Harnessing potential and creating a great working environment at the Scottish Crannog Centre

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Mike Benson, Managing Director of the Scottish Crannog Centre.

“We call it “feltness”. Where people can just come in and feel that there’s something there, that they can just feel there’s love or hard work or graft or academic rigour or all of those things thrown into the pot. And that diversity, you can feel it.”

Mike Benson is the Managing Director of the Scottish Crannog Centre. Mike spent 28 years in the steel industry before working in museums. Mike left British Steel in 2004 to become Director of Ryedale Folk Museum in North Yorkshire. He then went on to be Director of Bede’s World and interim Director at The National Coal Mining Museum For England before starting work as Director in January 2018 at The Scottish Crannog Centre.

Mike has a track record of leading organisations through transformational change.
Mike lives in The Scottish Borders with partner Kathy and their dog Shadow.

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The truly unique working environment at the centre
  • The variety of opportunities they’re able to offer young people who struggle with mainstream education
  • The devastating fire back in 2021
  • How they are building back bigger and stronger than ever

Mike Benson Skip the Queue blog

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.


The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Mike Benson



Kelly Molson: All right, Mike, thank you for joining me on the podcast today. It’s lovely to see you. It’s been a long time since I saw you. I think last year I last saw you speak at an event. 

So I’m delighted that you’ve been able to give me a little bit of your time today to come on and chat. As ever, I’ve got some stupid icebreakers to start the podcast with. Right. I know that you’ve got a dog. What is the stupidest thing that your dog has ever done? 

Mike Benson: Well, she does it most days. If you don’t give her treat or her, she will sit and just stare at the wall with her nose against the wall. If we go anywhere that she doesn’t like, she just walks straight up to the wall and just sits and looks at the wall. 

Kelly Molson: Oh, like a protest. Like, I’m not happy here, protesting? 

Mike Benson: Yeah, absolutely. At first you feel really bad, but it’s one of those protests that wears a bit thin, I’d imagine. But she keeps doing it a bit like a toddler does kind of thing. But she’s getting an old dog now, so she’s a bit more pronounced now. She will just sort of shift her head up a little bit, waddle over, bang her nose against the wall, and just stare at it until the situation is more to her liking, whatever it is. 

Kelly Molson: She’s a diva. What a diva. It could be worse, though, Mike, couldn’t it? Because it could be a dirty protest because some dogs do a bit.

Mike Benson: No, she’s more intellectual than that. She’s Belgian. She’s Belgian. So she’s quite philosophical and intellectual. 

Kelly Molson: I like a style. Okay. If you were to participate in karaoke, what would be the song that you would blast out on that microphone? 

Mike Benson: Take the ribbon from your head, take it loose and let it fall. Hold it soft against my skin like a shadow on a wall. 

Kelly Molson: Oh, Mike. I did not know we’re going to get a rendition. That is amazing. 

Mike Benson: Pre karaoke. I used to go quite a lot to Beer Colours, where there’d be a guy on an accordion and you would ask him for a request, then you would sing while he played. I don’t know if you ever went to them. And that was always my song. So the guy on the accordion, wherever it was, will be playing away now. Can you play? Help me make it through the night and then I would sing it to much acclaim. I can’t sing a note, to be honest, but there you go. 

Kelly Molson: Oh, that was quite delightful, Mike. And if I was not expecting that. 

Mike Benson: You moved to tears, I can tell. 

Kelly Molson: This will be the second time that you’ve moved me to tears, Mike, but for very different reasons. We’ll come to that later in the podcast. Right, I want to know what is your unpopular opinion? So something that you hold dear and believe to be true but not many people agree with you on. 

Mike Benson: Yeah, I’ve just asked Kathy, my partner, that one, because I couldn’t really think of something she was saying. My background was in British Steel. I spent 27 years on the shop floor there, 28 years. And she thinks, one hand, I’m very disciplined and I like everybody to get to work on time and all that boring stuff. On the other hand, I expect everybody to be creative and I don’t think that’s unpopular or people don’t agree, but that’s what she’s told me that I should say. So I’m going to say that.

Kelly Molson: I see you’re quite contradictory in that sense. 

Mike Benson: Yeah, well, in everything. 

Kelly Molson: Let’s get into our chats. There’s loads that I want to cover today. You are the Managing Director of the Scottish Crannog Centre. Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get to where you are now? 

