Scotland has plenty to celebrate on World Heritage Day. We have six magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites which combine all sorts of history – the emphasis is on the architecturally and culturally significant, but there is a fair smattering of natural history interest in there too. Why not visit one of our fabulous sites this year – here’s a taster revealing what you can expect to find.
The Stone Circle at Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
The stunning ancient monuments of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site were positioned in the landscape with great care. Maes Howe, with its pudding-shaped grass mound, has its entrance aligned so the sun strikes the tomb chamber on the winter solstice.
The Ring of Brodgar stone circle stands dramatically on a narrow strip of land between lochs Harray and Stenness. These, the two largest lochs in Orkney, are nationally important scientifically for their sequence from marine, through brackish, to fresh waters. They support a rich diversity of plant and animal life.
The heathland on the low hills that fringe the wide loch basin is also designated, as it contains some of the best and largest areas of maritime grassland and heath in the UK, with plant species that include the rare Scottish primrose. Further north on this coast lies the Stone Age village at Skara Brae.
It’s fair to say that in Orkney monuments and scenery intertwine to form an evocative cultural landscape that still resonates with us today.
Bonnington Linn, Clyde Valley Woodlands NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
New Lanark is a former 18th century cotton spinning mill village located on the banks of the Falls of Clyde just under one hour from Glasgow and Edinburgh. New Lanark attracts over 300,000 visitors annually from all over the world. The site has something of interest for everyone, visitors can go back in time and immerse themselves in the cultural and built heritage of the village, with its imposing buildings, or explore the natural heritage of the dramatic river gorge and the tumultuous Falls of Clyde.
From the natural heritage perspective the Falls of Clyde (actually a series of waterfalls) is the iconic focal point to this landscape.
The Falls are one of the largest in the UK and make a breath-taking spectacle, especially after heavy rain or snowmelt. Surrounded by steep gorge woodlands of oak and ash, much of it is owned and managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust as their Falls of Clyde Wildlife Reserve. These woodlands are also an important part of the wider Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve, one of the most biodiverse woodland habitats in Europe. The forests and gorges which surround the World Heritage Site are home to a wide range of wildlife, including peregrine falcons, badgers, otters, roe deer and kingfishers. Visitors can take advantage of an excellent path network which explores the reserve and provides access to the key viewpoints.
View over Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle from Calton Hill. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
In contrast with New Lanark are the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. It was the remarkable juxtaposition of two parts of the city, the Old and the New Towns, that led them to be declared a World Heritage Site in 1995. The Old Town had developed organically since medieval times but the New Town represented a carefully planned approach and dates from 1767. As well as being distinct in their architecture the two parts of the city also have underlying differences in their origins, founded on Edinburgh’s ancient volcanism.
The Old Town sits on the ridge running from Castle Rock down to Holyrood Palace. Castle Rock itself is a volcanic plug that formed on a lava flow from a volcano which was last active some 300-350 million years ago, and is part of Arthur’s Seat Site of Special Scientific Interest, along with Calton Hill. These distinctive features of the city’s landscape are nationally important for their geology.
Calton Hill is another prominent and iconic landmark on the skyline to the east of the New Town. It’s not a volcanic vent like Castle Rock but rather a fragment of the eruptions, formed by glaciation into a shape known as ‘crag and tail’. The hill’s natural elements of rock, gorse and woodland, together with the man-made buildings and monuments, make it popular with residents and visitors – looking down from the top gives you spectacular views of the Old and New Towns.
The buildings of the World Heritage Site don’t just have human interest either – they are important as homes for city-dwelling species such as swifts and bats, which use them for nesting and roosting. Swifts in particular have suffered a steep decline in breeding numbers due to loss of places to nest; they are completely dependent on buildings. To help, the Edinburgh Local Biodiversity Action Plan is encouraging the installation of swift boxes when older buildings in the city are undergoing renovations and there are a number of other biodiversity initiatives in Edinburgh, including action for pollinators in this urban landscape.
Kayakers under Forth Rail Bridge. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH
The iconic red steel structure of The Forth Bridge may be 127 years old but it wasn’t declared a World Heritage Site until 2015. It is the sixth and most recent addition to the list of WHS in Scotland. The accolade recognises that the bridge is ‘a potent symbol of Britain’s industrial, scientific, architectural and transport heritage and, in particular, Scotland’s engineering pedigree and ingenuity’. Amongst all the impressive metal work it’s easy to overlook the wildlife that surrounds it.
At either end of the bridge’s impressive span, lie the intertidal areas of the Firth of Forth Special Protection Area (SPA). Stretching along the coast from Alloa to the Fife and East Lothian coasts, the site is a mixture of rich intertidal flats, rocky shores, saltmarsh, lagoons and sand dune. These habitats attract large numbers of 27 species of wintering wildfowl and waders, such as pink-footed goose, shelduck, dunlin and turnstone. The Firth of Forth is so important for these birds, that it is designated as an SPA under European legislation.
