HISTORY OF THE IONA GALLERY AND THE SOCIETY

The Iona Gallery's Story

The building which now serves as the Iona Gallery is now into its second century of its existence.  It was originally built as the Church Halls of St. Columba's Parish Church, Kingussie. This, of course, marks the initial connection with Iona. St. Columba, or one of his followers, is thought to have established a church - Eaglais agus Cladh Colum Cille - on the banks of the Gynack Burn, in the latter half of the sixth century. The graveyard and the site of this first Christian church are still to be found on Old Mill Road, Kingussie.

When the St Columba's Halls were first built, there was an impressive cupola or dome over the main entrance, giving it a very grand appearance.  That grandeur was continued on the inside of the building with a very impressive wood ceiling with fretted ventilators in both rooms. On the north wall of the main room there were two fireplaces, or register hearths, one of which has been retained up until the present. Older people who went to Sunday school in the halls remember sitting round the fires, which would have been the only source of heating. The original lighting system was by oil lamps. These were suspended from pulley blocks on the ceiling, and the lamps could be lowered so that they could be lit, or have oil added or wick-trimming carried out. Thereafter they were raised again to be out of reach of hall users, for safety reasons.


St Columba's Church Halls c.1905
At that time the wall between the main room and the smaller south room comprised a roller shutter system, which could be opened or closed like a modern venetian blind. This versatility may be restored in the future, as the gallery develops. Off the smaller south room there was a small scullery with a sink and a similar sized chair store. A fireplace in the south gable would have had provision for heating water to make tea, etc.

In 1959, St Columba's Church and St Andrew's Church in King Street, which was built in 1909 as the United Free Church and then became a Church of Scotland church in 1929, became a united congregation. St Andrew's Church, now Talla nan Ros, was converted to a suite of halls, and a small chapel. At that point, therefore, the St Columba's Halls in Duke Street became redundant. In 1961 it was bought by the Highland Folk Museum with a grant from the Lady MacRobert of Douneside Trust.

This marks the second link with Iona.  The Highland Folk Museum, or Am Fasgadh (the Shelter or Refuge) was founded in 1935 by I.F. Grant.  Its first home was on the island of Iona, in the former United Free Church in Martyrs Bay. Dr Grant saw the museum as being a final resting-place for the material remains of a fast-disappearing culture. Iona, as the former burial place of ancient Scottish kings, had a resonance which made it ideal for her museum.  However, in a short period of time, she realised that the culture was perhaps not as close to death as she feared, and that Iona was not as easy place for a wider audience to see the collections. So in 1938 she moved the museum to the mainland, firstly to another U.F. Church, this time in Laggan, and then in 1944 to the Pitmain Lodge site in Kingussie.

When the St Columba's Church Hall was acquired by the museum, by this time run by a Trust comprising the 4 ancient universities of Scotland – St Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen – it functioned as a museum store for the growing collection of textiles and costume.  In 1976, when the museum transferred to the newly established Highland Regional Council, the store was developed to hold more of the collections until custom-built storage could be arranged.


Museum Store in the Iona Gallery
New stores were built in 1979 – 80, and the Church Hall store was emptied. The smaller room, however, continued for a few more years to be a conservation workshop for the museum's textile collection.

In 1980-81, the Highland Regional Council decided to establish a circuit of travelling exhibitions and performing arts throughout the Highlands. A recently emptied museum store in Kingussie, and another in Wick, within the Carnegie Library building, provided a starting-point for developing this new facility. In both cases, the connection with the itinerant Celtic monks who brought Christianity to the Pictish kingdoms was recognised in the naming of the new gallery spaces – the Iona Gallery and the St. Fergus Gallery.

The proposed gallery in Kingussie remained part of the Highland Folk Museum, and the task of creating the new exhibition space fell to the museum team. A considerable amount of work was required to carry out the conversion. In the first place, this was a listed building, and changes to the external appearance had to be avoided. But within the main room there was very little available wall space, as there were three large windows in each gable, two windows and two fireplaces in the north wall, and a metal roller partition between the main gallery and the smaller south room took up two thirds of the south wall. Secondly, the elaborate wooden ceiling was blackened by years of oil lamps, and decades of neglect when the building was simply a store. Much of the fret-work of the vents on the ceiling was broken, and some had fallen to the floor, and was stored in a cupboard.

The technician at the museum at that time, Jarvie Smith, put in what can only be described as an enormous "labour of love" in restoring the wooden ceiling. The wood was stripped and re-varnished.  All the broken bits of the fret-work were carefully sorted out, and painstakingly rebuilt and glued onto a black-painted board, and then replaced in the original vent spaces. Ceiling level lighting was fitted and the ceiling became the wonderful feature of the gallery that it remains today, thirty years on.

