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MODERN WORLD WONDERS: SCOTLAND'S WORLD HERITAGE

JK GILLON

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, catalogued by the Greeks in the second century BC, were recognised as outstanding achievements of technology and culture. In 1972, the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) started to classify what might be considered as the present day equivalent of the Seven Wonders of the World. The World Heritage Convention, published in that year, set out to identify the World's irreplaceable heritage whose protection merited exceptional international efforts to save them from damage or destruction. However, UNESCO did not stop at seven and there are currently 552 World Heritage Sites spread over 107 countries on their World Heritage List. They are places that are described as representing "outstanding universal value from the point of view of art, history, science or natural beauty". Today only the Pyramids of Egypt survive from the Seven Ancient Wonders and they are included in the World Heritage List.

The event that aroused particular international concern, and led to the idea of creating an international movement for the protection of sites, was the decision to build the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which would flood the valley containing the Abu Simbel temples. In 1959, UNESCO launched an international campaign that raised US$ 80 million dollars from some 50 countries to accelerate archaeological research in the area and, most importantly, fund the dismantling and reassembly of the temples in an area unaffected by the flooding caused by the dam. This threat increased worldwide support for UNESCO's initiative to establish some kind of mechanism to focus international action.

The Convention introduced the concept of universal responsibility by rejecting politics and promoting co-operation and collective responsibility among all nations to contribute to the protection of these Sites. Inscription as a World Heritage Site is perhaps the highest accolade a place can receive and brings with it enormous international prestige. There are currently four sites in Scotland that are acknowledged as warranting World Heritage status, ranking them in the same international league as the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Egypt.

ST. KILDA

First discovered in 1810, when they were mistaken for a French pirate ship, the small group of remote islands that make up St Kilda were added to the World Heritage List in 1986. Described as the 'edge of the world', St Kilda lies 110 miles off the west coast of mainland Scotland and comprise the islands of Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray, with their spectacular landscape of towering sea cliffs which are amongst the highest in Europe. They are considered to be of international merit because of their importance as a refuge for teeming colonies of rare and endangered species of sea birds, especially guillemots, kittiwakes puffins, fulmars and the largest colony of gannets in Europe.

The origins of the name St. Kilda are shrouded in mystery - no Saint of the name is recorded - the most likely derivation is a mistranslation of the Gaelic name for Hirta, the main island, which was pronounced K-hilta by the islanders. Hirta was the wind-lashed home of the native St Kildans for centuries until 1930 when it was evacuated. The inhabitants had eked out an existence, dependent on the great colonies of seabirds (puffins for feathers and meat, fulmars for oil and young gannets for meat) augmented by sheep herding, crofting and fishing. It was a hard existence at the best of times and depended on a system of inclusive democracy - money was unknown and all community decisions were made every morning in a mass meeting. Most of the day for the entire able-bodied population was taken up by agricultural activity - the collection of bird's eggs from the precipitous, ledged and creviced, high sea cliffs in the spring being the most hazardous of occupations. The fruits of their labours were then divided equally at the end of each day amongst the entire population. Any form of crime was unknown.

In the late 19th century, packet steamers brought tourists to gaze at the curiosity of "savages, living within the British Isles, the like of which were to be seen in the remote reaches of the Empire". The tourists brought with them new diseases to which the islanders had no natural immunity. Tourism also caused the islanders to change their ways, introduced them to the material world and undermined their self-reliance. In 1930, the islanders were evacuated from their lonely home at their own request following a petition to the government. By that time, the population had dropped to 36, there having been no births on the island since 1927 resulting in a consequent scarcity of able-bodied individuals. The simple lifestyle of the community that had survived for centuries finally succumbed to the ravages that resulted from contact with the outside world.

The islands are now owned and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. It is only possible to visit the islands for 3 to 4 months of the year as the rest of the time the seas are lashed by strong winds and storms. During this lull in the weather, National Trust work parties conserve and repair the long, low, grey line of cottages of Village Bay on Hirta which have been standing deserted since the evacuation, as well as carrying out archaeological work.