Mike Benson: I think, as I said, I left school at 16, went straight into the steel works in Middlesbrough where I stayed, and it’s where I always wanted to work. Very proud to work there. And my first day in work was maybe 100 lads in there and this great big guy got on the stage and said, “Welcome to Bridge Steel”, kind of thing.

You’re following in the footsteps of giants that have built the world and all this stuff, and I still believe it. So it’s it kind of did the trick. So, yeah, and I stayed there and stayed there and loved it. Towards the end of my time, I start to do an Open University degree when I was in my late 30s, just basically so because I could help the kids with the homework and stuff, I suppose. 

Kelly Molson: Wow. 

Mike Benson: I don’t know anybody from my school that went to university or even to college. We all went to work. So, yeah, that was that. And then doing my stuff for the Open University start to go to get a different idea of what museums could be. Started to realise that nobody was really telling in our story very well, the steelwork story, where I lived, the locality and everything. So we set up a little group around our shift and with a couple of volunteers called Iron Owe AWE, which I thought was quite smart at the time. 

Kelly Molson: Very Good.

Mike Benson: Yeah. And went into schools and we got funding to make films. We did fantastic film with the first strikes, really, with 400 kids all marching down the streets, demanding to only work 8 hours a day and all the rest of it, which was really great. 

Anyway, to cut long story short, we’d been asked to go down to London. We’d won this award, which was really funny because we had a few beers on the train going down and we get to London to go to the Strand where we’d won this Roots and Wings award. Beat loads of posh museums and the guy in the door would let us in because we didn’t look like museum people and there was no more.

He thought we’re just trying to plug in for the wine or whatever. So I turned to a phone box. There was no well, mobile phones wrote, but I didn’t have one early days and to ring the lady up and say, “Your man on the door won’t let us in.” We’re not the right type.

Kelly Molson: Amazing. So you never really fitted the traditional museum mold. 

Mike Benson: And it’s still exactly the same fully enough. And on the back of that, on the way home, we got back early doors, and I was six till one shift. And when I got in, there was a message on the phone from the National Park. North York Moose National Park. Just asking me if I was interested in applying the director of Ridell Fort Museum, which is a rural museum in the North York moors.

So I went for it, don’t know why, and got the job. I don’t know how. Then I had the big decision whether to leave all my friends that we’d been to each other’s 18th, 21st, weddings, all the rest of it. That was a huge decision. I always remember I only ever had one good bus at British Steel. 

All the buses were crap, but I went in to see him, guy I really trusted, and he just said, “You’ve got to go, there’s thousands of lads here that would chuck the right arm off to do a job like that.” And I went over to the museum and there you go. That’s how I kind of ended up in this sector, really. 

Kelly Molson: That’s amazing. And it literally all came from you going back to do an Open University course to help your kids. It wasn’t necessarily about you and a new career and changing your part. 

Mike Benson: No last thing in my head. 

Kelly Molson: I think that’s really motivating to hear because I think a lot of people think that by the time you’re 30, you should have it all together. 

Mike Benson: I’m 60 and I can go together.

Kelly Molson: 45, no clue. But do you know what I mean? I think that there’s a lot of people out there that kind of by that point they think, “Well, you should have your career sorted by then. You should know what your trajectory is and what you’re doing”. And it just goes to show that there’s an opportunity to change your life whenever you decide to. 

Mike Benson: Yeah, you need look, I think you need a lot of luck. I’ve been lucky in that sense, I think, as I say, and my plant is still going, so I would be retired now, which is a bit of a reflection on a bad decision made now, looking back. There you go. And it was a completely bloody h***, completely different world. I’d never met a vegetarian before, ever. 

Kelly Molson: So culturally it took you into a place that was so far from what you know.

Mike Benson: Yeah, I was lucky enough to I’ve been doing the job about a year or so and I was lucky enough to win a Claw Fellowship, which is like a high level training thing, they send you around the world and all sorts. It’s brilliant. I went and stayed with a fantastic guy, a First Nation Canadian chief on the Pacific Coast.

Anyway, but I’d gone to this place and again I got to this really posh spot down in Kent near Seven Oaks and said, “I’m in the right place”. And the lady said, “I don’t think so”. I’d driven all the way down in my Lambretta with sidecar, so that was interesting. And we’d gone out for a meal somewhere, myself and the other Claw fellows, and we had a bit of a chord thing going on. 