The black board, which became invisible from below, provided the solution for the window spaces. Large sheets of chipboard, painted black on the outward facing side, were attached over the windows. From the outside the effect of blocking off the windows was virtually un-noticeable, but inside there was now a large continuous run of wall for hanging exhibitions. Another advantage was that by removing all these glazed areas, the gallery became easier to heat. The same approach was taken with the space comprising the roller door, and one of the fireplaces – leaving one as a design feature of the gallery. The floor was sanded and carpeted, the walls painted, a toilet installed in the porch, and a state-of-the-art track lighting system hung from the roof without damaging its integrity as a work of art in itself. A picture hanging system was also installed, using the then most popular hanging rod system.

By the autumn of 1981 the Iona Gallery was open for business. As it met the required environmental standards, large galleries in the south – Edinburgh, Glasgow, and some metropolitan galleries in England began circulating exhibitions. In the winter, when the audience for exhibitions was small, the gallery provided performance space for drama groups like The Medieval Players, and the 7:84 Theatre Company with their performance of "The Cheviot, the Stag and the black black Oil"


Clarsach Recital and School's Workshop
In 1984, the museum inaugurated its new programme of events called "Heritage in Action", where traditional craftspeople, musicians, story-tellers and so on, demonstrated their skills and explained how their skill or talent remained relevant to our present-day culture. The Iona Gallery became one of the venues for these programmes, and on Heritage in Action Days it would host an audience often of a hundred or more in one afternoon, listening to Clarsach, bagpipes or fiddle.  It also provided a space for education workshops, where school groups got hands-on experience of corn dolly-making, weaving and lace-making.

Throughout this time, the exhibition programme expanded with displays of sculpture, jewellery and ceramics, as well as paintings. The museum mounted temporary exhibitions, some of which travelled on the circuit, and others related to academic conferences organised by the museum. Aberdeen University used the gallery as a venue for its popular extra-mural lecture programme. After a trial first 'summer exhibition, in 1995 the Society of Badenoch and Strathspey Artists was formed, and its Summer Exhibition, and then a few years later its additional Christmas Art Fair, became an established part of the yearly programme. Several members of the society also mounted either solo or joint exhibitions in the Iona Gallery. The smaller south room became a store for the required plinths, moveable showcases, display screens and chairs for the performance events and lectures

At the re-organisation of local government in 1996, Badenoch and Strathspey Area got its first resident Arts Officer, Judi Menabney. Judi became more closely involved in the operation of the gallery, and gradually the museum reduced its role. For a few more years, it provided staffing for the exhibitions, and a maintenance role, but by the Millennium had passed all responsibility for the Iona Gallery to the Arts Officer, and the Travelling Exhibition Team based in Inverness. Further re-organisation of the Council in saw the end of the Area Culture team, and the transfer of almost all the museum staff and public programme to the new Highland Folk Museum site at Newtonmore. It was at this stage that the Society of Badenoch and Strathspey Artists became increasingly involved in the running of the Iona Gallery. In 2011, thirty years after its formation, it passed completely into SBSA care, with the Highland Council leasing the property to the Society at a peppercorn rent, and paying the Society to manage the Council's continuing travelling exhibition programme.

2011 also saw he formation of High Life Highland as an 'arms length organisation' to run the arts, culture and leisure aspects of the Council's business, saving the Council a significant sum in non domestic rates. At that time, responsibility for provision of the travelling exhibition programme passed to HLH, but the budget for the payment of management fees to SBSA did not, remaining under the control of the council. All continued well, however, until 2016, when budgetary pressures caused the Council to reduce the payment by half, and in 2017, to discontinue it altogether, despite the fact that the original lease agreement was linked to the continued management of travelling exhibitions, and payment of the management fee.

Up to that time, there had been four month-long travelling exhibitions each year at the Iona, but the committee were forced to closely examine the ongoing financial position and took two major decisions. First, in September 2016, the Society became a registered charity, which provided some reductions in operational costs; second, the Society felt that it could no longer offer HLH four exhibitions per year at zero cost, and given that HLH would not or could not themselves provide any funding to meet the costs, the Society came to the conclusion that, with careful management of costs, it could still offer HLH two month-long exhibitions per year free of charge, leaving the additional time free for hire by artists at normal hire rates to maintain financial viability. These decisions have been fully vindicated and the Society's operation of the Iona Gallery is now completely free of any public funding. At the time of writing, the Society is now engaged in putting together all of the material necessary to pursue an intention to convert the current lease into a permanent acquisition.

In 2018/19 a substantial programme of refurbishment was undertaken in the gallery, thanks to the donation of a major legacy from the estate of Mr Ian Scott. The walls of both galleries were completely refurbished and in the main gallery, insulation has been installed behind new wall facings of fermacell. New j-rail rods were purchased, a store was created at the north eastern end and eighty chairs for community events and performances purchased. The layout of the small gallery was improved to remove a redundant door and screen the kitchen area, increasing the available wall space. An air source heat pump system was fitted to replace the expensive and inefficient storage heaters and a deal of rewiring was undertaken. The remaining fireplace along the western wall was removed and donated to the Highland Folk Museum, leaving the gallery with clean, flat, uninterupted walls. Finally, a new glass door into the galleries from the hall was installed so that visitors entering could see through to events without us aving to leave the door open on cold days.

