While it had often been suggested that there should be a heritage centre or exhibition at the Abbey, it was not until after the closure of the school that sufficient space could be devoted to such an enterprise. The Abbey was rich with subject matter and it was not so much a matter of "what could be included?" as "what should be left out?".
Gradually a scheme took shape and the Abbot and monastic community particularly wanted to cover the heritage of the area as well as the story of the monks themselves. The picture here was taken at the official opening on 4th July 1997. Left to right are Abbot Mark Dilworth OSB (recently retired), Charles Kennedy MP and Archbishop Keith O'Brien.
When first arriving at the Abbey you approach the 19th century drawbridge across the last remains of the dry moat which surrounded the buildings in the 18th century, during its period as a fort for the Hanoverian army which was keeping the Highlanders down. You were then met by Exhibition Manager, Andy Stewart, seen here with one of the Abbey's tame robins. He, or one of his trained staff, then explained how the Sony Walkmans provide individual guided tours in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Dutch or Gaelic (the centre opened in 1994 and more languages were added as resources allow).
Armed with your headset, you then passed into a corridor of the original Fort Augustus, built by General Wade between 1720 and 1740. The architecture is typical of the Redcoat soldier engineers. Shortly you entered a small chapel with a rather unusual red-brick floor, the reason for which, the commentary challenges you to discover.
Next you passed through a set of stained-glass doors into the cloisters which the monks built on the site of the old barrack square. Here you learned about the purposes of the various buildings which surround the courtyard and you were again challenged by the commentary, only this time to work out the reason why there is no large building on the south side of the cloisters.
Now you move into a gloomy corridor, with walls six feet (2 metres) thick, leading to a food storage room which was used to imprison Lord Lovat in 1746 after the last Jacobite uprising before he was taken to London to be publicly beheaded. In this section of the heritage centre you learn how a later Lord Lovat gave the old fort to the monks 130 years later.
Now you move into a fascinating section devoted to the Benedictine monks and their lives and history. On display are some remarkable vestments, including some made by the nuns who used to live in the convent nearby.
Now you pass by relics found in the grounds around the fort including cannon balls, musket balls, an iron breastplate, the keys to Fort Augustus and buttons reputed to have come from a jacket worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Next you enter Austin Campbell's Exhibition of the Scottish Highlander which takes you through the history of the local people from Pictish times to present day, then on into another computerised display which deals with the last days of the fort and answers challenges posed during the tour. This section fascinates and enthrals visitors of all ages and nationalities.
Finally you see a hand-painted display on the history of monasticism and have an opportunity to sign a visitors book which is second to none in Scotland. It was always expected that people would like the exhibition, but the comments in the book go far beyond normal praise and the list of superlatives is quite extraordinary. Many say that they have learned more in our heritage centre than in the whole of the rest of their visit to Scotland ... see if you agree.
In order to meet the needs of the visitor and continual requests for information about Nessie, it was decided to mount a presentation which told the truth about the fake photographs and took a more logical approach to the subject. This is an excellent exhibit for the open minded, but may disappoint Nessie believers and surprise the Nessie sceptics. Don't miss it.