I think when I was at British Steel, where if you were a little bit skinned, if you’d gone out for a drink or for meal or whatever you would say you’d pay with your credit card and the ladder would think, “Oh, bloody Ollie skint”. So we’d all chip in. Anyway, I goes for this meal and my fellow Claw fellows at the end of night all put the credit cards on the table and I thought, bloody h***, everybody skint.

So I ended up paying for offering to pay the bill, which I did, which then left me skinned and then I cut and done. That was just the way things were because again, you would never use your credit card. It was just like something that you very rarely would use, but in the real world, everybody uses their credit cards all the time. 

Kelly Molson: What a brilliant story. 

Mike Benson: Yeah. And another one is when I first went into the an interior deal, there was a guy there and I’d asked him to do something and he said, “No, it’s not my job”. And at British Steel you were kind of saying, “I’m going to give you 5 minutes to think about it, I’m going to send you home”. So I give him his 5 minutes and I sent him home. And then I had a gaggle of trustees coming in about an hour later saying, “What you doing?” “Listen, I give him his 5 minutes and I sent him home”. And they were like, “what?”

Kelly Molson: Doesn’t work like that here? 

Mike Benson: What planet did you come from? 

Kelly Molson: Wow. So you changed your life. And then you went through quite a lot of crisis learning experiences.

Mike Benson: Yeah, to learn a whole new lexicon. And after so long, I thought it just be yourself. 

Kelly Molson: Absolutely. I think you’re absolutely right, because you bring something quite magic to everywhere that you go, and I’ve seen that from the way that you’ve spoken and the way that other people have spoken about you. Right. Let’s talk about the  Crannog. Let’s talk about the  Crannog Centre. So you’re the Managing Director of the Scottish Crannog. So you’re the Managing Director of the Scottish Crannog Centre. What’s a Crannog for our audience that are listening? What is a Crannog? 

Mike Benson: Well, I’ve googled it. 

Kelly Molson: So did I, Mike. 

Mike Benson: I Googled it because it is many things to many different people. I Googled it and it’s an artificial island that people might have lived on. It might have been a wooden structure. So basically, particularly in Scotland and in Ireland, you’ll see as you’re going around the lochs, you’ll see little clumps of stone in the middle of the loch or to one side with a tree in or something.

And at some point that would have been an artificial island that somebody made into a dwelling. So I think if you Google it yeah, for Rose and interestingly, after the fire, it’s a symbol of home, it’s a symbol of community, it’s a symbol of what can be achieved. The engineering was unbelievable. The joinery skills were unbelievable. The candunas, you think two and a half thousand years ago. 

It must have been bloody freezing and everybody was sat in a cave and all this stuff. And actually there they were building these beautiful homes, places, whatever, and there could be places of prestige and what have you. But there were a home and inside there they will have been playing a seven stringed musical instrument. We’ve got evidence of that in the collection.

They will have been trading with this is before Brexit, they were trading with Europe, which is a continent that’s very near to was just over the water, that’s really easy to trade with, used to be. So all that stuff, and it’s become a place where everybody can contribute, everybody can learn a skill and kind of inspired by that notion, whether it’s romantic or not, that everybody has a part to play. And that’s how you get a flourishing community. 

Kelly Molson: Just for our listeners who may not have visited or you may not know what the Crannog. Just for our listeners who may not have visited or you may not know what the Crannog Centre is for. What is the Crannog Centre’s purpose? Has it been created to kind of showcase? 

Mike Benson: Yes, it’s literally on the straight level if you like. To tell the stories of the crown of dwellers, the day to day lives of what the best we can. We don’t know exactly. That’s the beauty of it. Half of what we say is based on certainty, the other half is based on opinion, because we can only go on the evidence that we have a number of archaeologists at work,

And you get three archaeologists, you get four theories and it’s like that every day and constant learning that goes on. So on that level, it’s to tell a story of those kind of dwellers from two and a half thousand years ago. But also, I think, to be relevant for today, to look at sustainability, to look at the learning opportunities that people have. 

We have a thing on the wall at work where we put on the questions that the public have asked that week. One of them was from a little girl asking how far the Christmas would get in because there isn’t a chimney. 

