National Museum of Rural Life

Guest post by Fiona Salvesen Murrell, PhD Candidate, History of Art, University of Aberdeen

Fiona Salvesen Murrell is studying William Shiels, R.S.A. (1783-1857); identity, scientific enquiry, and the development of art institutions in Britain and North America.  In three parts she tells us about the work of William Shiels and the collection held at National Museums Scotland. In part 1 Fiona looks at how she came to start researching William Shiels. In part 2 find out about the artist and his work and in part 3 discover the surviving works . Visit National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride to see some of Shiels’s paintings for yourself.


Important livestock

National Museums Scotland holds a highly important collection of thirty-five livestock portraits by William Shiels Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) (1783-1857). [1]. They came to National Museums Scotland in the late 1960s from the University of Edinburgh, who retain six further animal portraits in their collection. The paintings were originally the star attraction of the Museum of Agriculture formed at the University of Edinburgh from 1832 by the Professor of Agriculture, David Low [2].

Cheviot Ewe and lamb, 1832-1838, bred by Mr Thomson Attonburn, Roxburghshire

William Shiels, Cheviot Ewe and lamb, 1832-1838, bred by Mr Thomson Attonburn, Roxburghshire. On display at National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride.

My time at National Museums Scotland

I worked at National Museums Scotland as a Curator for two and half years until December 1998. My background was in Art History and through Hugh Cheape (then Curator of Scottish Material Culture) I became aware of the thirty-five animal paintings by William Shiels which were then in store. Hugh had done some work on the paintings but he felt they were under-researched and potentially very important. National Museums Scotland Charitable Trust awarded me a grant to research the paintings for three months in 1999.

Shiels, Berkshire Pig, 1832-38, bred by Mr Loud, Mackstockmill, Warwickshire. Only the white socks and tassel tail remain in today’s version of this breed.

William Shiels, Berkshire Pig, 1832-38, bred by Mr Loud, Mackstockmill, Warwickshire. Only the white socks and tassel tail remain in today’s version of this breed. On display at National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride.

During that time I began researching the history of paintings and why they were commissioned, where they were housed and what had happened to them. The archives of the University, Town Council of Edinburgh, RSA and National Archives of Scotland have proved invaluable in not only revealing much about the paintings but also the social and cultural context in which they were produced.

William Shiels, A Shorthorn Bull, ‘Romulus’, c.1833-8 on display at National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride. Romulus was bred by Mr Smith, Shedlaw, Roxburghshire. Note the basket of turnips in the bottom right corner, which demonstrates the improved feed given to the cattle.

Further afield

After my contract finished at National Museums Scotland, I then worked in several museums and galleries in England as a Curator of Art. After doing research in the United States, thanks to a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship in 2006, I decided to take my earlier work on Shiels further and commenced my PhD at the University of Aberdeen. Since late 2007 I have had a very fascinating journey into the politics, social life, and museum and art world of the early to mid-19th century.


[1] Three copies made for the owners of the animals by William Shiels are in National Museums Wales.

[2] David Low (17 86-1859) Professor of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh.

Gillian McNeeBy Gillian McNee, Learning Enabler

Every Wednesday morning at 10am a roll of thunder can be heard at the entrance of the National Museum of Scotland… or so you would think.  It’s actually 15 buggies, mums, dads, toddlers in a hurry, descending on the Museum for a morning on the magic carpet. The new under 5s programme has become so popular we now call the rush to sign up for spaces the “great buggy dash!”

After the transformation of the National Museum of Scotland, with the addition of the Imagine and Adventure Planet interactive galleries, designed specifically for younger visitors, there was an opportunity to develop new activities that would extend the ethos of popular galleries into our public programmes. The aim was to create an engaging experience for little ones where they could explore the Museum further, and the idea of a magic carpet came alive.

Captain Fiona Campbell tells a story

Captain Fiona Campbell tells a story.

