A museum in Cromarty.

The Herald, Editorial Notebook, 29 Jan 1993.

The museum of my youth was a dead fish on a plate. The visitor was invited to stare at inanimate objects behind glass. Fustian prose described them. Cromarty Courthouse is as much state of the art as its resources permit: it is animated and animating. But it is not trivialised a la Disneyland: it imparts a great deal of information elegantly and painlessly.

The first surprise, after you have negotiated the narrow steps, is an animatronic figure of Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660). He was a bigwig who lived in Cromarty Tower. He was a royalist, a soldier, a scholar and, above all, an eccentric.

He fought at Turiff against the Covenanters in 1639. He withdrew to London, where he was knighted by Charles I. He published his Epigrams and later, after travelling abroad, a trigonometrical work which remains incomprehensible.

In 1649 he joined the Inverness rising when Charles reached Cromarty on his odyssey to gain the throne as Charles II. Sir Thomas followed him to Worcester where, in the rout of the royalists, he lost most of his manuscripts and was imprisoned.

He published his genealogy, an invective against Scottish presbyterianism, a scheme for a universal language, and a translation of Rabelais said to be more robust and uninhibited than the original. This was his last two-fingered salute to puritanism. He died abroad, having lived in troubled times.

If you press the right button on the display, the model of Sir Thomas will discourse on one of a number of these subjects. The head rolls, the lips move, and a querulous but powerful voice booms round the room as Sir Thomas reflects, for example, on the works of Rabelais.

Upstairs there is the courtroom where more models re-enact a simplified version of an eighteenth-century trial. We seat ourselves in the public gallery. The presiding judge, Sir John Gordon of Invergordon, fixes us, we fancy, with a stern and beady eye. The trial begins.

A local woman is accused, with the connivance of two men, of stealing rope from the hemp factory which, along with a brewery, was founded in the burgh by the improving laird of Cromarty, George Ross.

They are convicted. The men have volunteered for military service and are freed on that basis. She is sentenced to be paraded round the burgh as a thief and then to be banished for seven years. This is a cruel enough punishment, since vagrants have no claim on parish poor relief.

Only one of the models, that of the judge, moves: the others are immobile and we simply hear their voices. That is because of a shortage of money. Mr Alston shows me the innards of Sir John Gordon. His movements are created by a machine fitted inside his body and driven by compressed air. It had to be imported from Florida. It is a pity, remarks Mr Alston, that some UK manufacturer does not supply the goods.

The museum demonstrates the strengths — and weaknesses — of the Scottish tourist industry in general. It has charm; it is an asset in an increasingly important sector; it is fun to visit, and leads the curious visitor gently and lucidly into fascinating aspects of our history. In a country which sometimes seems to live in ignorance of its own past, where an English view of history is constantly foisted on it, that is a valuable service in itself.

Its weakness is also representative: it is underfunded. Its grant from the local authority is reducing. The idea is that it will be replaced by admission money. This depends in turn on successful marketing and a favourable economic climate (attendances last year were down on 1991).

A successful museum will sustain fragile local services (the restaurant opposite is for sale; the coffee shop round the corner struggles gamely; and in the region at large there has been a spate of hotel liquidations).

The administration of Scottish tourism is, by common consent, a mess. The Scottish Office has invited submissions so that it can review the responsibilities of the various bodies, and a ”turf war” has broken out among them. Scottish Enterprise wants more of the action; the Scottish Tourist Board wants to acquire the marketing functions of Highlands and Islands Enterprise which, not surprisingly, resists. Then there is the network of regional tourist boards.

The solution that may be emerging is for the enterprise bodies to take on the task of infrastructural development and for the STB to do the marketing, classification and control of standards. It seems a sensible division of labour. One thing is sure: it is time we took this important industry more seriously