Kelly Molson: Good question. 

Mike Benson: Yeah, the best one was but bearing in mind we employ 23 people, are you all related? 

Kelly Molson: Wow. Is that because it all feels like a family or is it all yeah, you all bitter like a family, maybe.

Mike Benson: Yeah. But we kind of rub along and get there and we all cover each other’s backsides and we work really hard or try to, but yeah. 

Kelly Molson: That’s a nice question. 

Mike Benson: I’m hoping it was done in the right way.  

Kelly Molson: I love that. So I can remember very vividly. It was the 16 June and I was on a webinar which was for ASVA members, and you came onto the webinar and shared the news of what had just happened. And I genuinely was so moved that I had to switch my camera off and have a little cry. It was a really difficult thing to watch you talk about. I can only imagine what you were feeling at that point. But would you be able to just take us back and explain what happened on the I think it was the morning of the 16th, wasn’t it? The early hours of the 16th or the evening? 

Mike Benson: Yeah, it was just a couple of days before then. I’m still a bit raw and I was in two minds whether to do that call, really, but I didn’t realise I thought, yeah, I’ll just go and tell them about a fire. But I didn’t really yes, it’s still quite raw when I think about it. 

Kelly Molson: Can imagine. 

Mike Benson: So at 11:00 at night when you look at the CCTV, there’s a little tiny glow inside the Crannog and then by 6 minutes past it’s gone. And Rich, one of the assistant directors there, drank me up hours in bed, asleep, rang up and said, “Mike, the Crannog’s on fire”. And I said, “Yeah, that’s fine, I’ll sort out in the morning”, went back to sleep and he rang me back again. ” “Mike, Mike, it’s really on fire.”

And I could hear all the fire engines and everything going behind him. So of course I raced down. By the time I got there, it was gone. I think there was five fire engines, lots of police and all the rest of it. And yeah, it was quite difficult. The chair of trustees was there, he was bereft, he got there before me, obviously, lots of tears. 

There was a couple of members of staff who’s locked themselves in the car, were crying. So basically we made a few calls, got everybody on site round about half one in the morning, I think at night, so it’s still black and the lights are still flashing. I just said to everybody, “You know what, nobody’s been hurt. Thank our lucky stars nobody’s been hurt. We’re going to do exactly what the crown of dwellers would have done.

We’re going to pack up our things, which was the collection, the precious things that they’ve left for us, and we’re going to move”. And I exaggerate this a little bit, but the reality was, on the following morning at 09:00, we sat there and we had no money, we had no plan, we didn’t quite know what was going to happen. 

By about half ten that morning, were starting to have a plan and we’d fortunately had already, through a community asset transfer, which is where a community group can make an application to local authority or to the government to buy something at a reduced price. We’d already bought the new site on the other side of the loch through community asset transfer. 

Kelly Molson: Amazing. 

Mike Benson: And by the second day, I think over 50,000 had come into the justgiving page. 

Kelly Molson: It was an incredible outpouring of community spirit, wasn’t it? The support that you got was I mean, it was local, national.

Mike Benson: Yeah. Yeah. People ringing in to offer volunteer time, money coming in. We had the politicians involved. We were charged by Scottish government, not straight away. After a couple of bit of time, maybe a week or so, were asked to try and come up with a plan that was realistic, that wouldn’t cost too much, that would get the organisation away, it wouldn’t be the full monty, but it would get us up and running.

We presented that plan to Scottish government and they’ve agreed to support us, as have other trust foundations and everybody else. So we’ve started work on the new site, March. So in less than two years, we’ve got through planning, which anybody knows we’re planning isn’t easy, and even though they were sympathetic, they had their protocols to go through. 

We raised the money, we hit January this year and were a little bit short because of everything that’s gone up with inflation filled that funding gap and we’re hoping to open in November. 

Kelly Molson: That is magic. I think what we have to remember as well is this was happening still during while the Pandemic was going on. So this was 2021 that this happened. So were still in a position of places not being fully open, still having all of that own kind of personal impact that were struggling with, as well as having something like this happen. I can see it in your eyes now. I can hear it when you’re talking. The emotion about that day is still kind of with you. 

You hold it still there, but the way that you were able to, the very next day have a plan in place is testimony to, I think, yourself and the people that you have surrounding you and how much they love that centre that you’ve been able to kind of come back so quickly and make this happen. 