EDINBURGH: ATHENS OF THE NORTH

The centre of Edinburgh, including the medieval Old Town and Georgian New Towns, were included in the World Heritage List in 1995. The environment of the historic centre of Edinburgh is of exceptional interest, a city in which landscape, history and architecture are consummately harmonised. This is perhaps best summed up by the following "in Edinburgh there abides, above all things, a sense of its beauty. Hill, crag, castle, the picturesque ridge of the Old Town, the squares and terraces of the New Town, these things seen once are not easily forgotten". Known as the Athens of the North, a tribute not just to its setting and neo-classical architecture, but also to its intellectual spirit, a complex interplay of various elements have shaped the character of the city.

Nature took trouble over the site of Edinburgh, a huge ice-sheet grinding softer rocks around the old volcanic hills shaping a perfect crag and tail formation. A formidable defensive site, Edinburgh was first settled in pre-historic times and for hundreds of years was little more than a fortified rock. However, the City really started to take shape with the foundation of Holyrood Abbey in 1128. Legend has it that King David I was knocked from his horse by a stag whilst hunting near Edinburgh. The stag then tried to kill the King but although wounded he managed to grasp a cross which miraculously appeared between the stag's antlers, at which the animal retreated. This inspired the King to found the Abbey of the Holy Rood (cross).

The historic core of the Old Town, consciously adapted to the terrain, clings to the backbone of the tail's ridge and slopes gently down from the dramatically situated Castle Rock, which dominates Edinburgh's skyline, to the level ground on which stands the medieval Abbey and Palace of Holyrood House, Scotland's premier Royal Palace. The Castle contains the early 12th century St Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh's oldest surviving building. The Old Town is characterised by the survival of the little altered medieval "fishbone" street pattern of narrow closes, wynds and courts leading off the spine formed by the Royal Mile, its 16th and 17th century merchants' and nobles' houses and important early public buildings such as the Canongate Tolbooth and St Giles Cathedral. The Old Town is also renowned for the height of its picturesque multi-storey buildings, typified by the early 17th century restored mansion house of Gladstone's Land which rises to six storeys.

Restricted for centuries by its town walls, the Old Town grew, "piled deep and massy, close and high", and, in 1767, a beginning was made to the architect James Craig's plan for a New Town which was intended to relieve the serious overcrowding in Edinburgh's medieval core. A complete break was made with the old city, with a new site, a gridiron plan, strict symmetry, broad streets, complete town houses and formal architecture. This was followed by further planned Georgian developments up to the mid-19th century, which form what has been described as "the most extensive example of a Romantic Classical city in the world".

These New Towns are dignified by disciplined palace fronted facades in local sandstone creating a regular pattern of stately streets, squares and crescents, interspersed by formal gardens, and containing a series of major neo-classical buildings by architects of the stature of Robert Adam. The north side of Charlotte Square in the first New Town is classed as one of Robert Adam's masterpieces, and contains the Georgian House expertly restored by the National Trust for Scotland to reflect the domestic surroundings and social conditions of the Georgian period.
The contrast between the organic medieval Old Town and the planned Georgian New Town provides a clarity of urban structure unrivalled in Europe. The juxtaposition of these two distinct townscapes each of exceptional historic and architectural interest, across the landscaped divide formed by Princes Street Gardens, creates the City's outstanding urban image. The Edinburgh International Festival, a three weeks arts extravaganza based in the historic centre of Edinburgh, is now the largest annual arts festival in the world and adds lustre to the City's worldwide renown.

It is this contrast and the harmonious neighbourliness between the organic medieval Old Town and the planned Georgian New Town that UNESCO considered merited their inclusion on the List. The guidelines for the identification of World Heritage Sites recommends that historic urban centres should only be included on the World Heritage List if they are of exceptional interest. The inscription of central Edinburgh as a World Heritage Site is, therefore, an outstanding accolade.

