at Caithness Horizons, Thurso
UPDATE October 2021: apparently this place is set to reopen in November under a new name: "North Coast Visitior Centre". The exhibits from Dounreay are allegedly still in place, so have been saved. That's good news. If any of my readers get a chance of going there I'd appreciate being informed about any changes, so that I can eventually update the chapter below (contact
[UPDATE: sadly this museum closed down in early 2019 for "financial reasons"; there have been talks about possibly re-opening it, but as far as I can see this hasn't happened yet. Hopefully at least the old control room exhibit can somehow be saved, whether at this location or somewhere else. We'll see ...]
An exhibition about Dounreay
(and British nuclear power in general), incorporating much of the plant's former visitor centre exhibition plus extra donations from the site, now housed at this visitor centre in Thurso, northern Scotland, .
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
Thurso in the early 1950s had been a town in decline, as was the whole region of Caithness, with little industry and development. So the arrival of a project as big as Dounreay, meant a tremendous boost to the local economy. Through Dounreay, Thurso's population tripled between 1955 and the mid-1960s, while the plant also provided a high employment rate for the local population, and the added purchasing power thus instilled into the region had further positive knock-on effects.
It is therefore perhaps not all that surprising that locally Dounreay is seen largely as something very positive indeed. (And its remote location ensured that there weren't so many anti-nuke protesters coming in from the outside either.) Even now as the site is undergoing decommissioning, this is still the case – and the decommissioning company still provides plenty of employment.
But what will happen when (if) it is all finished and the site is completely cleared, is hard to predict. The coverage of the nuclear theme at this museum will perhaps become even more poignant in years to come, at least to locals, as it may also attract more and more nostalgia.
The Caithness Horizons museum opened on 1 December 2008, after a refurbishment of Thurso Town Hall and the neighbouring Carnegie Library, both of which together house the current exhibitions and visitor centre facilities. It is run as a registered charity.
As decommissioning at the Dounreay
site was setting in, the Caithness Horizons museum became the lucky benefactor of many donations from the site made by the decommissioning company (Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd – also a founding partner and key sponsor).
Much of the former visitor centre exhibition, originally called Dounreay Education and Training Centre, thus ended up being moved to Thurso, including the original sign, which hangs at the entrance to today's exhibition as the first of its artefacts.
The largest and most prized exhibit at the museum today is the original control room, with its panels and consoles, from the Dounreay Materials Testing Reactor (DMTR). It was dismantled and transferred to Caithness Horizons in late 2014. After reconstruction on site, it was opened as the centrepiece of a new section of the museum exhibition in spring 2015.
(Incidentally, the control room of the iconic Dounreay Fast Reactor was also dismantled and donated – but to two different institutions, namely National Museums Scotland as well as the Science Museum in London
. These will have to share the artefacts, i.e. each will be able to set up only a part of the control room in future displays. In contrast, the DMTR control room, which admittedly is much smaller, has been kept together at Caithness Horizons.)
The development of the nuclear-power-related parts of the Caithness Horizons museum is still ongoing, as a sign informs visitors, thus it is still a little sketchy and does not purport to present a “whole story”. Still, what is already there is pretty impressive and worth the (considerable) detour for the so inclined dark/nuclear tourist.
What there is to see: UPDATE: the museum closed in the spring of 2019. Whether it may reopen or not remains to be seen. For the time being the text below is sadly no longer relevant ... but I'll let it stand for a while before I consider moving it into the 'lost places' section
UPDATE January 2020: now that the museum is set to re-open, I can probably let this old text stand for longer. I'll try to find out whether there will be significant changes to the contents of the Dounreay exhibition and if the original control room panels have been retained. I hope so.
As you enter the airy atrium of the Caithness Horizons visitor centre, the Dounreay section branches off to the right. It takes up the entire ground floor wing on that side, and continues with newer additions and the rest of the non-nuclear-related exhibitions upstairs.
The exhibition features a good mix of intriguing artefacts and explanatory information, the latter mostly in the form of text-and-photo panels. Some of the older labelling and texts are bilingual, in Gaelic and English (and the former always looks like it needs twice as many letters!), while the newer interpretative panels specifically added for the Caithness Horizons museum are in English only.
There is also a computer screen
at a desk downstairs on which you could watch a set of documentaries
related to Dounreay
. As the total running time is over an hour and a half, I decided against sitting through all that material, as it was already getting near closing time when I had finished going through the museum. Unfortunately, none of that video material is available in the shop for purchase on DVD or so (for copyright reasons I was informed), but you can find at least some of the material (for free) on the Internet if you search a bit. The names of the programmes are visible in the screenshot photo below.
But now for the exhibition proper: The first artefact of note that you see when entering is a model of the “golf ball”-shaped experimental Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) building, which is locally also known as The Dome. This representation is partly cut open at the front (making it almost look like a motorcycle helmet) so you can look in (as if through the visor) and see the intricate model of the various parts of the reactor. As it is a unique and fragile object you are admonished not to touch it.