If you were a bird at the top of the bridge, you’d be able to see the islands of Inchmickery, Long Craig, the Isle of May, Fidra, The Lamb, Craigleith and Bass Rock. Together, these islands make up another SPA, the Forth Islands SPA. They support almost 100,000 breeding seabirds, including fulmar, lesser black-backed gull and herring gull. Birds can be perverse creatures and don’t just nest on the islands in the Forth – sometimes they take a fancy to nesting on the rail bridge. This poses additional work for the bridge’s maintenance teams who have to remove the guano (birds’ droppings) and the leftovers from nest building! The chicks must have one of the most desirable views of any residence in the Lothians.
The village and bay from Conachair, Hirta, St Kilda. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
St Kilda is of global importance for breeding seabirds, supporting as it does about 700,000 individual seabirds in the breeding season (a figure based on the last full count of seabirds for the last British and all Ireland Seabird 2000 count). It is a notable stronghold for a number of seabird species such as Northern gannet, Northern fulmar, Atlantic puffin and Leach’s storm petrel. The steep cliffs and offshore stacks provide ledges for cliff nesting species and the steep, grassy slopes hold about 25% of the British population of Atlantic puffin as well as the biggest colony of Leach’s storm petrel in the eastern Atlantic.
Seabirds on St Kilda, once hunted for food, are now fully protected by international designations, both on land and at sea.
Despite this, many seabird populations in Britain and Ireland have experienced marked declines in recent years, and seabirds on St Kilda are no exception. While there may be multiple reasons for changes in particular species, there is little doubt that climate change has played a role in this through its effect on the availability of food at critical times of the year. However the rich waters surrounding St Kilda and along the nearby edge of the continental shelf, continue to support large numbers of seabirds feeding on fish such as sandeels. The northern gannet colony appears to be stable, unlike other colonies that are increasing but is still one of the largest colonies globally, contributing to the spectacular sights and sounds experienced by visitors to St Kilda.
Walker on Antonine Wall. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH
The construction of the Antonine Wall, part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire WHS, started around AD 165 between the Forth and Clyde estuaries, and marked the new Roman frontier. It was constructed mostly from layers of turf as opposed to the earlier and more southern Hadrian’s Wall which was built out of stone. If you were to travel along the wall from the Forth to the Clyde then not only would you experience rich cultural heritage but natural heritage too!
During the winter months at the Forth estuary you will notice many of our wintering bird visitors, including dunlin, red-throated diver and the Slavonian grebe. Moving inland and eastward you can visit Avon Gorge Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), an ancient, semi-natural woodland with many native tree species, and some rarities like the small leaved lime tree, and flowers such as the lily of the valley and moschatel.
Red-throated diver adult and young chick. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION
This is also the area to head to if you want to see the internationally unique Falkirk Wheel that joins the Union Canal with the Forth & Clyde Canal, which is now fully open to boat traffic. The Antonine Wall skirts alongside the Forth & Clyde Canal across much of the central belt with thriving local wildlife to enjoy, as the canal boaters do too. Just north of Cumbernauld, again associated with the ecology of the canal, is Dullater Marsh – a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve and a SSSI, with an unusual transition of fen, fen meadow, marshy grassland and fen woodland habitats, which host nationally scarce plants such as tufted loosestrife, as well as a range of marshland birds, like water rail, teal, snipe and grass hopper warbler.
Getting closer to Glasgow, and the historic features of the Antonine Wall encapsulate Cadder Wilderness SSSI, a very special birch and oak woodland that is home to three Red Data Book species of insects; a beetle and two sawflies – species that are internationally valued! And as the Antonine Wall ends near the river Clyde you will encounter the Haw Craig and Glenarbuck SSSI with an area of ash and elm woodland, as well as a basalt escarpment rich in mosses and flowers, such as the shining crane’s bill and pellitory-of-the-wall. One final stop overlooking the Clyde estuary and you might spy a flock of redshank feeding along the shoreline. A winter visitor that is protected by the European network of Natura sites – we’ve come a long way since the Romans felt the need to build a wall to protect themselves from the Scots!
Dubh lochans on the blanket bog at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
In addition to Scotland’s six existing World Heritage Sites, The Flow Country, an extensive area of blanket bog covering much of Sutherland and Caithness, is on the UK’s tentative list of future World Heritage Sites.
The Flow Country consists of an extensive area of blanket bog habitat within a wider complex of mountains, moorland and more fertile straths. It is one of the largest and most intact areas of blanket bog in the world. The total area of peatland in Sutherland and Caithness extends to some 400,000 ha, and around half of that contains the characteristic surface patterning, pools and bird assemblages synonymous with the term ‘Flow Country’.
Together with associated areas of mountains, heaths, fens and open water, it is of international importance for its habitat and the diverse range of rare and unusual breeding birds it supports, many of which are typically northern species found here at the southern limit of their range. These include red-throated diver, black-throated diver, golden plover, greenshank, golden eagle, merlin and short-eared owl.
It is also a huge carbon store, storing 100s of millions of tonnes of carbon, which if released into the atmosphere would contribute to climate change. The carbon stored in the peat of the Flow Country is about three times greater than that stored in all the UK’s forests.
The case for WHS status for the area, considered by independent experts to be ‘the best blanket bog of its type in the world’, is being developed by The Peatlands Partnership.
So World Heritage Day will allow us to revel in some of our most precious heritage sites; take a wider view and you are bound to enjoy some wonderful natural heritage sights too.