World Heritage Day was created in 1982 by ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and approved the following year at the UNESCO General Conference (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). The aim is to promote awareness about the diversity of cultural heritage of humanity, their vulnerability and the efforts required for their protection and conservation.
It seems fitting as we approach World Heritage Day (Tuesday 18th April, 2017), in the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, that we take a closer look at Scotland’s six World Heritage sites: St Kilda, Edinburgh Old Town and New Town, the Forth Bridge, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, New Lanark and the Antonine Wall.
The archipelago of St Kilda, the remotest part of the British Isles, became a World Heritage site in 1986 and is one of only a few in the world to hold dual status for its natural and cultural significance. The islands and their various sea stacks lie in the North Atlantic Ocean, 40 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides and 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland. St Kilda has been described as ‘the edge of the world’.
The largest of the islands is Hirta, which has the highest sea cliffs in the United Kingdom and is home to the former St Kildan’s settlement in Village Bay. Next in size are Soay (in English, ‘sheep island’) and Boreray (‘fortified isle’), with Dun (‘fort’) being the smallest.
In 1930, following a gradual decline in population, years of failed harvests and limited medical care, the last of Hirta’s residents left the isle. Today apart from a few military personnel, conservation workers, volunteers and scientists, St Kilda is uninhabited. The islands have one of the most extensive remains of vernacular buildings in Britain. The layout of the 19th-century village can still clearly be seen, and the islands and sea stacks are littered with over 1,400 stone-built cleitean for storing food and fuel.
During the spring and summer months, St Kilda is home to around a million seabirds that come to breed and raise their young. The islands are a globally important site for seabirds, hosting 17 different species including puffins, gannets, Manx shearwaters, Leach’s storm-petrels and great skuas. Seabirds formed a large part of the St Kildan diet, especially gannets, fumars and puffins.
St Kilda is also a natural nature reserve and apart from the seabirds has sheep, field mice and wrens that are all unique to the isles. Soay sheep, originally from the island of Soay are a primitive domestic breed that is believed to date back to around the 9th and 10th centuries AD (Viking era). Today there are unmanaged flocks of Soay sheep on Soay and Hirta and the breed can also be found throughout the rest of the world.
It is possible to visit St Kilda on a day boat chartered from the Isle of Skye or the Western Isles or visit under your own steam (motor or sail). The clear, oceanic waters of St Kilda support a spectacularly diverse range of marine animals and plants, attracting numerous divers to its stunning underwater world.
To celebrate World Heritage Day this year, the buildings and landscape of the archipelago of St Kilda will be created within the popular Minecraft video game (by Immersive Minds) and will be available for public download for children and adults to excavate and explore after the 18th April 2017.
Edinburgh Old and New Towns
Together, the Old and New Towns make one of the most beautiful cityscapes in the world. The striking contrast between the Medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town gives Edinburgh its unique character.
The Old Town is a well-preserved symbol of ancient Scottish history; cobbled streets, spooky narrow alleyways and the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. The Grassmarket is one of the oldest parts of the city and has always been a bustling marketplace. In the past, drovers coming to sell their cattle would frequent the many taverns and inns here. Today, the pubs and independent shops attract locals and visitors alike.
The Royal Mile is at the heart of the Old Town and runs from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It has retained many historical buildings, including Gladstone’s Land, the Writers’ Museum, Mary King’s Close, the John Knox House and the Museum of Edinburgh. But to get a real sense of Edinburgh’s past, it’s the closes and wynds that line the Royal Mile that hold the historical secrets. Step back in time in Riddle’s Court, Tweedale Court, Bakerhouse Close and Dunbar Close.
The New Town was designed in 1767 and is the largest complete example of Georgian town planning in the world. A stroll through its streets will take you on a journey past magnificent architecture, grand squares and terraces, elegant gardens and secluded lanes.
To celebrate World Heritage Day, the city of Edinburgh will come alive with medieval and classical music. Costumed performers will appear in locations throughout the Old and New Towns before meeting at Cecila’s Hall for a lunchtime concert – the Battle of the Bands.
This incredible steel cantilever railway bridge crosses the Firth (estuary) of Forth between North and South Queensferry, west of Edinburgh city centre. Innovative in style, materials and scale, the Forth Bridge took 4500 men 7 years to complete. It was built by the reputable partnership of John Fowler and Benjamin Baker and opened by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward the VII) on the 4th March 1890
The superstructure of the bridge takes the form of three double-cantilever towers rising 110m above their granite pier foundations, with cantilever arms to each side. The cantilever arms each project 207m from the towers and are linked together by two suspended spans, each 107m long. The resulting 521m spans formed by the three towers were individually the longest in the world for 28 years (before the completion of the Quebec Bridge), and remain collectively the longest in a multi-span cantilever bridge.
