UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland

6 Most Memorable Places to Visit in Scotland

Scotland has six UNESCO World Heritage sites chosen for their cultural or natural importance to the whole world. Some are easy to see on a short trip to Scotland. Getting to others, like Orkney and St Kilda, are real travel adventures but repay your time and effort with extraordinary rewards. Plan an itinerary around these special places to turn a visit to Scotland into a trip of a lifetime.

01 of 06

Forth Bridge

View of the Forth Bridge
Neale Clark/Getty Images

The Forth Bridge is Scotland's newest World Heritage Site, achieving the distinction in July 2015, just in time for its 125th birthday. Spanning the Firth of Forth about nine miles west of Edinburgh at South Queensferry, the railway bridge was the world's first multispan cantilever bridge. At 2,529 meters (that's about 1.57 miles) is is still one of the longest bridges of its kind.

The bridge opened in 1890, about the time that trains were taking over the market for long distance travel. Its UNESCO listing notes:

"Its distinctive industrial aesthetic is the result of a forthright and unadorned display of its structural components. Innovative in style, materials and scale, the Forth Bridge is an important milestone in bridge design and construction..."

How to see the Forth Bridge

  • On foot - Footpaths on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, around South Queensferry and the north shore at North Queensferry offer good views of the bridge, one of the iconic symbols of Scotland. If you're visiting Edinburgh, climb up to Arthur's Seat or Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park for a long distance view.
  • On the bridge - Plans are in the works to create two new visitor experiences on the bridge. A visitor center at North Queensferry will include an open air lift to a viewing platform at the top of the north tower. Guided walks from a center at South Queensferry will take thrill seekers on a hike to the top of the south tower. You can watch several videos and keep up with developments on The Forth Bridge Experience here.
  • By boat - Forth Tours run regularly scheduled boat trips on the Firth that pass under the bridge from a pier in South Queensferry. They also have a coach to boat trip service that leaves from Edinburgh center. The Maid of the Forth operates a ferry service to Inchorn Island in the middle of the Firth that also offers good views of the bridge.

The Forth Bridge in Story

The bridge is painted with bright orange anti-rust coating. It takes 10 years to paint the bridge and in the past, as soon as the painters finished at one end, they had to begin again at the other. So in British idiom, a never ending task is said to be like painting the Forth Bridge.

That's not true anymore though. When the painters last completed their 10-year task, in 2011, National Rail, guardians of the bridge, said new paints and painting technology meant the bridge could be free of painters' scaffolding and drop cloths for 20 years.

02 of 06

St Kilda

Hirta Harbor on St Kilda
Colin Weston/Britain on View/Getty Images

In 1930, the entire population of St Kilda (all 36 of them) left the one inhabited island of this remote archipelago, 110 miles west of Scotland, for the mainland. That was the end of a village that had existed at least 1,000 years. Other island evidence showed people had been using the island for almost 4,000 years.

St Kilda is one of the rare UNESCO World Heritage sites that is inscribed on the list for both its cultural and natural value. In 1986 it became the first World Heritage Site in Scotland. In 2005 it joined an elite group of a few dozen listed for both cultural and natural importance. In 2013 it was moved up to the status of Outstanding Universal Value - reserved for what UNESCO considers the most remarkable places on earth.

Why St Kilda?

  • Culturally, World Heritage status will help to protect the evidence of at least "two millennia of human occupation in extreme conditions." The islanders practiced a subsistance economy of keeping sheep, gathering bird products and tending the land. The evidence of their abandoned village, with its sheep pens and cleits (dry stone storage buildings) still stands above St Kilda's only port, on Hirta.
  • The island group was formed by ancient volcanic action, glaciers and erosion producing outstanding scenery and dramatic sea stacks. Most of St. Kilda is nearly vertical.
  • Wildlife and biodiversity on the islands is a good reason for visiting.More than 1 million seabirds use the islands for nesting and migratory stops, especially puffins, gannets and fulmars. The islands are also home to feral Soay sheep, an ancient breed that may have been brought there by St Kilda's first settlers, thousands of years ago.
  • Even the underwater scenery and biodiversity is included in the World Heritage listing.

Getting to St Kilda...

...is no easy task.  You can book a cruise to the island but whether you will be able to land depends on the weather and the tides - there's no guarantee. Read our report on a Voyage to St Kilda. 

For an idea of how hard life was for the original islanders, visit Glasgow's Riverside Museum where they keep a "Jollyboat", one of the last rowing boats that the islanders used to ferry supplies, mail and tourists to a passing steamship.

03 of 06

Edinburgh Old and New Towns

Edinburgh Castle
© Ferne Arfin

Scotland's capital and the seat of its new Parliament, combines the young and modern feel of a great university city and national capital with a historic and dramatic setting. It holds the world's biggest performing arts festival, has a 1,000 year old castle and a mountain - Arthur's Seat - right in the middle of town.

The city, the Scottish capital since the 15th century, is divided into two distinct areas - a Georgian and neoclassical New Town with broad avenues and garden squares and the Old Town, topped by the medieval fortress known as Edinburgh Castle.

