History of the Iona Gallery

The Iona Gallery’s Story

The building which now serves as the Iona Gallery is now into its second century of its existence.  It was originally built as the Church Halls of St. Columba’s Parish Church, Kingussie. This, of course, marks the initial connection with Iona. St. Columba, or one of his followers, is thought to have established a church – Eaglais agus Cladh Colum Cille – on the banks of the Gynack Burn, in the latter half of the sixth century. The graveyard and the site of this first Christian church are still to be found on Old Mill Road, Kingussie.

When the St Columba’s Halls were first built, there was an impressive cupola or dome over the main entrance, giving it a very grand appearance.  That grandeur was continued on the inside of the building with a very impressive wood ceiling with fretted ventilators in both rooms. On the north wall of the main room there were two fireplaces, or register hearths, one of which has been retained up until the present. Older people who went to Sunday school in the halls remember sitting round the fires, which would have been the only source of heating. The original lighting system was by oil lamps. These were suspended from pulley blocks on the ceiling, and the lamps could be lowered so that they could be lit, or have oil added or wick-trimming carried out. Thereafter they were raised again to be out of reach of hall users, for safety reasons.

St Columba’s Church Halls c.1905

At that time the wall between the main room and the smaller south room comprised a roller shutter system, which could be opened or closed like a modern venetian blind. This versatility may be restored in the future, as the gallery develops. Off the smaller south room there was a small scullery with a sink and a similar sized chair store. A fireplace in the south gable would have had provision for heating water to make tea, etc.

In 1959, St Columba’s Church and St Andrew’s Church in King Street, which was built in 1909 as the United Free Church and then became a Church of Scotland church in 1929, became a united congregation. St Andrew’s Church, now Talla nan Ros, was converted to a suite of halls, and a small chapel. At that point, therefore, the St Columba’s Halls in Duke Street became redundant. In 1961 it was bought by the Highland Folk Museum with a grant from the Lady MacRobert of Douneside Trust.

This marks the second link with Iona.  The Highland Folk Museum, or Am Fasgadh (the Shelter or Refuge) was founded in 1935 by I.F. Grant.  Its first home was on the island of Iona, in the former United Free Church in Martyrs Bay. Dr Grant saw the museum as being a final resting-place for the material remains of a fast-disappearing culture. Iona, as the former burial place of ancient Scottish kings, had a resonance which made it ideal for her museum.  However, in a short period of time, she realised that the culture was perhaps not as close to death as she feared, and that Iona was not as easy place for a wider audience to see the collections. So in 1938 she moved the museum to the mainland, firstly to another U.F. Church, this time in Laggan, and then in 1944 to the Pitmain Lodge site in Kingussie.

When the St Columba’s Church Hall was acquired by the museum, by this time run by a Trust comprising the 4 ancient universities of Scotland – St Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen – it functioned as a museum store for the growing collection of textiles and costume.  In 1976, when the museum transferred to the newly established Highland Regional Council, the store was developed to hold more of the collections until custom-built storage could be arranged.

Museum Store in the Iona Gallery

New stores were built in 1979 – 80, and the Church Hall store was emptied. The smaller room, however, continued for a few more years to be a conservation workshop for the museum’s textile collection.

In 1980-81, the Highland Regional Council decided to establish a circuit of travelling exhibitions and performing arts throughout the Highlands. A recently emptied museum store in Kingussie, and another in Wick, within the Carnegie Library building, provided a starting-point for developing this new facility. In both cases, the connection with the itinerant Celtic monks who brought Christianity to the Pictish kingdoms was recognised in the naming of the new gallery spaces – the Iona Gallery and the St. Fergus Gallery.

The proposed gallery in Kingussie remained part of the Highland Folk Museum, and the task of creating the new exhibition space fell to the museum team. A considerable amount of work was required to carry out the conversion. In the first place, this was a listed building, and changes to the external appearance had to be avoided. But within the main room there was very little available wall space, as there were three large windows in each gable, two windows and two fireplaces in the north wall, and a metal roller partition between the main gallery and the smaller south room took up two thirds of the south wall. Secondly, the elaborate wooden ceiling was blackened by years of oil lamps, and decades of neglect when the building was simply a store. Much of the fret-work of the vents on the ceiling was broken, and some had fallen to the floor, and was stored in a cupboard.