Mike Benson: Yeah, I mean, we opened four days after the fire, obviously with no crown of a bit like the Van Gogh Museum without any Van Goghs, and we didn’t think we’d get many visitors, and they just powered in. 

Kelly Molson: Amazing. That’s the power of telling great stories, Mike. People still want to come. 

Mike Benson: Yeah, that’s all it is. Without getting my little hobby horse. Maybe it goes back to the earlier question about your opinion. I think museums still have a long way to go, really, in how they work. And it’s just really simple, really. Just you’re telling a good story that people want to listen to and hear, and we kind of do that best we can. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, no, you really do. 

Mike Benson: We’re a little bit wonky on the edges, but that’s allowed. 

Kelly Molson: That’s what people love. That’s what people love. I think that there’s such a level of authenticity about how you speak and the way that you do things. And that’s, for me, what I find really engaging.  

I saw you speak last year at the Scottish Tourism Alliance conference. I think it was last November. No, it really was slick, but I really enjoyed it. So Mike did a really clever thing, so he was billed as the speaker, but he actually got other people to speak for him, which I thought was genius. I’m going to use that at some point whenever I’m asked to speak. But it was great.

You spoke about the Crannog Centre, but you talked about how you’ve harnessed potential and created this really great working environment. And you’ve done that by building a really diverse workforce and volunteers and people that come along and just help and support you. And I think it is such an amazing story. 

You have a lot of young people that come and work and volunteer at centre while they were speaking for you and sharing their experience of working there. I was just blown away by all of the amazing opportunities that you can offer them. Like, bear in mind, this is a relatively small centre that we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the VNA, we’re not talking about the London Transport Museum here.

The variety of what those youngsters can do there and what they can learn and what they can be part of is incredible. And I think you help a lot of youngsters that are struggling with mainstream education by offering them a different way of learning, a different way of being involved with things. And talk to us about how you’ve managed to create this incredible working environment. 

Mike Benson: Yeah. Again, I think I can’t take any credit for it, really. It’s kind of what I grew up with as well. When you went into somewhere, there was quite a diverse workforce that worked in British Steel or wherever. Part of the learning and part of your reflections are certainly within the task of what a museum is.

If you want to engage with diverse audiences, you need to have a diverse workforce. People need to be able to come into that museum and see people like themselves, not just there, but actually having agency, being able to make decisions, being leaders, being able to flourish, being able to be themselves. We talk about freedom of self, that ability to really be yourself at work. Another word kind of made up is that feltness. 

We call it “feltness”, where people can just come in and feel that there’s something there, that they can just feel there’s love or hard work or graft or academic rigour or all of those things thrown into the pot. And that diversity is that you can feel it. And again, time and time again, when people come and we ask them what the feedback is, they can just feel something there that they can’t quite put the finger on. So we called it feltness. 

Kelly Molson: It was a lovely way of defining it, but that’s a really hard thing to create. Like, how do you create that? I guess it’s a mixture of the people and the characters that you have working there and the things that they can do and the things that they are allowed to do, I guess the autonomy that you give them?

Mike Benson: Yeah. And being aspirational and wanting to be the best that we can be. So I think that notion of creativity aligned to discipline, that unleashing of folks, we’re all hemmed in nowadays by all kinds of barriers, and we’re kind of shuffled along, I don’t know, like, through amaze almost, and sometimes almost uncontrollably, we end up somewhere.

I just think to be able to just break all that down and just start again is no bad thing. And so that’s what we’ve tried to do with the Crannog Centre there and take that inspiration, as I said, from that notion of a community that could flourish. Everybody must be able to contribute. 

Kelly Molson: How have you done that? Did you set out in your mind when you went to the Crannog Centre? Did you set out and go, “This is what I want. I want to be able to offer all of these different experiences to young people who are struggling with mainstream education?” Or is this something that’s just kind of happened naturally, that you’ve attracted people? How have you set out to kind of do it? 

Mike Benson: Yeah, that we set out to do it that way. So my interviewer said we would set up an apprenticeship program where we’d set up blah, blah, create a framework for success and depends what you call success, whether it’s footfall, whether it’s donations, people making donations, whether it’s how much you sell in the shop, whatever that your success measures are.