THE HEART OF NEOLITHIC ORKNEY

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney was a recent addition to the list in 1999. Until the exploits of the Vikings drew attention to the Orkney Islands, which lie 15 km north of the coast of Scotland, they were virtually on the edge of the known world. They lay far from the centres of innovation and technological progress throughout the prehistoric and early historic periods, but their inhabitants were quick to develop new skills and adopt new ideas. There are around 3,000 known archaeological sites in Orkney and many more lie undiscovered. The range of monuments that survive provide a vivid insight into the domestic and ceremonial life of prehistoric man and are a testament to the cultural vigour of the community.

The ceremonial prehistoric monuments of Orkney show similarities in form to other World Heritage Sites such as Hagar Qin in Malta, Stonehenge, Avebury and the Bend of the Boyne in the Republic of Ireland reflecting regional differences in what was a broad common tradition over a wide area. They imply settled communities, a determined marking of nature and social cohesion apparent in the spirit of their labour and ritual gatherings. Orkney's principal example of prehistoric domestic archaeology is, however, considered unique.

Known as the " British Pompeii" Skara Brae is the finest and best preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe. It was inhabited by an early farming community between 3200BC and 2200BC, before the Egyptian Pyramids and Great Wall of China were built and many centuries before construction began at Stonehenge. The village was rediscovered in the winter of 1850 when a violent storm blasted Skaill Bay in Orkney's western Mainland, sweeping away sand dunes and revealing one of the world's most remarkable archaeological sites. Legend has it that a local laird, crofter and fisherman were first to find the ancient home of their remote ancestors, "the city of the vanished race, lying dark and silent in that place" (Orcadian poet George MacKay Brown).

The nine snug, thick-walled houses are clustered tightly together and linked by a covered stone alleyway. Every house has the same basic layout: a large single room with a floor area equivalent to two thirds of a modern two-bedroom house. They are constructed of large flat blocks of stone and owing to a scarcity of timber on the island, the furniture was also made of stone: there are upright dressers, and, on either side of the central hearths, stone beds. Recesses in the walls served as cupboards and indoor toilets, a feature unmatched in that period except in Minoan Crete. The whole settlement was surrounded and almost buried by its rubbish dump consisting of ash, shells, bones, and other domestic detritus that protected it against the elements and was a major factor in preserving the site from erosion.

The villagers of Skara Brae were responsible for the construction of the chambered tomb of Maes Howe which has been hailed as "one of the wonders of the prehistoric world". Built around 2700BC it stands out as a large grassy mound in the flat green fields that surround it.

The conception and craftsmanship of the tomb make it a remarkable construction. The grass covered mound measuring 35m across and 7.3m in height, is composed of alternating layers of peat, clay and angular fragments of rock and encloses the stone built cairn within which stands the tomb itself. A narrow passageway leads into a 4.75m square chamber with a superb corbelled roof consisting of stones that weigh up to 30 tonnes. Not only is it large, but it was also constructed with unparalleled precision exhibiting a sophisticated degree of formality and symmetry. The architecture is complex and the workmanship is consummate; huge slabs being accurately levelled dressed and plumbed.

Traditionally the mound is said to have been tenanted by "Hogboy", the ill-tempered spirit or goblin of great strength that guarded the treasure. Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Pirate refers to "visiting each lonely barrow - each lofty cairn - to tell its appropriate tale, and to soothe with rhymes in his praise the spirit of the stern warrior that dwelt within". This did not deter Norsemen in the mid-twelfth century who broke into the tomb and recorded their presence by a series of runic inscriptions, a number of which refer to treasure being removed from the tomb. There are also pictorial carvings of a dragon, and walrus, and what amounts to Viking graffiti.

The building stone for Maes Howe was brought from some considerable distance, and the huge labour that it represents, estimated at 100,000 hours, is testimony to the power of its occupants or the motivation of the builders. Each year at the winter solstice (21 December) the light of the setting sun shines through a small aperture above the entrance passage and strikes the back wall of the chamber. Just as the midwinter sun marked the return of life, the intention may have been for this to symbolise the continuance of life of those who had died.

