Strathnaver Museum – People of the Clearances

The refurbished Strathnaver Museum covers the sweep of the area’s vibrant heritage.  Inevitably, though, the impact of the brutal early 19th-Century Highland Clearances on the local community figures prominently in the displays.  

What took place was well documented by, among others, the local clergyman Donald MacLeod. CMC’s interpretive task was to bring these horrific incidents to the attention and understanding of modern-day visitors.

The obvious starting point was to record a selection of the grim contemporary accounts and relay them in the Museum. But without personal imagery of those affected this was never going to be a level playing field. The powerful have their portraits painted. The rural poor are lucky if they figure in a tableau. 

While visitors listened to their accounts, we wanted to project the faces of the evicted onto the minister’s pulpit. We needed to add a suite of powerful new portraits and as an experiment we turned to AI software. 

We fed in the information we knew about the witnesses and evicted, including occupations and age at the time of the clearances. This was cross referenced with painting styles from carefully selected contemporary artists, lighting and desired expression to help generate suitable portraits. Finally, Photoshop was used to adjust the colours and add in extra details, like the Macdonald tartan. As you can see the results can be impressive but they take time and skill.

The figure to the left is an early stage AI trial – those below were all developed further by CMC.