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Issue 85 - And Then There Were Six

Scotland Magazine Issue 85
February 2016


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And Then There Were Six

John Hannavy celebrates Scotland's World Heritage sites

The Forth Railway Bridge – 125 years young and arguably the most iconic structure in Scotland after Edinburgh Castle – has been inscribed on to the hallowed list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is an important recognition of its status, but one which comes with a lot of strings attached about maintaining the structure, its place in the landscape of the Firth of Forth and the sight-lines which offer the dramatic views of it which have been celebrated and immortalised on millions of postcards, calendars and shortbread tins. It is the sixth Scottish site to be listed and the second from that rich period of industrial development and innovation in Scotland in the 19th century.

So what does being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site actually mean?

UNESCO’s mission is to “encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”, but a key part of the process is that host nations have to undertake to preserve each site’s authenticity and environment and ensure the establishment of “management plans and reporting systems on the state of conservation of their World Heritage Sites.” In return for that, the site in question can promote itself as having World Heritage Site status – a powerful marketing magnet.

While recognising the importance of the bridge, that status also points up some of the anomalies in UNESCO’s ‘terms and conditions’, as arguably the bridge’s place in the landscape of the Firth has already been compromised – an alternative view is that it has been enhanced – by the 1964 Road Bridge and is being changed yet again by the construction of the new Queensferry Crossing. Some established World Heritage Sites elsewhere in Britain have been threatened with the withdrawal of their status if modern developments go ahead and yet here we have our world-famous railway bridge being awarded its new status while the estuary is in the process of being changed forever.

It is nearly thirty years since the remote island of St. Kilda was admitted to the list as Scotland’s first World Heritage Site. Some would argue that it was a somewhat unusual choice given Scotland’s rich archaeological and architectural heritage, but the idea of establishing the list was to introduce a framework for the protection of sites potentially at risk. Indeed, the UNESCO citation for St Kilda – already abandoned for more than half a century at the time it was listed – sums that up very succinctly: “The islands encompass exemplary and well preserved remains of the distinctive way of life that persisted in this remote area, unaltered after the St Kildans abandoned the islands. They encompass the complete fossilised cultural landscape.” The islands still had a substantial population when the first photographers ventured there in the early 1860s, bringing back evocative images of the precarious existence the islanders led.

Nine years later, in 1995, the ‘Old and New Towns of Edinburgh’ became Scotland’s second listed site, with the usual strictures of World Heritage status loosened just enough to ensure that the development and continual renewal of Scotland’s vibrant capital is not overly constrained. The UNESCO citation recognised the controls and monitors already put in place by the City Council and Historic Scotland and drew particular attention to the ‘Skyline Policy’ designed to keep high-rise developments well out in the suburbs and out of view to visitors to the city centre.

The rich archaeology of the landscape of Neolithic Orkney was listed in 1999 and quite rightly so, but the equally rich archaeological landscape of Shetland is, surprisingly, not yet even on the tentative list. Yet one could reasonably argue that the multitude of sites on both island groups are all part of the same cultural heritage and if Orkney’s sites – Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and many others – were worthy of inclusion in 1999, then so were the extensive remains of Bronze Age and Iron Age Shetland – at Jarlshof, Mousa, Old Scatness and elsewhere. Yet they only made it on to the ‘Tentative List’ in 2012, for possible future citation.

Next up, in 2001 was New Lanark, the remarkable survival of Robert Owen’s 18th century model industrial village. When I first visited in the early 1960s, thoughts of its restoration were still in their infancy and any idea that it would one day takes its place in the pantheon of sites considered to be of global importance would have seemed little more than fanciful. Yet, by 2001, the site’s restoration and rehabilitation had progressed to a point where the Utopian ideals which had inspired its creation and the revolutionary and worldwide impact it had on employment made such a listing already overdue. Number five, added in 2008, was not a listing in its own right, but the long overdue addition of the Antonine Wall to the multi-national ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’, embracing the Antonine Wall in Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall in England and several frontier sites in Germany. That was, indeed, a timely addition, as the fragile remains of Antonine’s turf wall and ditch have been under constant threat and erosion for centuries.

And so, back to Scotland’s World Heritage Site No.6 – the Forth Bridge has made the jump to full World Heritage Site status remarkably quickly, only having been added to the ‘Tentative List’ in 2012. Full listing has come at a time when there are great plans ahead for the 125-year-old bridge – foremost amongst them being the creation of a new visitor centre under the north tower at North Queensferry and a breathtaking ‘visitor experience’ which would include a chance to see the landscape of the Lothians and Fife – even as far north as Ben Lomond – from the highest point on top of one of Scotland’s most remarkable engineering achievements. That is something hitherto only seen by the bridge’s original builders in the 1880s and the generations of engineers and painters who have kept it in operational condition ever since.

While the bridge is still an essential part of the East Coast Main Line, except at peak times – when there are around five trains an hour in each direction – it is quite lightly used. Might there even be some limited potential for a steam-hauled heritage service between North Queensferry and Dalmeny, or even on the 11 mile route between Edinburgh Waverley and North Queensferry to give visitors a truly memorable experience as they make their way to and from the planned Forth Bridge Experience?

Other sites – including one of even greater cultural and historical significance, in my humble opinion, than the Forth Bridge – haven’t even made it to the tentative stage yet, which is an essential first step towards full listing.

As more and more sites across the world are recognized as being of global cultural significance, there is the attendant risk that the importance of sites not so recognised might be diminished just a little. So perhaps those in authority need to be persuaded to start the process towards achieving such global recognition for the stunning, bleak and beautiful archaeological landscape of north-western Lewis, embracing the multiple groups of standing stones at Callanish and the prehistoric remains on Great Bernera.

To achieve that, a lot of work needs to be done, but it can be argued that the benefits are considerable. According to UNESCO, “Parties are encouraged to prepare their Tentative Lists with the participation of a wide variety of stakeholders, including site managers, local and regional governments, local communities, NGOs and other interested parties and partners.” Now might be a good time to start that process off.