The Museum of the Isles forms part of the Clan Donald Skye Visitor Centre, just 0.75 miles from the terminal for the Mallaig ferry at Armadale. First established in 1975 within the only remaining inhabitable part of Armadale Castle, it moved in March 2002 to a purpose built museum set within Armadale Castle Gardens. Your first impression, as you glimpse the museum through the surrounding greenery of the castle gardens, is not overwhelmingly positive. A plain, single storey white-harled building, its lack of windows except around the entrance gives it a slightly intimidating air. Don't let this put you off. The absence of windows is a totally practical feature in a building designed from scratch as a museum: the last thing that rare historical exhibits need is sunlight. Another real benefit of the purpose-built premises is that they have been designed to be full accessible. The entrance area is, in fact, full of natural light. From here you can visit the museum gift shop, on your right. To the left of the main entrance are the core areas of the museum. These comprise a series of six interconnecting galleries, each telling a different part of the story of Clan Donald, whether as Lords of the Isles or as landlords; and of the people who lived in the West Highlands through the ages, whether as clansmen, soldiers, crofters or - as so many became - emigrants forced to leave land their families had lived on for generations. A seventh gallery houses temporary exhibitions.
The objects on show are superb, and the presentation of the background information excellent. But it is the museum itself that sticks in the memory, the way the galleries are each given a clear and distinct theme that makes each unique. The result is a series of rooms in which your attention is focused on the subjects and topics the designers want to highlight. The clearest demonstration of the impact of a room on the overall experience is found in the first main gallery you enter. This is a dark space that is made to feel circular despite its underlying square shape, and which houses, amongst other things, a beautifully lit recreated stone circle. It is as far from the traditional image of a dusty museum as it is possible to get. The story that is told in the Museum of the Isles is a fascinating one, in part because it is so little known, even by many Scots. The story starts with the ancient settlers, before moving on to the time of Dalriada, to the Celtic Church, to the Norse, and to Somerled, the man who displaced Norse power in western Scotland and the islands, and who, through one of his grandsons, started a dynasty that went on to become the Clan Donald.
It was the descendents of Donald son of Ranald, who over time acquired enough power to found the Tighearnas nan Eilean or, in English, the Lordship of the Isles. The museum goes on to relate how the Lordship of the Isles thrived from the late 1300s to 1493, when it was forfeited to the Scottish crown, and how its reign marked one of the most stable and prosperous periods in the history of the Hebrides: up until then or since. The period of the Lords of the Isles was followed by what the Museum calls linn nan creach or "the age of forays", a lawless and violent period of cattle raids and clan feuds. Then came na Seumasaich or the Jacobites, in whose aftermath things took a serious turn for the worse for the ordinary people of the highlands and islands. This was the period of change: for the higher levels of society from cinn-cinnidh nan uachdaren or "chiefs to landlords": and for everyone else from tuath gu croitear or "clansman to crofter". And it was inevitably followed by the time of clearance and eilthireachd or "emigration". Each of these phases is illustrated strikingly, beautifully and at times poignantly within the museum, and the accompanying guide book on sale in the shop makes an excellent souvenir of your visit. Finally, it is worth noting that one wing of the Museum of the Isles serves as the Clan Donald Library and study centre, offering a collection of over 7000 books covering all aspects of Scottish culture and history, natural history, topography and biography.
What is collectively known as "Clan Donald Skye" comprises two distinct elements, though the single admission fee gives access to everything on offer. The visitors' car park for Clan Donald Skye lies just off the main A851 a short distance out of Armadale. The turning is just past the impressive white building with a castellated tower that used to house the castle stables and which today is home to the Stables Restaurant. This building dates back to 1822, and after a period of dereliction was restored in 1984. During the restoration the restaurant was added on to the rear of the old stables, though the re-use of oak panelling and other features rescued from a condemned Paisley mansion mean that its recent origins are far from obvious. Next to the main gates to the gardens is the wooden building that houses the ticket office and a gift shop. From here you pass into the beautiful gardens themselves. Here the choices facing you are numerous. Keeping to the left at the first main junction then keeping roughly straight ahead takes you past the cluster of large ornamental ponds and to the white, virtually windowless modern building that houses the Museum of the Isles. Within sight of the museum building is the ruin of the castle laundry, and from this part of the estate you can make your way across the gardens to the rear of Armadale Castle. But let's wind things back a little, to your entering the gates to the gardens. From here you can cut back towards the main road to your right and find the adventure playground. But for most people entering Armadale Castle Gardens, the first port of call is probably the ruin of the castle itself. To reach this you take a partial right at the first main junction you come to. A couple of hundred yards on, and the front face of the castle comes obliquely into view, the near end of it partly hidden under a thick growth of ivy.
