Chick’s restaurant.

“I remember buying some rope like that from Charles Morrisons, he had his sons working there too. They sold all kinds of things.”

Indeed the rope became known as ‘siaman Thearlaich’ (Charles’ rope) because it was sold from their shop.

They were equally interested in a small wooden box, built to float, which read “St Kilda Mail, please open.” It was postulated that love letters might once have made their way across the sea to the Uists or to Harris.

One attendee sent up amusement with one rogue action: donning a sailor’s hat kindly loaned for the project from Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society).

“Isn’t he handsome?” said Dorris, to the cheery agreement of the group.

But it was the school items that drew most attention and the tone took a stark shift when they were showcased.

Donna told a tale from a classroom many years ago. Upon seeing the teacher leave the room, a naughty boy took the belt used for punishment and threw the belt into a derelict attic above the classroom.

The belt attracted dust till 2006, over forty years later, when it was discovered by workmen repairing the school building.

In that vein Donna produced a similar belt that was used in schools around this period, with the attendees happily curious to see it again but also clearly happy to have seen the last of it.

Nearly everyone present agreed that not only was today a very different age, but that also today is a better time for children.

There was little argument that children should again see the days of the belt. Indeed, people present had bad memories of being having been hit for being late or talking too much.

Similar interest was taken in a small slate board, somewhat like a slate tablet, which each child would have had in class for writing.

Ironically, this is now considered a relic of the past at a time when ‘tablets’ are back in schools in electronic form.

Most loved of all the items was a little pair of shoes worn ‘probably by a two-year-old’ as one woman said. They were made of leather and little more than six inches in length.

“Shoes were expensive”, said another, “and those would have been passed down to a younger child.”

Despite much reminiscence, there seemed very little appetite to return to the way things were. For all the faults that plague modern day, the present seemed to have won the temporal argument.

But buoyed on by the museum items, the elderly people had challenged their memory problems and overcome anyone’s expectations in remembering a harsher and more innocent age.

Overall, Donna’s initiative on behalf of Hebridean Connections has been an enlightening success with real and observable happiness in the eyes of those she visits.

“I have learned that people living with dementia still have so many experiences they can share.

“They light up when they see some of the artefacts I bring in and it doesn’t take long for them to begin telling me all about their own experiences and memories.

“I have also learned that this enthusiasm for the artefacts can encourage them to discuss their memories with one another during the session, which is great to see.

“They sometimes reach out for me to hand them the items which is also great to see.”

Donna remains at the Solas day centre afterwards for a cup of tea. Her visit with the museum pieces has opened a direct channel with the past. The process enriches the present as much as it colours faded memories.

The islanders are living up to their reputation of a fighting spirit in the face of memory problems.

It’s clear from these events that wisdom is still very much with the old and that youthfulness is not the sole domain of the young.

Donna with some of those taking part and some of the artefacts.