Unveiling the South of Scotland’s Museum Gems

by Sara Barton, 24th May 2024
Sanquhar Tolbooth Museum | DG Council Museums
Unveiling the South of Scotland’s Museum Gems

Welcome to a journey into the world of museums where the allure lies not in grandeur but in the intimate and the unexpected. Nestled amidst the scenic landscapes of the South of Scotland are more than two dozen museums. Though sometimes small in size and collection, take the time and you will discover they hold treasures to spark curiosity and captivate the imagination. Join us as we unveil the charm of these sanctuaries of history and culture, where every exhibit has a story waiting to be discovered.

Where: Wanlockhead

Take Scotland’s only underground tour as you explore the world of lead mining in Wanlockhead, Scotland’s highest village! Celebrating 50 years this summer, visitors don obligatory hard hats and head down into the original shaft of the mine, which was active between 1710 and 1860. In those days, the shafts were dug out by hand, hammer and gunpowder! As you head through the original mine to the stope where the lead ore was removed, one can only imagine what the conditions must have been like 180 year ago. Reflect on the conditions and challenges the miners faced over a cup of tea at the visitors centre once you’ve finished your tour.

You’ll have to don a hardhat for this unique underground tour at Lochnell Mine. Photo courtesy Lead Mining Museum.

Where: Innerleithen

In the heart of Innerleithen lies the oldest working commercial letterpress printers in the UK and a living museum of Victorian history. Robert Smail’s Printing Works is an operational letterpress printers and an important part of Scotland’s industrial heritage. Amongst the presses and type at this National Trust for Scotland property is the Metallic Dust Remover. This ingenious invention appears to have been a Smail’s one-off, with the rabbit fur and pheasant feathers probably sourced by the family from nature. The mechanism itself was well known in the Victorian printing industry, but Smail’s made their own. Fancy invitations would be printed and then dusted with gold or silver powder which would stick to the wet ink. To remove the excess metallic dust, the printed copies would be passed through the revolving Dust Remover which was powered by a printer’s water wheel. The museum team affectionately call it Frankenrabbit.

The Metallic Dust remover took off the excess silver and gold used to print wedding invitations. Photo courtesy NTS Robert Smail’s Printing Works

Where: Sanquhar

The museum itself is housed in an 18th century building which once served as a council chamber, court, and jail. Modern day visitors exploring the displays will come across a model ship made from bones. This was a creation of the French prisoners of war who were kept in Sanquhar and the surrounding area at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. For amusement and to make some money, they would produce small sculptures from scraps of bone including the spectacular model in the Tolbooth Museum.

See the model ship made of bones by French prisoners of the Napoleanic wars. Photo courtesy DG Council Museums

Where: Hawick

It is often the smallest, seemingly insignificant items in a museum collection that reveal the most interesting stories. At Hawick Museum, a little lapel badge uncovered the remarkable life of Mary Lee Milne and her work with the Scottish Women’s Hospital during World War I.
In 1916 Mary Lee Milne left her home in the Scottish Borders and signed up as head cook with the Scottish Women’s Hospital. Together with the organisation’s charismatic founder, Dr Elsie Ingles and a group of 77 women she travelled to Southern Russia to provide medical support for the Serbian Division of the Russian army, Britain’s allies in the war against Germany.
Throughout her 15-month tour of duty, Mary Lee Milne took photographs and kept a detailed diary which provide a vivid picture of her experience and that of her colleagues. She documented the hardships and horrors of the Eastern Front, but also revealed the camaraderie and bravery of the women who volunteered their services. While her diaries are held by the National Libraries of Scotland, Hawick Museum cares for the rest of her wartime archive which includes her medals and photographs. Taking pride of place in this collection is this small lapel badge.

Lapel badge which belonged to Mary Lee Milne on display at Hawick Museum. Photo courtesy LIVE Borders.

Where: Ruthwell, Dumfries and Galloway

The village of Ruthwell was home to Reverend Henry Duncan who is the man responsible for starting the world’s first ever savings bank 213 years ago. It would in time become Lloyds TSB. Rev Duncan also founded the Dumfries Courier and your visit to the museum today can be commemorated with a copy of your very own front page: The 200-year old cottage museum was saved from closure following the Covid-19 pandemic and has recently acquired an original Albion Printing Press to let you step back in time and print your own page – a super souvenir to take home!

The Albion print press in action – take home a bespoke front page commemorating your visit. Photo courtesy Henry Duncan Savings Bank Museum.

Where: Selkirk

A visitor to Sir Walter Scott’s Courtroom in Selkirk may ponder over the unique silver object with a magnificient ornamental display stand. Selkirk’s Silver Arrow dates from the 1660s and the Arrow and its associated medals are a curiosity with a remarkable story. The archives tell of a gipsy intercepted for questioning in the Burgh of Selkirk. During a scuffle he dropped a package which contained an amount of silver plate. He fled the scene but enterprising folk in the Burgh retained the forfeited silver and had it fashioned into a silver arrow trophy as an archery contest prize. When the prize was won by one competitor, he carried it off to Edinburgh and there it remained in the possession of The Royal Company of Archers until 2006, when it was returned with great ceremony to Selkirk. The Selkirk Silver Arrow is now shared between The Royal Company of Archers and Live Borders Museum Service.

