• Clare Cooper

The Cateran Ecomuseum – A New Story of Place

Guest blog by Clare Cooper, Founding Director of The Cateran Ecomuseum

It’s hard to believe, as we continue through this extraordinary COVID-19 crisis year, that it was only this time last November that we formally launched Scotland’s newest ecomuseum, the Cateran Ecomuseum!

But it’s not the first time that communities living in our ‘museum without walls’ have experienced a Pandemic. Bubonic plague first afflicted Scotland in 1349, with further epidemics in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and their stories, amongst many about the people places and landscapes of this part of Scotland, are some that our ecomusuem is starting to tell.

Kirkmichael Kirk, Photo by Clare Cooper

In fact our story telling has a veritable treasure trove of natural and cultural heritage to draw on and we aim to span not only the 1,000 sq km’s of the beautiful and dramatic landscapes of Eastern Perthshire & Western Angus, but the whole 6,000 years of human history and 400 million years of geological history of this little known part of Tayside.

There are Pictish Stones to excite your curiosity; unknown stories from the great legends of King Arthur and the Pan Gaelic hero Finn mac Cumhaill; contemporary histories of the Scottish Traveller Community; important events linked to the great Jacobite rebellions and fables of the Caterans themselves, the Highland clan warriors who came to be associated with cattle raiding in the 17th/18thc.

Diarmuid's Grave

You can discover the history of Scotland’s Berry Capital, Blairgowrie and visit the site of its twelve Victorian Textile Mills. Or walk a part of the Highland Boundary Fault in Alyth and enjoy its well preserved old town centre. If you are relatively fit, a hike along the Cateran Trail, one of Scotland’s great long distance footpaths offers you spectacular views through huge landscapes sculpted by glaciation and traversed by old drove roads and ancient rights of way.

Similar to ecomuseums elsewhere, all our sites are outside and the experience of them aims to offer a unique combination of three things:

  • An opportunity for local people to share the distinctive heritage of where they live in a way that is meaningful to them

  • A much more holistic nature and culture frame for the interpretation of heritage, quite different to the focus on specific items and objects performed by traditional building based museums

  • And a focus for the development of what is being called ‘regenerative tourism’

Hamish Henderson portrait by Martin McGuinness

Our first phase launched with a range of primarily walking and cycling itineraries which can be accessed through our website and a programme of live events and activities led by local artists which sought to bring a very contemporary aesthetic to the interpretation of our natural and cultural heritage. Involving artists who live and work in our communities in this way has been very successful thus far and which we aim to continue. One of our commissions for example, was for a giant portrait of the great Scots poet Hamish Henderson, who was born in Blairgowrie and whose birthday centenary coincided with our launch date. Local artist Martin McGuinness designed the portrait over a hectare of steep hillside at the Spittal of Glenshee where Hamish lived as a small boy, the portrait’s gaze looking over Ben Gulabin where his ashes were scattered. Using 4,000 metres of Jute – a material key to the industrial history of his birth town of Blairgowrie, the portrait was temporary, leaving no trace on the landscape after its removal.

However, in the short period of time between the inception of the Cateran Ecomuseum and the launch of its first phase of development, the deep systemic crises facing our terrestrial life-support systems, fuelled by us humans and impacting all life on earth have escalated.

Global heating is accelerating faster than most scientists expected and is more severe than anticipated, and a sixth mass extinction is underway, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity. The emergence of the current COVID-19 Pandemic is intrinsically linked to these crises as there is evidence that the growing frequency of cross-species viral mutation is closely correlated to our destruction of the planet’s biodiversity through intensive farming and concentrated population growth. There is now worldwide recognition that urgent, widespread behaviour change to more regenerative, resilient lifestyles is necessary to live within planetary ecological boundaries, limit global heating – if we can – and reduce the impact of future Pandemics.

In response to this alarming reality, we have decided to focus our Phase 2 plans on helping local communities and visitors build more regenerative, resilient lifestyles, speed up their climate action and find new ways of mitigating and adapting to the growing risk of synchronised crises.

We’re proposing to do this by establishing the Ecomuseum as Scotland’s (possibly the world’s) first Museum of Rapid Transition.

Den o'Alyth - photo by George Logan

In a nutshell, the intention behind the concept is to show how the story of our past can help guide the story of our future.

Engaging people with their heritage and repositories that promote that heritage, such as museums, has huge, currently underutilised potential to help people build more regenerative and resilient lifestyles and mobilise climate action in two primary ways:

They are a knowledge & learning resource which can help contextualise what is happening; develop skills and mitigation strategies that help build adaptive capacity and offer pathways to livelihoods and enterprises that are motivated by much more than profit

They are a participative force which can bring people together; challenge the status quo and create spaces both physically and in our minds to imagine that anything is possible

More and more people are beginning to understand that as we wrestle our way through these challenging times, museums and the heritage they steward matter[1].

Vitally, they are physical manifestations of civilisations’ collective memories, inventories of the traces left in us by the past and importantly, they challenge our lack of belief in the possibility of change. They are filled with objects and documents (in the case of the Cateran Ecomuseum, traces of people, places and landscapes) that show how change happens, including the possibility of rapid transitions, whether in response to cultural, political or environmental factors, or war, technology or demography. By understanding that their ‘collections’ hold inventories of how societies have achieved rapid transitions in the past, they may begin to codify for us the ingredients, or broad design criteria, for successful future rapid transitions in the direction of dramatically reducing our ecological footprints, in order to avoid triggering irreversible and worsening damage.

Laing Collection photo of early mechanical harvester

Programme content co-created with local people will curate an inventory of how past generations have gone through rapid transition in the face of new challenges and how communities adapted to change and found ways to flourish. These examples will then be used to develop a live programme of activities and events and new digital resources aimed at both local people and visitors where they can come together to build community resilience and rehearse radical change.

The regeneration practitioner Pamela Mang writes: “What makes a shift to true sustainability possible is the power of the connection between people and place. Place is a doorway into caring. Love of place unleashes the personal and political will needed to make profound change. It can also unite people across diverse ideological spectra because place is what we all share: it is the commons that allows people to call themselves a community.

Ecomuseum’s have that power to connect people to place, to tell a new ‘story of place that can help us navigate these turbulent times. We’re proud to be part of this very special community heritage movement and we can’t wait to get going on our next chapter!