The Magic Carpet sessions introduce little ones to different things in the Museum. Each week the carpet and its little explorers visit somewhere new, with stories, singing, crafts and object handling. Our trips on the carpet include visiting the stars in the Earth in Space gallery to see all the animal constellations, exploring the jungle of the Animal World gallery where we’ve boogied with the animals, and going fishing in the Arctic winter in the Living Lands gallery.

The magic carpet in the Living Lands gallery

The magic carpet in the Living Lands gallery.

The carpet has had special guest appearances too, including professional storyteller Mara Menzies. Mara runs her own company, Toto Tales, which brings African stories to life, and she took our magic carpet on an adventure through Africa, with Koko the crocodile. Another special guest was Cuddles the pygmy hedgehog, who was brought along by Visitor Services Assistant Laura Moss for a springtime special all about woodland animals, where the children explored the history of the forests in the Beginnings gallery.

Enabler Anna Downie adds some sparkle at a craft session

Enabler Anna Downie adds some sparkle at a craft session on the magic carpet.

The magic carpet sometimes gets out and about, away from its home at Chambers Street. It recently flew to East Kilbride to the National Museum of Rural Life for some storytelling at the Classic Car show. For training, it visited Sanderson’s Wynd Primary in Tranent, where the P2 class went on a journey from Scotland through Europe, stopping off and handling objects from each country along the way, with the final destination being Spain, the class’s topic. They then performed a Flamenco dance inspired by their adventure on the carpet.

It is also being used as inspiration for a community engagement project led by Community Engagement Officer Jane Miller. Three family learning groups, Gracemount, Broomhouse, and the Royal Mile, have all taken part in magic carpet sessions in the museum. They are now each creating a fabric square with their favourite object from the Museum on it, which will then be put together to make their own magic carpet. The nursery children and their parents have been working jointly on this project, enhancing learning together. The finished carpet will be complete with objects and a user book, full of songs and activities that can be used with the carpet. Groups will be able to borrow the carpet and resources for their own use. The adults and children have been really enjoying the process of making their own magic carpet. One mum says the only challenge has been that her wee boy was inspired by so many objects in the museum that she had to limit what he could have on his square, as it had to match with what she could actually sew!

Making a magic carpet with the family learning groups

Making a magic carpet with the family learning groups.

September will see the launch of Magic Carpet Minis. So far the Magic Carpet sessions have been piloted for little ones under the age of 5.  After the summer, two different sessions will be run – one geared towards 2-5 year olds and one for 0-2 year olds. This means the activities will be more tailored for each age group and parents/guardians can decide which one they and their children will get the most from. So keep an eye out for new adventures on the magic carpet!

Up up up as we go flying on the magic carpet

Up up up as we go flying on the magic carpet!

For more information on family activities in the Museum visit

Catch up with Ritchie Young, Farm Manager, National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride

We caught up with Ritchie Young, who has recently joined National Museum of Rural Life, about the spring activity and new arrivals at Wester Kittochside farm.  Ritchie is responsible for the day-to-day management of the farm at Wester Kittochside, caring for the rare breeds livestock and crop cultivation as it was in the 1950s.

How many calves have been born so far this season and what are their names?

Six calves been born so far, Candy’s Elegance the girl and Harry, Henry, James, Boab and Tom Launce the boys. The purebred calves get names from their mother, Candy, a supreme Ayrshire champion – Candy’s Elegance’s mother. Maggie MacDougall, our Stockperson, just picks the rest of the names. Tom Launce was named after a couple of wee boys who were in when the calf was born, James is named after my wee boy and Boab was named after my James (my son) saw the calf and said ‘Boab, Boab’ so it came from that.

James the Ayrshire calf

How do you know when a calf is on the way?

When the cow is calving, the udder will fill up with milk a day or two before the calf is due. When she goes into labour she will show signs of discomfort, getting up and lying down, swishing her tail, groaning and generally unsettled. When the onset of labour comes on she will start pressing (pushing).

Tom the calf

Tom the Ayrshire calf.

