Monday afternoon saw me down at our superb Highland Council run Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore. Around a year or more ago, after a planning meeting in which it was agreed that a sleeper house could be demolished, I featured on the front page of the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, calling for a survey of the sleeper houses that remained in the area, lest they might all disappear before we realised, and expressing the hope that the Folk Museum might be able to save some. I'm delighted to say that I was invited down yesterday to the opening of one that had been moved from the grounds of a house in Newtonmore and lovingly re-set into a mid nineteen fities setting.
So what on earth is a 'sleeper house' I hear you ask, with breathless enthusiasm... This is a vernacular style of building from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries unique to this area, which came about with the building of the railways. These houses were built using railway sleepers - sometimes used, and sometimes new. They were generally set vertically mounted, and being eight feet six inches long, were just the right height, though there are one or two examples around with two stories and all sorts of embellishments.
Most were simple, with few rooms, and were an inexpensive, but quite warm and snug, way of
building a house in the days when all you needed was a bit of land - no planning permission, no building regs - just get on and build yourself somewhere to live. For many others, there was a tradition, around the turn of the century, to let out their more opulent homes during the summer to the hunting shooting and fishing brigade, from the times when the summer influx was truly massive - when a little tailor's shop in Newtonmore Main Street imported fourteen tailors from Glasgow to cope with the demand for tweeds - and when double and even triple headed steam trains with twenty four or more coaches thundered through the Pass of Druimuachdar carrying the eager hordes of hoy-poloy for their annual sport. But if the locals vacated their granite built houses of substance for the summer, they had to have an alternative - and the 'summer house' in the garden, built of sleepers, was exactly that. The building that has been lovingly moved by Bob Powell and his team at the Folk Museum is of that ilk. It was moved from the garden of Daluaine, in Newtonmore. Built in the early 1900's, this small house, measuring six metres by three metres also had a brickwork fireplace and chimney and a corrugated tin roof.
It was externally rendered with lime plaster onto a wooden lath base, then later clad in corrugated iron. The building had two rooms, a living space with the ceiling following the pitched roof line, and a bedroom, with a lower horizontal ceiling. At the same time that this building was offered to the museum, another former summer house once associated with the St Bride's and Laggan Church Manse was also offered, and although this could not be moved in its entirety, the tongued and grooved lining boards from its interior were recycled to replace those in the Daluaine summer house which had long since disappeared. The summer house has been faithfully reconstructed and partly rendered to reflect the original finish, with the other walls retaining the corrugated iron covering. The interior has been fitted out for the mid nineteen fities, complete with an old steam radio, coronation mugs and cups - and so many little touches that make real connections for those of a certain age, and a wonderful living history lesson for kids. Round the side, there's an outside privvy - though the staff are still trying to track down a roll of Izal to make the story complete! This is the real joy of the Folk Museum as it grows, piece by piece, building by building. It makes connections - in reflecting the story of the Highlands right through to the last half of the twentieth century it creates pathways of learning; it fires the imagination; it sparks memories; it entertains, through its programme of craft and activity demonstrations and recreations of life of the time. This summer, visitors can even try their hand at the sport of shinty - be warned - it's harder than it looks! But what is actually the best bit about the Highland Folk Museum is that it's absolutely free! Spend a day there - you won't be disappointed - oh, yes, and don't forget to take the short walk or drive into the village itself and down to the Clan Macpherson Museum at the other end of town - equally free - though they do appreciate a donation.