What you find as you draw closer to the castle is a series of apparently distinct structures. The first looks like the west doorway of a badly ruined medieval abbey: an elaborate doorway and towering stonework above, which clearly once housed a massive window. This was originally the main entrance to a major Gothic extension to the castle built in 1815 to the design of architect James Gillespie Graham. You can enter what little is left of this part of the castle. In doing so you pass into what was once the grand hallway, and you are faced by what was once the equally grand Imperial Staircase. Today this all has the feel of an elaborate garden folly. The hallway is open to the sky and, apart from the doorway, has few standing walls. This Gothic extension now forms what is effectively an attractive patio garden, butting up to the wall of the largest standing part of the castle. This is the large central section of the castle, built to a design by David Bryce in 1858. At first sight this seems remarkably complete, but as you approach, you realise that it is a hollow shell: roofless, floorless and windowless. The third main element of Armadale Castle is what looks like a white-harled two storey house with a one storey extension, butting up to the far wall of the central shell of the castle. The fact that this remains in use (it houses the Somerled Rooms and provides a conference/wedding venue as well as offices) makes it seem like a later addition to the ruin it is attached to. It is actually all that remains of the original Armadale Castle, built as a mansion house in 1790. From 1975 this part of the castle was home to the Museum of the Isles: and it has been restored to its current splendour since the museum moved to a new, purpose-built home in March 2002.
A plinth on the other side of the drive from the castle ruin carries a series of drawings that allow the castle ruins to be put into context. The original mansion of 1790 was a much longer version of the white-harled section you can see today. This was joined by the Gothic extension, which doubled the frontage of the castle, in 1815. In 1855 a fire destroyed much of the original mansion house, and in 1858, the "gap" in the frontage left by the fire was filled by the addition that today forms the most imposing part of the castle. In 1981 the ruinous Gothic wing was made safe, effectively by demolishing most of what was left of it, and the 1858 building was consolidated to allow for possible future restoration. The story of Armadale Castle is closely associated with that of the MacDonalds of Skye. Since their arrival on Skye from the western isles in the 1400s, the MacDonalds had settled in various parts of the island. Their centre of power in the 1600s was at Duntulm Castle in Trotternish, but from the 1790s Armadale Castle became their main home. By 1925 the castle was proving increasingly problematical to maintain, and the family left it for a smaller home elsewhere on Sleat. Its decline continued until 1971, when the castle and the surrounding 20,000 acre estate were purchased by the Clan Donald Lands Trust.
Parking at the Visitor Centre is free, for both cars and coaches. Disabled toilets are located in the Stables building and at the Museum. Wheelchairs, including electric wheelchairs, are available to borrow. All their indoor visitor facilities in the Stables building and at the Museum are on one level. Certain routes in the Gardens are designated as wheelchair friendly – ask at the Ticket Office for more information. An audio-guide describing the museum for visually impaired visitors is available in the Museum. Portable induction loops are available at all their main service points. Their staff are friendly, helpful and always willing to assist. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Clan Donald Skye, Armadale, Sleat, Isle of Skye, IV45 8RS
Transport: Mallaig (ScotRail) then ferry & bus (152, 601) or 15 minutes. Bus Routes : 152 and 601 stop outside.
Opening Times : 25th March through October 31st, Daily 09:30 to 17:30
Tickets :Adults £8.5;0 Concessions £6.95; Children (5 - 15) £6.95
Tel. : 01471 844305