The Selkirk Silver arrow is on display at Sir Walter Scott’s Courthouse. Photo courtesy LIVE Borders

Where: Annan

Visitors to Annan Museum could easily miss seeing some chocolate which is well past its best before date. A block of chocolate in a presentation tin is a souvenir from the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902. That makes it 122-year old! As the museum wants to preserve the artefacts for the future, no one has done a taste test.

Chocolate commemorating the coronation of King Edward VII is on display at Annan Museum. Photo courtesy DG Council Museums

Where: Coldstream

At the museum celebrating the Coldstream Guards look out for the bass and side drums on display. Drums were used in warfare to boost soliders’ morale and drown out the noise of the enemy. The drummers were usually younger soldiers considered too small to stand in the battle line wielding a musket. A formal Coldstream Guards band was created in 1795, performing in concerts and providing music for the regiment on the march. Today, the Coldstream Guards band features at military parades such as the Changing of the Guard and Trooping of the Colour. The drums on display at the museum are all highly decorated and to the bandsmen they are almost as important as the regimental colours. All are decorated with the Royal Coat of Arms and a selection of the battle honours issued to the regiment during its history; Oudenarde, Talavera, Waterloo, and Inkerman to name a few. One of the side drums came to the museum in 2022 when it was brought from Canada through the wishes of Mrs Hyacinth Cleaver, the widow of Major R Cleaver from the 1st battalion of the Coldstream Guards. Major Cleaver had been presented with the drum upon his retirement from the regiment.

Side drums on display at the Coldstream Museum. Photo courtesy LIVE Borders

Where: Arbigland, Dumfries & Galloway

Rural Dumfries and Galloway is the location of the birthplace and childhood home of John Paul Jones, who would become known as the father of the American Navy. The museum offers fascinating insight into the gardener’s son who fought for Russia and America but who was regarded as a pirate by the British! The museum has a fine to scale model replica of the Bonhomme Richard. The ship was extensively modified by Jones in 1779, equipping it for war but after an epic sea battle in September of that same year, she was lost off Famborourgh Head, with Jones watching sadly as she sank beneath the windswept sea, her colours still flying.

Replica of the Bonhomme Richard, modified to the specifications of John Paul Jones. Photo courtesy John Paul Jones Museum.

Where: Jedburgh

In 1566 Mary, Queen of Scots arrived in Jedburgh on 9th October to hold a ‘justice eyre’ or circuit court to try local troublemakers. In anticipation of her visit, the Earl of Bothwell (who was to become the Queen’s third husband) attempted to capture a notorious reiver called Jock Elliot of the Park, but was badly injured in his attempt.
Mary concluded her business before setting off for Hermitage Castle where the Earl resided. It was a round trip of more than 40 miles over rough ground and according to tradition, on Mary’s return her horse became stuck in a bog, which is still known today as the ‘Queen’s Mire’.
Fast forward to 1817 when a French watch was found by a shepherd in the ‘Queen’s Mire’, after it had been unearthed by a mole. The watch journeyed to South Africa with the family of the shepherd and was subsequently donated to Mary, Queen of Scots’ House – the 16th century tower house where Mary is said to have stayed during her time in Jedburgh – which opened as museum in 1930.
In a further twist to the story, the watch was stolen from its display case in the 1987 and it was feared that it would never be seen again. However, just over a year later it was returned anonymously by post from Canada and is now back on display at Mary, Queen of Scots’ Visitor Centre in Jedburgh.

A French watch possibly owned by Mary Queen of Scots is on display in Jedburgh. Photo courtesy LIVE Borders

Where: Duns

A tribute to sportscar racer extraordinaire, the Jim Clark Motorsport Museum tells the story of Scotland’s first Formula One World Champion, Jim Clark. In a decade long career, Jim Clark secured double Formula One World Championships and conquered the Indy 500. His most famous award was a Golden Helmet, presented by sponsors Esso to mark his 1965 successes winning the Formula One World Championship and Indianapolis 500 miles – an achievement still never matched! On top of the helmet is engraved a world map inlaid with precious stones, depicting places where he had won a Formula One race to that time; the Indy 500 in America; and his home at Edington Mains in Berwickshire. The trophy is considered among the most beautiful ever presented to Clark but has been languishing in a bank vault for most of the past 50 years. It will now be on show at the museum for the next three years in a specially made case.

The golden helmet given to Jim Clark following his winning of the Indianapolis 500 by sponsor Esso. Photo courtesy LIVE Borders

With special thanks to: Dumfries and Galloway Council’s Museum Officer Tom Hughes; Shona Sinclair, Curator at LIVE Borders, Kate Linsell, Trustee of the Lead Mining Museum, Ylva Dahnsjo, Visitor Services Supervisor at the Robert Smail’s Printing Press, and the Henry Duncan Savings Bank Museum and the John Paul Jones Birthplace Museum for their valuable contributions to this blog.