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October 27, 2010

Your heritage needs you

There was a time when every Scottish town had its own coal gas works – they now form part of our industrial heritage.  Like so many parts of our heritage that are displayed in museums of all shapes and sizes around the country, local volunteers are relied upon to keep them open and running.  Friends of Biggar Gas Works Museum is a good example.  Although in the care of Historic Scotland, it would be mothballed without the local community’s input

Long before David Cameron came up with his Big Society, the Friends of Biggar Gas Works Museum were putting the idea into practice by keeping a unique industrial heritage museum open for visitors.

The museum recalls the days when every Scottish town and city had its own coal-gas works. It is in the care of Historic Scotland, but, without volunteers to staff it, its flame would have been extinguished long ago.

Leading the Friends of Biggar Gas Works Museum is retired gas engineer John Wardrop, who says: “A small-town gas works like this one would employ several people, while a large, city works, such as Provan in Glasgow, would give work to around 5000. Coal gas was big business before natural gas swept away it and the processes that produced it in the 1970s, and we’re lucky that we have this unique gas works as it was when it closed in 1973.”

It isn’t just historical interest. Mr Wardrop often shows engineering and physics students around the coal-fired retort, the boiler that can still raise steam, and the giant gas meter where they can still sniff the lingering smell of coal gas.

But the main impact of keeping a small museum like this open for the general public every afternoon from June to September is the benefit it brings to the local tourist trade, and it’s an arrangements that suits Historic Scotland, which is delighted to work with the volunteers to keep the museum open.

Friends member Lynn Beaton, who runs the museum for two days in the week, is proud of what she does. She showed the exhibits to visitors Derek and Fiona Lawson, and their daughter Morag, from nearby West Linton, sitting them down to watch a video explaining how and old-time gas works operated, and taking them round the heavy-duty cookers and are other fearsome-looking domestic gas appliances of yesteryear.

She reflected on the value of what the Friends group does: “It’s enjoyable for visitors, we enjoy it ourselves, and we’re proud to keep the museum open. It’s a good arrangement all round.”

So, could this Biggar picture on community involvement, which predates David Cameron’s new drive to motivate the Big Society towards involvement and self-help, be the way forward for more Scottish Museums?

There are already volunteers hard at work in museums large and small across the country, but what Biggar shows is that a combination of public ownership and committed community involvement does work, and work well.