Originally written by Ross Noble, Curator of the Highland Folk Museum 1976 - 2003 and modified in 2019 by David Fallows to cover changes post 2011.
SBSA: The Formative Years

1995-2001
The Society of Badenoch and Strathspey Artists was founded at a public meeting in May 1995 following the successful trial of an Open Art Exhibition in the Iona Gallery, Kingussie, organised by Jean Noble.

At that time, Badenoch and Strathspey had a well-established tradition in its music Festival, but this was not mirrored in the visual arts. There were few opportunities for practising artists to show their work locally; and, at a national level, exhibition space at prestigious exhibitions (such as the Royal Scottish Academy or the Royal Glasgow Institute) is so competitive that most of the works submitted in any year are not displayed. However, there was undoubtedly a burgeoning interest in the visual arts, with the establishment of commercial galleries and, also, participation in art workshops and evening classes.

The SBSA was founded to provide an opportunity for local artists to exhibit their work publicly and possibly reap a commercial return. Many artists work in isolation, so an art exhibition also encourages them to meet and compare progress; at the same time, it informs an appreciative audience. The Society's aim of holding annual exhibitions to show-case the best visual art in Badenoch and Strathspey seemed achievable within the locality, from the points of attracting sufficient potential exhibitors and of forming a committee of those willing to give their time and expertise.

Membership is open to any person or body who is interested in the objectives of the Society and thus includes supporters who claim never to have lifted a paintbrush (or chisel). The Art Exhibition, on the other hand, is open only to those with a connection to Badenoch and Strathspey. This exclusion of others and judicious 'hanging' has, so far, permitted most submitted works to be displayed at each exhibition.

The aim of holding an exhibition has been fulfilled annually since the 1st Annual Open Art Exhibition in 1996. Additionally, in 1998, the SBSA in conjunction with the Highland Council organised a visual art competition and exhibition for school pupils with the theme of My World. The best works from the resulting large entry toured Badenoch and Strathspey on the Magnus Arts Bus - a double-decker which had been converted into a mobile gallery. That same year, SBSA members' works were shown on the Magnus Arts Bus in Aviemore.

In many ways the SBSA served as a catalyst and a conduit for networking between the local visual art groups and classes which were founded by, or run by, SBSA members in every village in the area by the end of the millennium. There was a general sharing of ideas and information,  with the Society's newsletter promoting special events, places at Life Drawing Master-classes, details of touring exhibitions, reviews of national exhibitions written by members, and opportunities of exhibiting elsewhere. A newly found confidence (and a cooperative Highland Council) encouraged many SBSA members to organise their own solo or joint exhibitions in the Iona Gallery.

By 2001, the modest aim of holding an annual or biennial exhibition was set to expand with an additional winter Art Fair and a fuller programme of Art Workshops and Master-classes.

Expansion

2001-2010

This decade saw an expansion of the Society's commitment to providing opportunities for both exhibiting and selling work and, also, for sharing and learning new skills. The summer exhibition continues annually in the Iona Gallery although, from 2005, the dates have become flexible and are slotted into the Highland Council's programme of national touring events.  As well as the Iona Gallery being hired by members for solo or joint exhibitions, from 2003 it became the venue for an additional SBSA annual Winter Sales or Art Fair. This was usually held for two or three days in December to coincide with Kingussie's "Christmas shopping weekend" and it provides opportunities for members to sell art and small craft items by 'renting' limited gallery space rather than by paying an exhibition fee per item. Talla Nan Rós, also in Kingussie, has hosted a small rolling exhibition of members' works since 2006. Additionally, there have been several cooperative ventures during other arts events, such as themed exhibitions of members' paintings in the Iona Gallery during Strathspé Away Dance Workshops in 2003 and 2004, and another in 2011 to coincide with Kingussie's Film on Food festival. Moreover, younger contributors (usually related to, or taught by, SBSA members) have become a refreshing presence at exhibitions.

The establishment of the Cairngorms National Park, with its mission of finding 'common ground' for its inhabitants, coincided fortuitously with the expertise and inclinations of the then current SBSA committee. Two projects, funded by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, were initiated and organised by the SBSA committee. The first, Living in the Park, was an exhibition showing a mixture of adult members' work and some of the best entries in a competition for schoolchildren in the SBSA catchment area. It was moved around the Cairngorms National Park between October 2004 and March 2005 to seven different venues (Cairngorm Mountain Gallery, Ballater, Laggan, Strathdon, Braemar, Grantown-on-Spey, and Kingussie). This entailed considerable logistical problems for volunteers in packing and re-hanging all the work and driving it around the Cairngorms in winter. In 2006, the second project, Stitches in Time, linked contemporary visual arts with local oral cultural heritage. Workshops with story tellers and specialist tutors at three venues (Carrbridge, Cairngorm Mountain near Aviemore, and Kingussie) culminated in the production of three textile wall hangings and an illustrated booklet of the stories and art work.