Once they are in labour you just basically observe them. If they have been active for a while you may have to check the orientation of the calf to make sure that it is the right way around. If it’s not, it won’t come out naturally and then we will have to intervene. If there is a major problem, we call the vet in. For instance, the first cow that calved had hypocalcaemia (lack of calcium) so we had to get the vet in then. Giving birth involves a lot of effort, and the cow produces a lot of milk, which can cause them to have a dip in their calcium levels.

Expectant Ayrshire cows

Expectant Ayrshire cows at the farm.

We check on them regularly and look out for any signs of distress and give assistance to get the calf out – basically pull the calf out. Once the calf is born you give it a rub to clear the airways and make sure it’s breathing. If the calf is okay you dip its belly button and umbilical cord in iodine which dries it up and seals off any infection. The calves get their ear tags within the first 24 hours and Maggie or I make sure that they get enough colostrum (vitamins) to help them fight off infection and provide sufficient antibodies. They get that in the first six hours to receive the maximum effect.

The calves will be kept inside the barn until April and then housed depending on the weather. They are fed on milk for eight to ten weeks and once they are off the milk they are released into a small paddock. Six cows are still waiting to have calves, one in the next few days, one within the next ten days and the rest are due to arrive in April.

What other new arrivals can we expect this spring?

We’ve scanned all the ewes and there are 135 lambs due. We also have six Aberdeen Angus cows due with calves at the beginning of May and expect to see some new Tamworth piglets by May as well.

Ritchie Young, Farm Manager and Mhairi the Clydesdale

Ritchie Young, Farm Manager and Mhairi the Clydesdale

What else do you do on the farm on a day to day basis?

A lot of my time is office based until now. Maggie is in control of stock planning, fertilising and lambing so will be busy. There are lot of projects on the go and we are currently getting a new building for general storage so we can buy in bedding and save costs on cattle feed by bulk storing. At the moment we buy it in small bags which use plastic so by buying in bulk we are using less plastic which is better for the environment, and for recycling.

What crops do you plant on the farm?

Oats, potatoes and wheat are the crops we mainly grow. We keep the animals out of the field to minimise crop damage and have a scarecrow to chase the birds away or just create a disturbance. I don’t see myself chasing birds down the fields however…

How have you found your first six months on the farm?

It’s been different, a steep learning curve and the curve has not ended yet. There’s a lot more to learn and think about as Farm Manager at National Museum of Rural Life than on a normal working farm.

By Bryce Kershaw, Projects Officer – Museums, Wanneroo, Australia

Before Christmas last year, in a moment of synchronicity, a holidaying couple from Scotland were driving by Buckingham House here in Wanneroo in Western Australia, noticed that the gate was open and decided to wander in for a look.

Buckingham House, the family house of a former dairy property built c.1880 and now a museum, on this day was in fact not open to the public but being cleaned prior to the shut down period of the Christmas school holidays.

Buckingham House

Buckingham House.

As they had come so far we felt it would be churlish to eject our lovely Scottish visitors and proceeded to show them around and entered into a lengthy chat. This included that they lived in East Kilbride near the National Museum of Rural Life and somehow, onto a discussion on the wonderful milkable model cow that is such a big hit with the kids in Scotland.

What a brilliant idea I thought, and having finished the cleaning, rushed back to the office to dash off an email to National Museums Scotland to ask them about this fabled model. Much to my great pleasure only a day or two later, I received an email and images from Duncan Dornan, General Manager of the National Museum of Rural Life. Based on this and other input from the dairy industry here, we designed and eventually built the pictured cow (named Ophelia) now living at Buckingham House.

Ophelia the cow

Ophelia with Bryce and Barbara, Curatorial Assistant at Buckingham House.

Ophelia the model cow

Ophelia the model cow.

Chris WaddellBy Chris Waddell, Learning Officer

The National Museum of Rural Life’s  Country Fair promises to be a great family day out. Most of us will have seen farriery or sheep dog trials on television but on Sunday 28 August 2011, visitors can experience these things first hand – and a whole lot more – at Wester Kittochside, East Kilbride.