The Forth Bridge is of special architectural/historic interest and as such has been listed as Category-A, giving it the highest level of statutory protection. Its immediate surroundings have also been given protection through a host of cultural and natural heritage designations.
To celebrate World Heritage Day, the Forth Bridge festivities will include three-minute pop-up performances and workshops celebrating all things Victorian in a Steampunk-themed extravaganza.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, refers to a group of Neolithic monuments found on Mainland, one of the islands of Orkney. The four monuments are the Ring of Brodgar, The Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and Skara Brae – plus a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites.
The Ring of Brodgar is found in the West Mainland parish of Stenness. The monument is believed to have been erected between 2500BC and 2000BC. The large stone circle was 104 metres wide and thought to have contained 60 megaliths – although only 27 remain standing today. The Brodgar stones vary in height from 2.1 metres (7ft) to 4.7 metres (15ft 3in) and form the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. The Ring of Brodgar is enclosed by a ditch and has two entrances, one to the north-west and the other to the south-east. The site is surrounded by Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds and a short distance to the east is the solitary standing stone now known as the ‘Comet Stone’. The Ring of Brodgar was part of an enormous prehistoric ritual complex that incorporated the Stones of Stenness, approximately one mile to the south-east.
Standing at a maximum height of 6 metres (19ft), the megaliths of the Stones of Stenness (on the south-eastern shore of the Loch of Stenness), make the monument visible for miles around. Although only four stones remain, it is thought that it was once made up of 12 stones arranged in an ellipse. Other stones in the vicinity, the ‘Watchstone’, the ‘Barnhouse Stone’ and the ‘Odin Stone’ are now thought to have been part of the original complex.
Standing at the Stones of Stenness, it is possible to see the large grassy mound of the prehistoric chambered cairn of Maeshowe. It is a large chambered tomb that appears to be aligned so that the setting midwinter sun shines directly through Maeshowe’s entrance passage, illuminating the rear wall of the central chamber. During the excavation of the mound in 1861, archaeologists found that they were not the first to break into the tomb. Runes carved on the inner walls confirmed that several groups of Norsemen had entered the tomb in the middle of the 12th century.
In the neighbouring parish of Sandwick, lies the village of Skara Brae. Discovered in 1850, after a storm stripped the grass from a large mound of earth, it is one of the most remarkable prehistoric monuments in Europe. Further excavations followed, up to 1930, unearthing a total of eight buildings linked together by a series of low, covered passages. Buildings and contents are incredibly well-preserved.
To celebrate World Heritage Day, there will be a glow-in-the-dark adventure across the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Young explorers adorned with face and body paint designs will move from one location to another for an evening of storytelling, food and music.
Just under an hour from Glasgow and Edinburgh is New Lanark, an 18th Century cotton spinning mill village. Founded in 1785, this unique settlement on the banks of the River Clyde was managed by Robert Owen, a social pioneer who provided homes and good wages for his workers as well as free health care and a new education system for the villagers. He also opened the first workplace nursery in the world.
New Lanark has been restored as a living community and welcomes visitors to keep its history alive. You can travel back in time on the Annie Mcleod Experience dark ride which features mill girl Annie who magically appears and reveals the amazing story of her life in 1820. Other attractions include Robert Owen’s School for Children and Robert’s own house.
To celebrate World Heritage Day, yarn bombers, guerilla knitters and crochet hookers will descend on New Lanark. There will be talks about the history and archaeology of New Lanark, skills taster workshops for the heritage stitching activity, and of course lots of stitching, knitting and crochet.
The Antonine Wall
Running from east to west, and stretching some 37 miles long from modern Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde, the Antonine Wall marked the extent of the Roman military advance northwards from the existing frontier of Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its stone-built southern neighbour, the rampart of the Antonine Wall was constructed mainly of layered turf and reached a height of three metres. The defences included a five-metre deep ditch on the northern side of the Wall, seventeen forts along its length and a road to the south enabling the swift movement of troops.
The Wall was entirely built by members of the three Roman legions stationed in Scotland, a labour force of around 7,000 men. During construction, the soldiers lived in leather tents or wooden huts situated inside temporary camps which were enclosed by light defences.
The Wall is now under the care of Historic Scotland, and large sections of it are still very visible across the country. One of the best viewing points is near Bonnybridge, where the line of the Antonine Wall and ditch can be clearly seen running for a quarter of a mile through Seabegs Wood, to the south of the Forth and Clyde Canal.
To celebrate World Heritage Day, Picts (complete with blue face paint) will battle against Romans (in helmets) in a race across the site of the Antonine Wall in the grounds of Callendar House. For families and friends (and hungry runners), Callendar House will play host to a Great Roman Bake Off, where local groups will be invited to contribute items to a heritage-themed gingham altar.
So as we prepare in Scotland to celebrate our six iconic World Heritage sites, which will you be planning to visit this year?