So each of the museum that have been that, we’ve done something similar with the apprenticeship program, with the diversity, and I think here we’ve managed to take all the learning of what we’ve done so far, if you like, and put it all into practice and it doesn’t always work. And sometimes you think to yourselves, go up and much easy just to get a load of. We interviewed some folks that were getting a craft fellow funded through Hess. 

That’s somebody who’s going to learn traditional skills. And the amount of young people that came to that with two degrees and a masters and a half a PhD and stuff, I just think it must be really hard to get your break into this game, into the museum world, if we can create different routes and that. I was asked by trustees, “What would make you happy in ten years time?” And I said, “For one of the apprentices to be the director.”

Kelly Molson: That’s lovely. 

Mike Benson: And I think having that approach, I think and it happens in business all the time, I think the museum is still stuck around hierarchy and prestige and a certain type of knowledge and a certain type of person. But, yeah, I think that’s kind of where were going with that. 

Kelly Molson: That’s really lovely. But you are a small team, right, Mike? There’s not thousands of people at this museum that help you do this. So what you’ve been able to achieve with the relatively small team is incredibly impressive. Who heads up the program? Is that you? Who defines what the kind of apprenticeship program looks like and the structure? 

Mike Benson: Yeah, I kind of keep my paws out with that, really. I’m really good at talking, a good job. I don’t actually do anything. 

Kelly Molson: You’re a leader, Mike. 

Mike Benson: No, honestly, I’m not good at anything. I am not good at anything. Kathy, my partner, will say I can’t put a screw in the wall or anything and I’m literally no good at anything. But, yeah, I think we just create an environment and again, we get bogged down with business planning and all that all the time.

I did a talk to some community groups the other day and I just used the image of a sunflower, because quite often you’ll consultants who come and say, you need that business plan, it needs to be really hard. And yet a sunflower doesn’t really have much of a business plan. It just follows the sun and soaks it all up and grows where it’s best. And I think just sometimes you can be a bit too.

All I was saying to him is than these folks in town to get stuffed if they think it’s nonsense. So I think, yeah, I’m what Lenos? I always do. I think it’s just as I say, create an environment. And it’s really hard. It’s much harder to create that environment than it will be to have a straight structure. Straight, linear. You report to him, you report to him, nothing happens until he’s signed that off. So it’s chaos. It’s bloody chaos. 

Kelly Molson: But is that partly because you’re not asking people to come in and fit your mold, you’re almost asking them to come in and then you’re flexing your mold to how they need to grow and adapt. 

Mike Benson: So you’ve got wobbling all the time. Yes, it really is. And it’s not for everybody. It’s really hard. So it’s not for everyone, particularly those trained within the museum profession, that likes straight lines. It’s really hard. Or anybody that likes to work in duchess museums in general, it’s not for everyone, some folks to come and work with us, and it doesn’t work for everyone because they want to see that comfort, really.

It’s that comfort of that straight line and somebody’s going to tell me what to do. I have no clue what’s happening at work half the time. Not when they say, we decided to do this. All right, this guy’s turned up, he’s going to do this. Smashing. 

Kelly Molson: But that takes a lot to be that flexible, though, doesn’t it? Like you say, sometimes as humans, we kind of like a plan. We like to see the trajectory, we like to see what the next step is, and not being able to see that is uncomfortable for a lot of us. So to have an organisation that’s so fluid, that’s not for everybody at all, you have to be quite I think you’ve got to be quite a special person to be able to lead an organisation that is structured like that. 

Mike Benson: Hence the baggy eyes. 

Kelly Molson: Yes. What does the future look like for the Crannog Centre? So you’ve had a grant from Scottish government and it’s being rebuilt on the new site, which is directly across the loch from where? 

Mike Benson: Twelve times bigger. We’re building it as an Iron Age village as well. So we’re doing it the wrong way around, kind of. Instead of building the Crannog, first, we’ll build an Iron Age village. So what’s next is we’ll try and get that done. This was always project one. As I said, we needed to have something that would get us up and running. And then Project Two will be to build a proper museum.

So at one end of Scotland’s most powerful river lies the V&A in Dundee, and at the other end of Scotland’s most powerful river, Batte, will I our new museum as well. As we go into Project Two, hopefully the deeper sense of belonging in more heft he says, “Don’t quote me on that.”