Amid these stimulating projects, a diverse programme of workshops has been expanded by the SBSA committee. These include life drawing, botanical painting, sketching on location, ceramics, felt-making, Celtic design, sculpture, mosaics, papermaking and book binding. Some, but by no means all, of these occurred at the Iona Gallery in Kingussie.

It is true to say that the Iona Gallery has become a pivotal venue for the SBSA - for exhibitions, for socialising at previews, and for hosting workshops. At the same time, the property and management of the gallery has dwindled owing to financial constraints placed on the Highland Council. In a bold move, therefore, the SBSA became a not-for-profit company in 2010 and took over the lease of the Iona Gallery from the Highland Council in order develop the potential of the building for the Society and for the visiting public.

The Present Day

2011-2019

With the change in status from a Society to a limited Company came a whole new range of responsibilities requiring a committee and directors with wide and varied skills and experience. It became necessary to take forward the refurbishment of the building; manage the rolling programme of exhibitions from High Life Highland; and develop our own programme of exhibitions for members and other artists. In addition a new opportunity was created for the benefit of members and to help raise an income for the gallery, the 'Handmade in the Cairngorms' gallery shop. The website and Facebook page were created helping us to reach audiences across the UK and throughout the world. Workshops for adults and children continue to be offered; and social evenings such as the extremely successful and popular 'Blues Night' in 2013 complete the enormous range of activities organised by this small group of dedicated people, to provide year round culture and entertainment for the local community. Kingussie High School has also played an active role in the life and character of the gallery by hosting their own exhibition since 2011.

Renovation

As in everything else the economic downturn has affected the SBSA in our attempts to refurbish the gallery as potential funding disappeared as fast as we could apply for it. The plan for an instant transformation had to be rethought into a longer term project focusing on essential work first.

The small store room was the first area to be improved with new flooring, windows, sink and hanging system enabling it to be more practical in use as a workshop or small exhibition area. The bold decision to open up the partition wall between the two rooms followed soon after, transforming the visitor experience with allowing natural light into the main gallery area. This enabled the shop to be established and provide a retail outlet for members' work. Essential electrical work and heating improvements, roof repairs and insulation followed.

Three moveable walls were constructed which allow us even more flexibility in the use of the space: they are all at once room dividers, wall-hanging space and can create much needed extra storage areas. A new gantry lighting system has been adde; and the gallery now possesses a projection screen.


Collaboration

The society has been responsible for the hosting of the High Life Highland (formerly Highland Council) summer programme of exhibitions since 2010. This has included hanging and dismantling the displays, advertising and supervising the gallery during opening times. A dedicated team of volunteers have devoted their time and energies to this work each year since. The exhibitions normally run for a month apiece with between four and six exhibitions per year.

The Christmas Craft Fair has been timed to coincide with Kingussie's Christmas Shopping Sunday, and the summer exhibition with Kingussie's Little Town of Festivals. Further links with the community are ongoing with the Food on Film Festival screenings and exhibitions in February and Kingussie High School exhibitions in November.

Art and Craft workshops continue to feature strongly in the society's programme of events and during the winter months the gallery has been frequently used as a venue for winter workshops run by the Cairngorms Learning Partnership, in a variety of disciplines from felt-making through pottery to Advanced Art. Links have also been forged across the Atlantic with the Homecoming Exhibitions and workshops here and in Canada in 2014

In 2015 the SBSA celebrated its 20th anniversary, and the exhibition contained a special section for Founder Members, many of whom are still very active within the society. The committee spent a lot of time focusing on the building, and the exhibitions from High Life Highland, which still formed our major source of income. But our members are central to the society and this exhibition, as all the SBSA exhibitions have been, is a celebration of our community and members, and the diversity and sheer beauty of their work.

Since 2016, the SBSA has become a registered Scottish Charity. The Highland Council funding which provided the ability to host Highlife Highland exhibitions was halved in 2017, and cut altogether for 2018, but the Trustees have successfully managed to cope with the funding loss by encouraging more hires - both of the main and small galleries, with hiring of the small gallery proving a better option for both society and members than the previous craft shop. Two month-long Highlife Highland exhibitions per year are still hosted, free of charge by the Society, with member exhibitions now annual features for a burgeoning photographic group and for textile-based art as well as the Summer Festival and Christmas Fair.

Pat Hughes 2015, additions by David Fallows 2019