Virtual Museum

Translocation Township

Visit our museum and experience Caen Township in 1813

You don’t have to be Dr Who to travel back in time. Our Virtual Museum can transport you to the tiny township of Caen two miles north-west of Helmsdale, where everything is exactly as it was 200 years ago.

Caen was a real township in the Strath of Kildonan where people raised families and tended the land and their animals. All that remains of the site are clusters of stones, but we have rebuilt the township virtually in an immersive digital realm, to give you an up close and personal view of life in 18th century rural Sutherland.

Based on Ordinance Survey data, Caen virtual world is an authentic reconstruction of the landscape with its longhouses and outbuildings both inside and out. Thanks to finds from an excavation carried out in Summer 2013, the virtual model is even more accurate.

As a small museum in a remote area, we are proud of our virtual township which we developed with St Andrews University. Advances in 3D technology and the digital literacies associated with computer gaming, make it possible to open up the past and explore it in exciting new ways.

Experiencing and interacting with the township through virtual reality brings history alive to digital visitors both nationally across the globe.

Access to the virtual world

Here are some screen shot impressions of the development of the  Translocation Township.

Caen from Open VW on Vimeo.

Full description

The Virtual World of Caen

The new product is an interactive, immersive Virtual World application accessible from Timespan’s storytelling room and online. It depicts a pre-Clearances settlement located at Caen, 2 miles North-West of Helmsdale. The visitor of the virtual world is invited to enter the site with an avatar, to explore and learn how the tenants of Caen lived in 1813.


Timespan Museum and Arts Centre is situated in the far north of Scotland in Helmsdale, Sutherland. Our focus is on relationships with people and long-term creative development; we believe in new ideas and creative exchange, in access to excellence, technology and innovation, in promoting education and facilitating vibrant community dialogue. We aim to challenge perceptions of what can be delivered by a cultural organisation rooted in the distinctive, but fragile, socio-economic ecology of this large, rural and remote area.

To commemorate the Bicentenary of the Clearances we set out to virtually reconstruct a site that we had chosen for a community excavation of a longhouse. Before the excavation started, Timespan was brought in touch with Dr Alan Miller, University of St Andrews through Interface. Our collaboration has produced the first virtual world with historical content, accessible in a cultural context in the UK; it has enhanced the visitor experience in our museum, and has put Timespan on the map as a forward thinking organisation with a growing national reputation.


Content:  Based on OS data and a geo-physical survey the model is an accurate three-dimensional reconstruction of the landscape around the settlement of Caen. The buildings portrayed in the model depict life in 1813.

Visitor experience: When the visitor to Timespan’s museum enters the storytelling room, a small dark room, four by four meters, his/her movements are being picked up by a Kinect hidden in the wall below a large three-sided panorama screen. The user can choose from different menu options to start a guided tour, to access the site with/without avatar or to view research and background information. A model combines gaming technology with educational resources – such produce does not exist elsewhere in the UK.

Access: The product can also be accessed on multiple platforms (online via hand-held devices); we’re currently developing new accessibility, which will enable stereoscopic 3D visualisation utilising Oculus Rift glasses.

Technical features: The virtual world application is a bespoke implementation  that has been developed by John McCaffery for Open Simulator,  open source software as part of his PhD.


After submitting an initial proposal to develop a Virtual Museum in form of an augmented reality application, David Chapman from Interface brought us in touch with Dr Alan Miller from St Andrews University. The work on virtual worlds that Alan Miller had undertaken fascinated us. Although the product deviated from our initial proposal we understood the potential in creating a three-dimensional, immersive Virtual Museum within our existing museum space. This was even better than what we anticipated.

The development of the Virtual World of Caen:

(TS = Timespan, StA = St Andrews University School of Computer Science)

  • October 2012: initial meeting at TS: discussion about vision and strategy
  • November 2012: landscape survey by archaeologist Tom Dawson (SCAPE, StA) and first meeting with the StA team (project leader, designer, programmer)
  • December 12-February 2013: historical research (TS Heritage Officer and Heritage Committee) and content development (StA) → Innovation Voucher
  • March 2013: redevelopment of TS storytelling room (electrics, screen, re-decoration, additional equipment).  School workshops to test the model.
  • April 2013: Launch of the Virtual World – pre-view and workshop for descendants of Caen, official launch and demonstration.
  • April 2013: Presentation of the Virtual World at the international TAG conference in Reykjavik, Iceland.
  • June 2013: TS Community Excavation at Caen, marketing campaign.
  • July 2013: Re-development of the model with new results and knowledge from the Caen excavation.
  • August 2013: Showcasing Virtual World at Translocation Festival. StA on site for workshops and demonstrations.
  • September 2013: Development of model for multiple platforms: tablet, mobile, Oculus Rift glasses (ongoing). Presentation of the Virtual World at the Imagining Natural Scotland Conference, St Andrews.
  • October 2013: Presentation of the Virtual World at the Digital Heritage International Congress in Marseilles, France.

The development of the product is process based and has been conducted in conjunction with TS annual programme and StA current research interests. This integration allowed both partners to invest additional resources and knowledge. In order to develop the project further we have now applied to external funding bodies; results are currently pending.

As Chair of Timespan, I am particularly delighted to see this collaboration with St Andrews University. We find that working with academics makes our projects more exciting and adds depth to our research. It is easy to become entrenched in your own little world so we find that these collaborations bring fresh ideas and knowledge to Helmsdale.

Jean Sargent June 2013