The technician at the museum at that time, Jarvie Smith, put in what can only be described as an enormous “labour of love” in restoring the wooden ceiling. The wood was stripped and re-varnished.  All the broken bits of the fret-work were carefully sorted out, and painstakingly rebuilt and glued onto a black-painted board, and then replaced in the original vent spaces. Ceiling level lighting was fitted and the ceiling became the wonderful feature of the gallery that it remains today, thirty years on.

The black board, which became invisible from below, provided the solution for the window spaces. Large sheets of chipboard, painted black on the outward facing side, were attached over the windows. From the outside the effect of blocking off the windows was virtually un-noticeable, but inside there was now a large continuous run of wall for hanging exhibitions. Another advantage was that by removing all these glazed areas, the gallery became easier to heat. The same approach was taken with the space comprising the roller door, and one of the fireplaces – leaving one as a design feature of the gallery. The floor was sanded and carpeted, the walls painted, a toilet installed in the porch, and a state-of-the-art track lighting system hung from the roof without damaging its integrity as a work of art in itself. A picture hanging system was also installed, using the then most popular hanging rod system.

By the autumn of 1981 the Iona Gallery was open for business. As it met the required environmental standards, large galleries in the south – Edinburgh, Glasgow, and some metropolitan galleries in England began circulating exhibitions. In the winter, when the audience for exhibitions was small, the gallery provided performance space for drama groups like The Medieval Players, and the 7:84 Theatre Company with their performance of “The Cheviot, the Stag and the black black Oil”

Clarsach Recital and School's Workshop

In 1984, the museum inaugurated its new programme of events called “Heritage in Action”, where traditional craftspeople, musicians, story-tellers and so on, demonstrated their skills and explained how their skill or talent remained relevant to our present-day culture. The Iona Gallery became one of the venues for these programmes, and on Heritage in Action Days it would host an audience often of a hundred or more in one afternoon, listening to Clarsach, bagpipes or fiddle.  It also provided a space for education workshops, where school groups got hands-on experience of corn dolly-making, weaving and lace-making.

Throughout this time, the exhibition programme expanded with displays of sculpture, jewellery and ceramics, as well as paintings. The museum mounted temporary exhibitions, some of which travelled on the circuit, and others related to academic conferences organised by the museum. Aberdeen University used the gallery as a venue for its popular extra-mural lecture programme. . In 1996 the Society of Badenoch and Strathspey Artists was formed, and its Summer Exhibition, and then a few years later its additional Christmas Art Fair, became an established part of the yearly programme. Several members of the society also mounted either solo or joint exhibitions in the Iona Gallery. The smaller south room became a store for the required plinths, moveable showcases, display screens and chairs for the performance events and lectures

At the re-organisation of local government in 1996, Badenoch and Strathspey Area got its first resident Arts Officer, Judi Menabney. Judi became more closely involved in the operation of the gallery, and gradually the museum reduced its role. For a few more years, it provided staffing for the exhibitions, and a maintenance role, but by the Millennium had passed all responsibility for the Iona Gallery to the Arts Officer, and the Travelling Exhibition Team based in Inverness. Further re-organisation of the Council in saw the end of the Area Culture team, and the transfer of almost all the museum staff and public programme to the new Highland Folk Museum site at Newtonmore. It was at this stage that the Society of Badenoch and Strathspey Artists became increasingly involved in the running of the Iona Gallery. In 2011, thirty years after its formation, it passed completely into SBSA care, with the Highland Council leasing the property to the Society at a peppercorn rent, and paying the Society to manage the Council’s continuing travelling exhibition programme.

Written by Ross Noble, Curator of the Highland Folk Museum 1976 – 2003