And it will be a different type because I think the V&A will probably be one of the last of the big concrete, super duper designed museums. Not critical at all. I think as the world’s moved on to a more stable models, there’d be maybe a different approach to how public buildings like that are built in the future. So that’s what’s coming next, if you like. Whether I’m still there to do that or not, who knows? 

Kelly Molson: Well, one of your apprentices will be director by then, probably, if you get your way. What does that look like in terms of time frames, though? So what are we looking at in terms of the new centre being open across on the other side of the loch? 

Mike Benson: So we hopefully going to do a soft opening in November. So it’s all about, as I’ve said, home and feeling safe and being yourself. So that opening will be potentially we’ll have the Mary Hills Refugee Choir there, we’ll have bands there and everything else. And we may be looking at how we can have on the old site some instruments there and some instruments. And now we’re sad. And they talk to each other across the loch. 

Kelly Molson: That’s lovely. Yeah. To share the stories of the older and the new. 

Mike Benson: And then the log boat will probably come along with a torch and all that sort of stuff. Anyway, everybody’s talking of different things. We’ll pull it all together. So, soft opening in November and then we’ll go larger. 

Kelly Molson: And you talked a little bit earlier about sustainability, is that right? I think I read this is that the centre is aiming for its new incarnation to become Scotland’s most sustainable museum. Not just about carbon count, but about the kind of the craft and the skills and the sustainability of materials. Is that about how it’s being built and constructed, as well as what you do there? 

Mike Benson: Yes. So we’ve got some brilliant folks on site now. So we’ve got Julie, Laura, Jordy, who are women carpenters who are working away Chaz again, carpenter. Jim, our Stormwall builder, and then Brian, our Thatcher, will be joining us once he’s finished the job up north. And while they’re there, they’re sharing the plan. Is that all those skills?

Oh, I forgot him. Ash. He’s building our he’s built the first one up. It’s a hazel, six meter high hazel roundhouse. It’s gorgeous. He’s nearly finished that working with Nelly. Anyway, give him all the name check. So the idea being that those skills are shared across the Crannog team. So in future years. The idea is that the Iron Age village that we’re building now, the buildings were only ever intended to last seven years, ish seven to ten years. 

Then they’ll go back into the earth and the caym across the road is a hill called Drummond Hill. And that’s where we’ll be starting to copies to grow the materials that we need to build these. So we employ Yein, the copieser and we’ll have Jenny, the forest gardener. So all the materials and the timbers, the stone, the reed for the thatch the heather is all within walking distance of a crown of dweller.

Kelly Molson: This seven year cycle is that what would have happened back then?

Mike Benson: So yeah you entered the coppers in cycle you see I’m no expert on this, it sounds like I know what I’m talking about, I don’t. However Ian the copies guy does and Jenny the forest gardener does. So within the forestry land services are taking out the large disease come in the hill opposite hopefully we’ll take over some of that land where we will copy some and start to plant the materials that we need for the future.

Hazel seven years then the York and everything else will take a bit longer but in years to come that’ll be totally sustainable and you literally will cross the road and take a tree down and build a building out of it. 

Kelly Molson: That is magic, isn’t it? That is really.

Mike Benson: And that’s what’s happening now. So the timbers that are coming on site are within walking distance and the buildings that are going up is all the stone is just locally sourced, everything’s just from over the road. And that requires a different skill set. Rather than just getting a timber from Norway or something from juicens, learning how to use local, local materials and making these buildings stay up and stand up and all that sort of stuff is a task in itself.

Kelly Molson: For me, it’s that idea of those crafts never dying as well. We don’t want that guy to be the last copieser. No those skills have to be transferred in a way that they are shared with the younger generation. I’m thinking about my two year old one day how lovely would it be to come and bring her and show her the way that people used to build houses back in the day and we don’t forget those things, that’s what’s important.

Mike Benson: And the fact that you can make a living out of it. So when people come to see us they are supporting, keeping all that alive and that’s part of thinking around that will take the buildings that we’re building now down in seven or eight years time because that’s how you’ll learn to build them again. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I guess of course because then the new people can learn, they’ve learned their skills, can learn to go through all of that process.

Mike Benson: And the apprentices that are there now learning will be the ones that are teaching. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah that’s really cool. 

Mike Benson: It’s an old model but it’s just how it is.