On the other hand, the largest exhibit here is fully hands-on: it's a model of what they call here a 'master slave manipulator' – that's one of those electric/hydraulic contraptions on which you can use a handle to remotely pick up and move objects around behind a glass wall (like in a nuclear lab). You can test your skill at remotely picking up perspex tubes of different sizes and inserting them into their respective holes. I must say I found it easier than I would have expected. Good fun.
Other artefacts on display include mock-ups of different types of fuel rod assemblies, Geiger counters, tools, a cross section of a mock barrel of nuclear waste, and another reactor model, this time more a three-dimensional diagram of the Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR). This is complemented by an illuminated panel showing the typical arrangements of fuel rods, breeder assemblies, control rods and so on.
The accompanying interpretative panels provide information about the history of Dounreay and its reactors and explain their inner workings … as much as that is possible for a layperson audience.
So if you ever wondered what actually is meant by 'fast breeder' in this context, you can learn it here. To sum it up in short: the reactor is used to irradiate uranium assemblies within its core in order to produce plutonium, which in turn can then be used as new fuel for more electricity production … so in a way, it's producing its own fuel. That was the key to the idea dating back to a time when it was assumed that natural uranium might get scarce at some point.
That prediction proved wrong, however, which is a factor that contributed to the eventual shelving of the British fast breeder programme. It had also proven too expensive and there were safety concerns as well.
The latter topic, safety
, is dutifully given a little coverage too, if only superficially. It is also mentioned that the mood gradually turned against nuclear power following major incidents at Harrisburg
. The fact that Dounreay
, too, has had its own number of incidents (though not on the same scale) is briefly acknowledged in this context as well.
But overall the tone of the exhibition remains quite positive. I wouldn't say it's glorifying nuclear power (certainly less so than the new Sellafield
exhibition at the Beacon in Whitehaven
), but rather it comes across as genuinely grateful, so it is mostly celebratory of what Dounreay has meant for the region and its people.
Many parts of the exhibition accordingly concentrate on the people side of the story, particularly the social and cultural aspects of the workforce community at the plant. There are copies of the plant's own in-house magazine, called “The Reactor”, retirement presents, award trophies and gifts that were handed to employees, including a little golf-ball-reactor-shaped novelty table lighter.
Various original documents and manuals can be seen, and even cartoons with in-jokes are on the walls too, fortunately with at least some explanations of the relevant contexts.
Particularly endearing, I found, is also a folder chronicling “royal visits”, in particular ones by the Queen Mother in 1957 and 1961 (She was probably a most likely royal representative to come here due to the fact that her own Scottish holiday residence, Castle Mey, was near Thurso too.) The photos of the Queen Mother in a pink dress and hat formed such an odd juxtaposition with all the control panels and other gear in the background of these photos that it made me smile.
Also still in the downstairs part of the exhibition there is a separate section about the military role
Dounreay played (and still plays to a degree today), namely in the development and testing of reactors for Britain's fleet of nuclear submarines
at the so-called Vulcan site right next to Dounreay
. This is, fittingly, accompanied by a model of such a submarine.
Possibly the most noticeable curiosity on display, on the other hand, is the bright green model of parts of the Dounreay plant, including the DFR sphere – all made from uranium glass!
The topic of decommissioning also gets some detailed coverage – all this obviously without any items from the former visitor centre, but produced specifically for the new Caithness Horizons exhibition.
And then there was a panel with the heading “Introduction”. That surprised me. So had I done the exhibition in the wrong order? Should I have started at the back (if so, the woman at the reception desk never alerted me to that). But instead it's possibly just that the exhibition is still not fully organized, as the text on the introduction panel explains quite frankly. It also said that bits and sections may be rotated around to fit in better as more items might be added and “key themes emerge” in the future. Moreover, they spell out that the current focus is on the social and economic history of Dounreay and that is is designed to “celebrate the achievements” of the site.
The museum continues further upstairs. And the first bit you get to see here is the absolute highlight of it all: the reassembled original control room of the former Dounreay Materials Testing Reactor (DMTR) with all its consoles, panels and meters.
Not only does it ooze plenty of history of nuclear science, it is also quite simply a beautiful example of 1950s design of such technology. The way some of the dials and meters are made is almost ornamental. I totally adored this.
You are even allowed to touch the dials, with due care, of course, but still. The only exception is the replica cup of tea and the mock biscuits on the saucer by its side – all these are firmly affixed and are just a tongue-in-cheek addition to the scene ... presumably to make the console look as if it were still in use.
Much of the deeper meaning and function of all the technology will remain a mystery to most general-public visitors who (like myself) lack sufficient expert knowledge of the subject matter, but I did spot a few familiar items all the same, including the scram button (for emergency shutdown).
There were also lots of somewhat disconcerting red warning lights and meters. So obviously lots could have gone wrong. And to my surprise I also found one meter whose reading indicated there was still power coming from the reactor.
The DMTR console is surrounded by yet more contemporary information panels – and there is some overlap with what had already been covered in the exhibition sections downstairs. There are also a few more displays of documents, manuals and so on.