The UNESCO listing notes that the harmonious position of the two areas give the city its unique character and, praising Edinburgh's "far reaching influence on urban planning",  says:

"The contrast between the organic medieval Old Town and the planned Georgian New Town of Edinburgh, Scotland, provides a clarity of urban structure unrivalled in Europe."

The Princes Street Gardens

A park, with hills, valleys and woodlands - known as the Princes Street Gardens - separates Edinburgh's Old and New Towns and provides a setting for the neoclassical Scottish National Galleries and the Royal Scottish Academy. It looks, for all the world, like a natural landscape, at one with Edinburgh's hills and its dramatic Castle Rock.

In fact, it is entirely man made, formed by draining Nor Loch - itself a man-made loch - that had been part of the castle defences. The gardens and the hill known as The Mound were created from more than a million cart loads of spoil excavated during the building of the New Town.

04 of 06

New Lanark

New Lanark at Dusk
Simon Butterworth/Britain on View/Getty Images

New Lanark was the creation of 19th century Utopian idealist Robert Owen. The purpose-built mill village, founded  in 1785 by Owen's father-in-law, was already a thriving textile mill with water powered cotton mills and some housing for the workers when Owen took over its operation in the early 19th century. It was, even then, the largest collection of industrial buildings in the world.

Owen decided to apply his radical theories of benevolent paternalism to create a model industrial village with a humane environment, decent, healthy housing, education and cultural improvement for the workers, landscaped garden areas and, for the time, decent working conditions. Planning and architecture were designed for the well-being of the workers, considered "a milestone in social and industrial history" with lasting influence ever since. According to the UNESCO inscription:

"New Lanark is a unique reminder that the creation of wealth does not automatically imply the degradation of its producers. The village...was the test-bed for ideas that sought to improve the human condition around the world. ...The social and economic systems that Owen developed were considered radical in his own time but are now widely accepted in modern society."

After New Lanark

Owen  went on to found the Utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana, according to the principals of New Lanark. But, without the unifying purpose of provided by the thriving textile mills in Scotland, it failed as a viable economic enterprise within two years.The New Lanark mills were sold several times, eventually becoming a roperie before finally closing in the 1960s. The waterwheel-powered mills continued in operation from 1786 to 1968. Perhaps because of this, they survived relatively unchanged into the 21st century.

New Lanark Today

The mill buildings, designed workers' housing, educational institute and school remain as demonstration of early an 19th century enlightened owner and employer. The site was inscribed in the World Heritage register in 2001.

The New Lanark Trust, a registered Scottish charity, maintains the World Heritage site aiming to preserve it as "a sustainable community, with a resident population and new opportunities for employment."

Much of the site is open to visitors year round, with a variety of exhibitions and attractions to see from the Visitor's Center. The site includes a hotel in one of the mill buildings and a hostel in a former residential building, a village store and textile shop and assembly rooms for concerts, lectures and exhibitions. One of the resident buildings, known as The Double Row, parts of which were in continuous occupation until 1970, is being restored for residential use.

Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06

Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Skara Brae on Orkney
Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Visitors to Orkney are immediately struck by the enormous concentration of mysterious prehistoric structures that dot the islands. Some are more than 5,000 years old, predating Stonehenge and the Pyramids by several thousand years. The site includes two very different stone circles, The Standing Stones of Stenness and The Ring of Brodgar; a chambered burial mound full of Viking runes from a later period, Maeshowe; a 5,000 year old village, Skara Brae, and a number of unexcavated mounds and sites.

The monuments that make up the World Heritage site are considered the most important from the Neolithic period in Western Europe. The remarkably intact, 5,000-year-old village of Skara Brae was only discovered in the 19th century when a violent storm swept the sand that had covered it for millennia. It is considered the best preserved Neolithic settlement in the world.  First inscribed on the list in 1999, the site was later elevated to Outstanding Universal Value status. The UNESCO Listing said:

"The monuments of Orkney bear unique or exceptional testimony to an important indigenous cultural tradition which flourished over 500-1,000 years but disappeared by about 2000 BC...They are testimony to the cultural achievements of the Neolithic peoples of northern Europe, during the period 3000-2000 BC."

New excavations of a major ritual or ceremonial center on a spit of land known as The Ness of Brodgar are adding even more knowledge and evidence of Orkney's ancient people. They can be visited during scheduled summer archaeological digs. The best way to visit any of the Orkney ancient monuments is in the company of one of the island guides or archeologists.

06 of 06

The Antonine Wall

Trees on a slope in the fog

 David Hannah/Getty Images

You may come across the Antonine Wall when walking through fields and woodlands in Central Scotland never know it. It marks the real last gasp of the Roman Empire in Britain but was never actually a wall. It's a series of earthworks and ditches that cross the country from Old Kilpatrick on the Firth of Clyde, northwest of Glasgow to Bowness, on the Firth of Forth, northwest of Edinburgh. It was only occupied by Roman Legionnaires for about a generation but its a place where Roman coins and artifacts turn up from time to time. There's even a piece of paved Roman road that runs through a cemetery. If you happen across a long deep ditch with high sloping banks, like the one pictured here, you've probably come upon it. But you need not leave it to chance (though if you do, what a wonderful discovery). It has its own dedicated website where you can find out where to find it and what to look for. Or you can build it into your visit to Glasgow, where the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow has an excellent exhibit about it.

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