Many other facets of country life will be on display, including a spinning demonstration by renowned Ayrshire fabric worker Liz Brown, or watch Richard Love – a drystane dyker – in action as he works on the repair of an ancient wall at the farm.

Sheepdog herding at the National Museum of Rural Life, Wester Kittochside, East Kilbride.

A reminder of school days gone by will be in evidence with our Old Fashioned Games sessions in the Buchan’s field. Budding Olympians can take part in sack racing and welly throwing, or try their hand at quoits – an ancient game of skill and pre-cursor to the game of hoop-la!

Farriery demonstration at the National Museum of Rural Life, Wester Kittochside, East Kilbride.

Meanwhile, foodies and foragers can sample a taste of Scotland’s countryside and pick up some recipe tips at Ms. Claire Bird’s wild food stand. Slow Food Scotland will also be present, providing taste tests and visitors can see an apple press in action at the Waulkmill Juice Company’s stand.

Home made preserves at the National Museum of Rural Life

Home made preserves at the National Museum of Rural Life.

By Maggie McDougall, Stockperson at National Museum of Rural Life

Earlier this month saw the first of the dairy calves arrive at National Museum of Rural Life. This year also saw a new breed of dairy calf for the first time.  Kittochside Martha’s Joy, our new arrival, is a cross bred calf: her dam, a pure bred Ayrshire, was crossed with a Jersey bull. The calf carries the Jersey characteristics of being small boned and has the giveaway large dark eyes and eyelashes against the rich brown body colour. The small bones made it all the easier on her dam, a heifer, to have her first calf.

The Jersey cow is renowned for the quality of milk she produces: the butterfat and protein levels greatly surpass any other breed, and the breed was used in the past to increase the value of the milk produced when a premium was paid for butterfat and protein levels. Jerseys are still frequently used today, in the modern commercial Holstein dairy herds.

Martha's Joy

New arrival Martha's Joy in her stall at National Museum of Rural Life.

As her name “Joy” suggests she is a great hit with all our staff and visitors and creates a new dimension to the experience at the working farm.

Bryony HopeBy Bryony Hope, Events Officer

The National Museum of Rural Life couldn’t have been more Christmassy on Sunday 12 December, with snow on the ground, crisp, clear skies, the sound of a traditional organ grinder and Santa and his elf grinning away next to a huge Christmas tree.

Santa and his elf greet visitors

Santa and his elf greet visitors.

The Christmassy weather had, however, presented several Health and Safety and logistics problems in the lead up to the event, including how to erect a large marquee for the foals on an icy forecourt, so the executive decision had to be made to cancel the stars of the show.  The foals are a huge pull for our audience so the entrance fee was reduced to normal daily rates, notices were put up online and at the entrance to the museum, and we all waited nervously to see how many visitors would still come and how they’d react.  We needn’t have worried, as nearly 1,000 people flowed through the doors and had a great day out.

The museum building was a hive of activity.  A Christmas craft fair was buzzing in the main gallery, KYBO theatre had four full-houses for “Santa’s Magic Workshop”, hot toddies were being handed out at the Christmas cooking demonstration and the museum staff were doing a great job running craft workshops in the learning centre.

The craft fair gearing up for the day ahead

The craft fair gearing up for the day ahead.

Sweet treats from the craft fair

Sweet treats from the craft fair.

Up at the farm the staff and volunteers ran a pomander-making workshop in the kitchen whilst one of our regular facilitators Jackie Lee ran traditional Victorian parlour games.

Outside in the farmyard the festive spirit continued with three visiting donkeys posing for photographs accompanied by some classic Bing Crosby Christmas tunes.  I also had a quick peek at the piglets who are now definitely teenagers in both size and mannerisms (they didn’t even look up to say hi as they were too busy eating).  Visitors also had a go at stock judging, this time trying to assess the ‘best in show’ from the donkeys and calves.