Kelly Molson:  And in a way you forget the simplicity of that, don’t you? You just forget. 

Mike Benson: Yeah and then within that sustainability as well if we become the sort of organisation that people want to partner with and work alongside and also a place that people want to visit and support so you’ve got the skills, materials, those four elements and then we think that will create a sustainable model. 

Kelly Molson: What more help do you need, Mike? So you’ve had a grant from Scottish government, you’ve had a huge outpouring of support from the general public when we had the fire. 

You mentioned a little while ago about a funding gap. Obviously, cost of living crisis has probably affected that, the rising cost of materials, et cetera. What can we do to help you? Or is there still a live kind of go funding part that we can all go? 

Mike Benson: You can still go onto our website and donate and I understand how hard it is for everybody just now as well, by the way. So we are still writing little applications here, there and everywhere just to try and cover those final bits. And it’s really hard because what we’ve tried to do, what we could have done is just close the current site, build the, you know, get the main contractors gone in and put the drains in and the car parks and all that stuff in then we could. But we tried to keep everybody employed and keep the apprenticeship going and everything else and that’s been quite a challenge. 

Obviously we haven’t got a Crannog even though we’re still getting we’ve improved our visitor figures to last year, just but it’s really hard without that central point and the old site is looking tired, which is where we always intended to move. So I think if anybody did want to help us in that way, that would be great. And also just share the word, really, and just tell folks to come and visit us if they can. That’s the best way to help. Just paying your £7 to come in and see us and just be part of it and keep a little bit of that love in your heart when you leave. 

Kelly Molson: Oh, Mike, you’re going to make me cry. This wont be the first time that you’ve got me. We are going to share in the show notes to this episode. We’re going to share all the ways that you can still support the Scottish Crannog Centre. So we’ll put a link to the website, we’ll put a link to the donation portals and yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s all about just encouraging people to go along.

Seven pounds is not a huge entrance fee to go and experience some of these things that you will never have seen anywhere else. You might learn about a craft that you might never see anywhere else. That’s not a huge amount to ask for people. So please dig deep if you can and help them create something that is going to be truly transformational for generations to come. 

Not just for people that visit it, but for the people that go there and do these apprenticeship schemes and learn the trades and develop themselves into something that their wildest dreams couldn’t have imagined. They could have achieved. Mike, thank you for sharing today. I’m so grateful of everyone that comes on to talk to me on the podcast, but your story really did touch me.

I was eight months pregnant at that time, Mike. I’m not going to lie, I probably would have dropped, probably would have cried if the dog had come in here and looked at me funny. But you did break me that day and it’s really lovely to hear all the positive things that have happened since then and all of the good things that are happening. Right, what about a book? We always ask our guests to come on and share a book that they love with our audience. Can be anything you like. 

Mike Benson: Well, because I am a museum director and an academic, I’m going to go for the Thursday Murder Club series

Kelly Molson: I knew this was not going to be a business book, Mike. 

Mike Benson: No, I’ve not planned them all. See, a book with leadership on it. I don’t know if you’ve read any of them, but Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Abraham are just so stupid and funny and English and gentle. It’s just lovely. So I’ve been plowing my way through all those I mean, the plots are way for thin the whole thing’s nonsense, but it’s just really good stuff to kind of remind you what human beings are. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, a lovely good escapism as well, aren’t they, those books. They are great. Well, as ever, listeners, if you want to win a copy of Mike’s book, you know what to do. Go over to our Twitter account and hit the retweet button with the message, I want Mike’s book. And we’ll put you into the prize drawer to win a book.

And that is for the last time this season, because this is the last podcast of this season, which is crazy. We’ve had so many guests on, so many amazing stories, so many initiatives that have been shared with us and so many learnings that I’ve personally taken away. Thank you all for listening. 

We will be back again in September after we’ve had a little summer break, because, let’s face it, you are going to be way too busy for podcasts over the summer, visiting, having all of your guests visit. So, Mike, thank you again. It has been an absolute pleasure. I’m really glad that you came on the podcast and you didn’t send somebody else to come and do the podcast.

Mike Benson: I was in two minds.

Kelly Molson: Brilliant. Thank you for coming on. Like we said, we’re going to put all of the details on how you can still help the Crannog Centre into the show notes today. Mike, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you. 

Mike Benson: You’ll take care now.



Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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