Virtual Museum
Experience Caen Township in 1813

Enter World

You don't have to be Dr Who to travel back in time

Our Virtual Museum can transport you to the pre-Clearances 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. Life here came to an abrupt end in 1825. All that remains of the site today 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 19th century rural Sutherland.

Based on Ordinance Survey data, the Virtual World of Caen 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 very 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.

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

Access to the virtual world

Visit the Storytelling Room in our museum where you can experience the model in a panoramic, immersive environment.

To preview the development download Unity3D Web Player and visit a single longhouse online:
Please note that this can take up to 15 minutes to load.

Access the full version by going to the open virtual worlds website. You will be asked to enter a first name and a last name, password and email address. Fill in these boxes then click 'create' to see further instructions on how to start exploring the township.

We are currently developing new accessibility which will enable stereoscopic 3D visualisation utilising Oculus Rift glasses.

The Virtual World Project

Guided Tour of Caen Township


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 Sutherland, a large, rural and remote area.

To commemorate the Bicentenary of the Kildonan Clearances we set out to virtually reconstruct a longhouse and outbuilding using the evidence and finds uncovered from a community excavation in June 2013.

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 Ordinance Survey data, the Virtual World of Caen is an authentic reconstruction of the landscape around Caen depicting a cluster of longhouses and outbuildings. Caen was a real township in the Strath of Kildonan where people raised families for many generations and tended the land and their animals. The last tenants left in 1825 when the township was cleared by the landowners for more profitable sheep farming. The model portrays life around 1800.
Visitor experience: When the visitor to Timespan's Museum enters the storytelling room, a small dark room (four by four metres), his/her movements are 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. Our model combines gaming technology with educational historic resources - as far as we know, this is a combination that does not exist anywhere else in the UK.
Technical features: The virtual world application is a bespoke implementation that has been developed by John McCaffery for Open Simulator as part of his doctoral project on augmenting virtual world technology to make interactive cultural heritage content available for experiential learning in a range of different environments.


After submitting an initial proposal to develop a Virtual Museum in the form of an augmented reality application, David Chapman from Interface brought us in touch with Dr Alan Miller from the University of St Andrews. 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. The final product has far surpassed our expectations.

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 2014

Development Stages

(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.
  • Throughout 2014: showcasing the Virtual World at conferences such as Scotland's Community Heritage Conference, events such as Culloden Homecoming or the annual Helmsdale Highland Games.
The development of the Virtual World is process based and has been conducted in conjunction with TS's annual programme and StA's current research interests. This integration allowed both partners to invest additional resources and knowledge. We are looking forward to developing the project further in the near future.


Tales of Caen: Stories from the Present for the Past



School of Computing, University of St Andrews: Caen project blog including a picture gallery, videos and project description.

An overview of the 2013 Translocation Excavation at Caen. Click here. The full excavation design can be found here.

Download our Clearance Trail App for iOS - iPad or iPhone or for Android.

Caen Township: An Interactive Virtual World Exhibit

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