But basically this is the end of the nuclear-themed part of the museum. Moving on into the next room there's a stark contrast. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded by seabird taxidermy … as the museum moves into the topics of local wildlife and geology.
This part of the museum is about the Caithness region in general, including its ancient history. So there is naturally also a section about the Vikings, who at a time dominated these parts. It is in this context that you encounter that skeleton display you can see in the photo gallery below. It's about ancient burial rites.
Otherwise there isn't anything of particular interest to the dark tourist in the remainder of the museum, so I rather quickly made my way down again to the reception area. A brief look around the museum shop revealed that this too didn't offer anything else on the nuclear theme. It is just a general Scottish souvenir store.
Caithness Horizons is also a kind of visitor centre (in addition to the separate tourist information office) – and the friendly woman at the desk was certainly able to provide me with useful information about Thurso, e.g. where to find what shops and where to best go for a drink.
Overall, this museum lives mostly of its incredible artefacts, especially of course that complete set of controls, panels and consoles from the DMTR. In the narrative of the main part of the exhibition downstairs a kind of general thread or clear chronological organization may be a bit lacking, but that did not bother me at all. It's the kind of exhibition where you can easily jump from one subtopic to another in no particular order.
Content-wise the Dounreay exhibition(s) may be a bit biased towards the celebratory, but I never found it too much or too in your face. It certainly did not feel like corporate PR (cf. Sellafield Story exhibition
). So I found this certain lack in balance quite acceptable here.
in the heart of Thurso, Caithness, Scotland, Great Britain
, housed in the Old Town Hall on High Street, just 160 yards or so from the main thoroughfare, the A9. It's about a 15 minutes' drive from the actual Dounreay site
Access and costs: in the very far north of Britain's mainland, hence time-consuming to get to, but not too difficult, even by public transport; the museum is free.
Details: It's a long way up to Thurso from Scotland's industrial belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh, or even from the central Highlands, but the several hours' drive is doable in a day. There is parking near the museum.
Alternatively, there is a railway station in Thurso, in fact the northernmost one in the whole of Britain! It's one of the two terminus stations (the other is in Wick) of the Far North Line from Inverness. Buses also provide services to Wick, John o'Groats and Inverness.
The nearest airport is at Wick (just north of the town), which offers a few connections to Edinburgh and Aberdeen. From there you could get public or taxi transport to Thurso. But if you made it as far as Aberdeen, a hire car might be the more viable alternative. This also gives you the chance to drive to the Dounreay site
itself and use its public viewing car park.
Within the town of Thurso the museum is hard to miss – just walk along the High Street in the centre and you'll find it.
You will almost certainly require accommodation in the area when coming this far, and Thurso itself has several options on offer for this in the form of a couple of hotels and B&Bs. You can also find more options in the area around Thurso – and in particular in Wick (including one in an old towerhouse castle right on the seashore).
The museum's opening times are: Mondays to Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays to 5 p.m. only, in summer also Sundays from 12 noon to 5 p.m., but closed Sundays between September and April.
[UPDATE: currently, as of February 2019, the museum remains closed. Apparently it was also no longer free of charge before it closed either; and it's been alleged that there may be a connection ... But now it's under new management and refurbishing work is ongoing; the museum is said to re-open at some point during 2020. We'll see ...]
Time required: for the Dounreay exhibition alone you'll need about an hour; longer if you also want to explore the rest of the museum; much longer still (an extra 1 ½ hours) if you also want to watch all the documentaries on the screen provided.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Obviously enough, the short drive from Thurso to the actual Dounreay site
is a must-do . There is now a public viewing area with a few info panels by the car park.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see the relevant section under Dounreay
- Caithness Horizons 01 - the visitor centre in the centre of Thurso
- Caithness Horizons 02 - old Dounreay visitor centre sign
- Caithness Horizons 03 - the Dounreay Story exhibition
- Caithness Horizons 04 - reactor model
- Caithness Horizons 05 - videos you could watch on a computer
- Caithness Horizons 06 - another reactor model
- Caithness Horizons 07 - reactor core
- Caithness Horizons 08 - fuel rods
- Caithness Horizons 09 - nuclear waste
- Caithness Horizons 10 - nuclear submarine
- Caithness Horizons 11 - uranium glass model
- Caithness Horizons 12 - various artefacts
- Caithness Horizons 13 - hands-on exhibit
- Caithness Horizons 14 - radio-active TV
- Caithness Horizons 15 - original control console from the materials testing reactor
- Caithness Horizons 16 - complete with mock cup of tea
- Caithness Horizons 17 - warning lights
- Caithness Horizons 18 - nearly neither
- Caithness Horizons 19 - looks like lots can go wrong
- Caithness Horizons 20 - rack of equipment
- Caithness Horizons 21 - vintage design
- Caithness Horizons 22 - scram button
- Caithness Horizons 23 - where does that 0.5 MW rest of power come from
- Caithness Horizons 24 - other parts of the centre
- Caithness Horizons 25 - a grim bit in the Vikings section