Described as the "petrified bodies of drunken giants" and "the phantom forms of antediluvian giants", two major circles of tall, standing stones, stand nearby Maes Howe. The Stones of Stenness were constructed in the third millennium BC and were made up of tall, unshaped slabs of local flagstone up to 5m high, of which only 4 of the original 12 survive. The Ring of Brogar, the finest and largest stone circle in Scotland, originally consisted of 60 stones, set 6 degrees apart using a standard unit of length of 2.72 feet (the Megalithic yard). Only 36 stones remain in position either as uprights or broken stumps.

The function of the monuments remains controversial--whether they were temples, secular ceremonial centres, or astronomical observatories. One interpretation based on their precise geometry and location is that they were designed to allow sophisticated observations of major celestial bodies and predict eclipses. According to the British engineer Alexander Thom, a pioneer of the study of astro-archaeology, the purpose of the Ring of Brogar and other stone circles such as at Stonehenge, Avebury, Callanish, and Carnac, was to keep track of the cyclic rising and setting points of the Sun and Moon on the horizon. In this way a practical calendar for religious purposes could have been established and, by making ritual sacrifices at the appropriate times, the gods could be appeased and persuaded to favour the tribes. The Rings of Brogar has been called "the most complete Megalithic observatory in Britain". In the 18th century, Stenness was known as the Temple of the Moon, Brogar the Temple of the Sun and they were the centre of dancing and feasting on New Year's Day.

Odin's Stone that stood near to the Stones of Stenness was held in particularly high regard for its magical powers. People would come from far afield to seal their love by clasping hands through a natural hole in the Stone. It was also believed that it possessed mystical healing powers. There was a public uproar when it was destroyed in 1814.

It is likely that the builders of Ring of Brogar were the direct descendants of those who constructed the Stones of Stenness, disposed of the bodies of their dead in Maes Howe and lived in Skara Brae. These monuments are, therefore, an evocative expression in stone of the complete way of life of the prehistoric Orcadian community.

NEW LANARK

Founded by Richard Arkwright and David Dale in the 1780s, New Lanark is the most complete surviving example of an industrial complex of that date and Scotland's finest example of industrial archaeology. It is also a physical testimony to the social philosophy of Dale's son in law, Robert Owen, who made it a European model community showplace.

PROPOSED WORLD HERITAGE SITES

Three other potential World Heritage Sites for submission to UNESCO will be submitted to UNESCO in the future. The spectacular Cairngorm Mountains which comprise the largest continuous area of high ground and highest mountain mass in Britain with six peaks over 1000m. They are also important for their insights into the process of mountain landscape evolution, its landforms, and deposits associated with the ice sheet. The other natural Scottish site on the list is the Flow Country of Sutherland and Caithness. This area is one of the largest and most intact known areas of blanket bog (a globally rare ecosystem type) in the world.

The Forth Rail Bridge will be submitted as an internationally recognised symbol of achievement in late 19th century civil engineering. Its robust and original design takes account of the lessons on the effect of wind on exposed bridges learned form the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. It was the first cantilever bridge and the first major steel bridge. It is the best-known railway bridge and one of he finest examples of engineering achievement in the world.

Our treatment of these Sites - the love, respect and protection we give them - provides a measure of our progress, civilisation and development. They are among the priceless and irreplaceable possessions of mankind as a whole. They are special places of exceptional qualities that can evoke real wonder and should be held in trust for generations that follow. Their loss would constitute an impoverishment of the heritage of all the peoples in the world.

SEARCH AGAIN FOR WORLD HERITAGE


Abu Simbel

Village Bay, St Kilda

Post Office, St Kilda

St Kilda

Central Edinburgh

Edinburgh: Sunset

Central Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle

Skara Brae

Skara Brae: House Interior

Orkney: Ring of Brogar

Orkney: Stones of Stenness

Forth Bridge

New Lanark

New Lanark

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