Scotland’s UNESCO Trail-A Tour Through Scotland’s Wonders

By Aaron Stoyack

On October 15th of last year, the first UNESCO Trail was launched to digitally connect thirteen UNESCO-designated places. Amongst these thirteen, biospheres, global geoparks, and creative cities were included along with six World Heritage Sites. Scottish Parliament member Neil Gray began a fascinating virtual conference by celebrating this achievement and thanking the staff of all six of Scotland’s WHS that would be presenting.

Joining him was Anne Anderson, Director of the Further Education Portfolio at UNESCO. On the importance of these places, she said, “They can be places of human creativity or natural beauty, and clearly this distinction can have a major international impact.” Despite the positive ripple effect these designated places have throughout the world, they are threatened by overtourism. 

Representatives for the six sites presented in turn. Alice Lyall, a presenter on the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, went first. The site consists of four different monuments dating back as far as 5,000 years ago. In addition, there are several other known burial or ceremonial sites which have yet to be unearthed, making Orkney a hotbed for archaeological research. It also has value as an environmental sanctuary, recreation site, and holds spiritual significance for many. However, erosion and rising sea levels have been gradually deteriorating the landscape in recent years.

Susain Bain delivered a slideshow on St. Kilda, the UK’s only mixed WHS. This means that it holds both natural and cultural heritage importance. With a unique environmental makeup that consists of 96% marine environment, St. Kilda is an archipelago forty miles away from the nearest land. On land, volcanic cliffs and grassy slopes provide the perfect nest for seabirds to raise their young. In the flat valleys, the landscape is cluttered with artifacts of the people who once lived there, many of whom based their livelihoods on the harvest of seabirds and their eggs. The last inhabitants left in the 1930s, leaving the stone structures intact. Nowadays, the island boasts over a million feathery visitors a year.

Dr. Rebecca Jones was the speaker for the New Lanark site. It was a town founded in 1786, which textile magnate Robert Owen fashioned into a utopian-minded company town. Unlike other corporate towns of the day, New Lanark was a true community, its name “…synonymous with that of Robert Owen and his social philosophy in matters such as progressive education, factory reform, humane working practices, international cooperation, and garden cities.” The organization managing New Lanark must manage its preservation and tourism within a still-active community with residents and businesses. This is accomplished by keeping the innovative spirit alive, particularly through education for all ages.

Dr. Jones also presented on the Antonine Wall. This barrier demarcated Scotland’s Roman frontier and stretched about forty miles through one of the most developed areas on the island. The Wall is Scotland’s only transboundary site, jointly managed with colleagues in England working on Hadrian’s Wall and some in Germany as well. There are also two other WHS pertaining to Roman barriers: the Lower German Limes (Netherland and Germany), and the Danube Limes (Germany, Austria, and Slovakia). In an effort to think globally with a future-oriented lens, a community-based project called Rediscovering the Antonine Wall came into existence. The project successfully gave residents the opportunity to create head sculptures, public murals, playgrounds, and exhibitions. 

The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh were represented by Jenny Bruce. The site’s Statement of Outstanding Universal Value claims, “Edinburgh, capital of Scotland since the 15th century, presents the dual face of an old city dominated by a medieval fortress and a new neo-classical city whose development from the 18th century onwards exerted a far-reaching influence on European urban planning”. Among the 270 key features listed were Castle Rock, the complex religious history, municipal planning, and geology. Again, a WHS in a bustling urban center creates both challenges and opportunities. The public is often polled and is supportive of initiatives for sustainability and racial justice. 

Finally, Dr. Miles Oglethorpe discussed The Forth Bridge. It is the first example of use of mild steel in a large-scale structure. This engineering marvel was completed at the same time its company was performing repairs on the Tower Bridge and New Tay Bridge! Some unique aspects include that only the bridge itself was designated with no buffer zone. In addition, it is one of the few WHS still performing its original function, and it currently handles 200 trains a day. Tourism takes place at North Queensferry or Dalmeny Station at either end, while repairs are handled by the national transport authority of Scotland. 

Each of these speeches were incredibly informative, and not solely in regards to the importance of the sites themselves. Presenters discussed the ongoing challenges in managing sites still in use and the realities of environmental degradation. Nevertheless, the Scottish government, with the help of each of these participating locations, has created something truly special with the digital tour. The tour, along with events like this, are bound to draw more visitors. Clearly evident after listening to each dedicated speaker, all of the WHS are eager and prepared for the inevitable influx of tourists to these invaluable places.

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