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Inside the House of Automata: The new Moray museum that already has a global reputation

Tourists travel from across the world to see the experts who supply automata to the stars.

The exterior of the House of Automata gives little away of its wonders.

Once inside, however, you quickly realise this old bike shop in Forres is unlike anywhere else.

Antique dolls, puppets and animals come to life, startling, delighting and fascinating children simultaneously.

But these exhibits are not toys. They are historic self-operating machines designed to mimic reality from a forgotten age of entertainment.

And the House of Automata in Forres is the largest collection of its kind in the UK with a growing global reputation.

Three adults, two children smiling at doll waking up in bed.
Children enthralled by a doll appearing to wake up in bed. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Supplying automata to the stars

Michael and Maria Start have been restoring, manufacturing and collecting automata in business since 1994, first setting up in London’s prestigious Bond Street.

They quickly developed a reputation for being an authority on the unique collectables, with Carrie Fisher from Star Wars among their many celebrity clients.

Today the couple and their son Hector continue supply some of their most striking automata to Hollywood blockbusters.

A cheerful monkey shaking maracas became very sinister in the dark Woman in Black featuring Daniel Radcliffe. A mechanical hand and head inspired the Martin Scorsese movie Hugo.

Automata behind glass case.
Automata once owned by James Bond writer Ian Fleming. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

The couple moved to the Forres area about 20 years ago and have continued growing their worldwide reputation with clients for restoring, commissions and buying around the globe.

Mr Start said: “We mainly have people come to us from the south of England but we have clients come to us from all over the world, not so much from Scotland.

“Due to their age, most of the automata have had at least 20 previous owners. Everyone thinks they are the definitive owner so they do their own thing, it’s my job to make sure they’re around for another 20 owners.”

Watch the Monkey with Maracas in The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe. 

Opening the doors in Forres to the House of Automata

For nearly 30 years, Mr and Mrs Start had been quietly building their collection from private workshops.

Their personal collection has now swelled to about 600 items with some having to be kept in Edinburgh due to a lack of space.

After Stuart Cycles closed on Forres High Street after nearly 100 years, the couple seized the opportunity to open the doors to their House of Automata earlier this year.

The couple’s global reputation has led to enthusiasts from as far as Hong Kong, the US and Switzerland organising holidays to Moray specifically for a look inside.

Maria Start holding a bulldog automata.
Maria Start holding a nodding bulldog automata that inspired the TV commercials. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

It’s a niche audience with average auction prices varying from £300 up to £1,500 in the right sale with enthusiastic buyers.

Mrs Start said: “I love the craftsmanship and the artistry of them all, they’re not plastic, bright and ugly.

“I don’t know if other girls were like this, but when I was a child I always imagined my dolls coming to life and here they really do.

“When you look at robots they lose some of the lifelike element, automata keeps that.”

What is automata?

Automata dates back thousands of years to the time of Ancient Greece when they were generally used as useful machines.

The House of Automata in Forres specialises in the mid-19th Century “golden age” of automata from France.

For the first time the wind-up machines became affordable for the middle classes and there was a surge in popularity.

Michael Start in workshop holding book under arm.
Michael Start inside the House of Automata workshop. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Instead of being useful tools or grand works of art, they began to resemble people doing amazing feats or exotic animals.

Hector, who is a fine arts graduate, is kept busy in the workshop in the House of Automata to keep the machines working smoothly.

A touch-up of feathers here, new clothing there or maintenance on cogs, the intricate work within one handheld automata can contain up to 300 parts.

It’s an ancient craft that Mr Start is keeping alive in a book he’s written, due to be published in late November, entitled Secrets of Automata.

He said: “People ask over and over again how do they do that. Sometimes there’s an element of wanting to keep it a secret, but you also want to keep the knowledge alive for the future.”

Inside the House of Automata

All images Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Michael, Maria and Hector Start standing in a line in House of Automata.
Michael, Maria and Hector Start inside the House of Automata.
Pig automata holding trombone.
This pig has had his trombone repaired and clothing restored.
Leopard automata with internal mechanisms exposed.
Inside a stalking leopard that featured in the movie Hugo.
Michael Start with leaping tiger in front.
A tiger leaps into life.
Michael Start demonstrates doll to children out of camera shot.
A doll that appears to play with a dog.
Michael Start looking at magician automata.
This trickster magician appears to move objects beneath the cups in his hands.
Life-size woman automata under House of Automata sign.
Life-size Nancy will make flirtatious overtures at visitors.
A more modern archer who shoots arrows across the room.

House of Automata is open at 32 Forres High Street Thursdays and Fridays from 10am to 4pm and on Saturdays from 10am to 1pm. Admission £7, children £5.

A special Automatical Wonders show is being held on Sunday, November 19 at 3pm. The event will feature a talk about the collection and demonstrations. Tickets £15, concessions £12, booking required by e-mailing