By the end of the day all the staff (and the donkeys) were ready to drop, but it was a great end to a successful year for the National Museum of Rural Life.  Here’s hoping 2011 is even better!

The donkeys chilling out to Bing Crosby

The donkeys chilling out to Bing Crosby.

Donkey at the Christmas Fair

Dreaming of a white Christmas? A donkey at the Christmas Fair.

By Maggie McDougall, Stockperson at National Museum of Rural Life

The 10th day of the 10th month of 2010, saw the smallest of offspring arrive at the National Museum of Rural Life.

Earlier that week saw the working farm extremely busy with the last of Rustic Rosie’s spring born piglets, now weaners, being sold to establish new herds of Tamworth pigs in Lanarkshire and Midlothian. Our spring lambs were also sold at market, and the harvest brought in to help feed the livestock throughout the winter months. This was fortunately all completed before our newest arrivals made their appearance.

Farm fields at National Museum of Rural Life

Farm fields at National Museum of Rural Life

Toffee our third generation Kittochside Tamworth farrowed (gave birth) to a litter of piglets. Toffee is a gilt (young female) and this was her first farrowing which can be distressing enough for a young pig, but her litter arrived a fortnight early, her due date was 31st October. We now have nine small, but very healthy piglets. This is more than plenty for a first farrowing. The piglets are now thriving and Toffee is generating plenty of milk to sustain them.

Toffee and her piglets

Toffee and her piglets at National Museum of Rural Life

They are a very welcome addition to the livestock enterprises at the working farm, and are proving as popular as ever with visitors and staff.

Chris WaddellBy Chris Waddell, Learning Officer

As we progress through autumn, our thoughts inevitably turn to the winter ahead and prospect of Christmas looms ever larger.

The festive season is marked at National Museum of Rural Life by our annual Christmas Fair and Foal Show, this year it’s on Sunday 12th December. As usual, the centrepiece to our event will be a cute collection of Shetland pony foals in the Museum courtyard – some of whom make a special effort with yuletide outfits!


Christmas Fair and Foal Show

Patting a Shetland pony at the Christmas Fair and Foal Show


The entertainment continues with pantomime performances throughout the afternoon in the Theatre provided by the ever popular KYBO theatre company. Father Christmas himself makes an appearance in these performances, when he is not to be found next the hearth in the museum, handing out treats to good children (and good adults, should any show up!)


Festive crafts at the Christmas Fair and Foal show

Festive crafts at the Christmas Fair and Foal show


Some Christmas gifts can be purchased at the craft fair in the Tools Gallery, which features some twenty or so different stands offering locally produced goods. For those youngsters more interested in an invigorating and traditional winter sport we have an indoor curling rink set up by our friends from the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. For those of a more creative frame of mind, some Christmas Craft items can be made in the Learning Centre Craft Room.  All of these activities are set against a backdrop of traditional Yuletide music played for us by the North Wind Street Organ.


Farm Explorer rides at the Christmas Fair and Foal show.

Farm Explorer rides at the Christmas Fair and Foal show.


At the farm, visitors can meet our guest donkeys who come and spend Christmas with us each year. Also, find out what people did for entertainment on Christmas afternoon before the invention of James Bond films by joining in our Edwardian Parlour Games and pomander making sessions. Finally, why not try your hand at stock judging and guess which of our farm animals you think are the best.


Farmhouse at Wester Kittochside

Farmhouse at Wester Kittochside


By Raymond McAllister, Visitor Services Assistant

This was an extremely busy event with over double the amount of visitors compared to 2009. With nearly 1,800 Halloween revellers joining in the fun, the museum was almost full to bursting!

Spooky Halloween character at the National Museum of Rural Life's party

There were plenty of activities to keep the children busy with spooky games, storytelling, dooking for apples and our ever popular Halloween crafts. The event was certainly a challenge this year with the unprecedented numbers but good fun was had by all.

Spooky entrance to National Museum of Rural Life's Halloween party.

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