World Heritage Day is important to today’s culture for so many reasons. It’s all about raising awareness of the importance of protecting and preserving various sites around the world that have achieved world heritage status.
Even more than that, it is a chance to inform everyone about the efforts involved to both protect and conserve these sites, showing just how valuable – yet vulnerable – they are.
This year, World Heritage Day was chosen to tie in with Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.
With only 1,052 World Heritage Sites in total worldwide, we’re lucky to have as many as 30 of them in the UK and British Overseas Territories.
But, perhaps, one of the most touching stories of these sites, and one of the most poignant, is that of St Kilda.
The archipelago of St Kilda, the remotest part of the British Isles, lies 100 miles off the west coast of Scotland. Its exceptional cliffs and sea stacs form the most important seabird breeding station in north-western Europe, and the evacuation of its native population in 1930 brought a close to an extraordinary story of survival.
The extended inscription on the World Heritage list recognises the outstanding universal value for both the cultural and natural environment of St Kilda.
The story of St. Kilda is unique, and the human heritage makes it a mysterious place. For more than 5,000 years a community survived on these remote, inhospitable islands.
The islander’s achievement and the quality of evidence that remains, combined with the respect and admiration for St Kilda rooted in the hearts of those who currently live in nearby islands like the Outer Hebrides, is what inspired the plans for the new St Kilda Centre on the Isle of Lewis.
The new centre, which will be called Ionad Hiort, is dedicated to the history, wildlife and geology of St Kilda, and is to be constructed at cliff-top site at Mangersta in Uig on Lewis as chosen following a keenly-contested competition involving several island communities.
The chosen location is actually only about 41 miles (66km) east of St Kilda itself, and on a clear, sunny day, the remote archipelago can be seen across the waters.
Originally, it was hoped that the centre could have been built on St Kilda’s main island, Hirta, but in the end it was ruled out because bad weather can restrict access to the small group of isles.
Scottish architects Dualchas and Norwegian firm Reiulf Ramstad Architects collaborated on the design of the centre, and it is hoped that it will be open by 2020.
As part of the World Heritage Day celebrations, I travelled up to the Western Isles with games company ImmersiveMinds, who digitally recreated the islands of St Kilda in Minecraft, in an event organised by Dig It! 2017.
Here, we visited the actual site and location of the centre in Mangersta in Uig, and met with Chairman and Director of Ionad Hiort, Iain Buchanan, among other locals who had a love for St Kilda.
Despite the slight rain and strong winds, they were delighted to come and talk about the plans for the centre, what it could show about St Kilda, and what it could do for them on the Isle of Lewis.
Their passion for the place was palpable, demonstrated not only by the fact that they came all the way out to the location of where the new centre will be built in the bad weather to talk about their plans, but also when they were asked what their driving force was. In their chorused, heartfelt answer they told us it was purely “our love for St Kilda.”
Their aim, of course, is to bring more people to the remote isles, as well as to bring people who left back to the islands to see it.
However, they also expressed their concern for their own isle, fearing the Isle of Lewis could, over time, have a similar fate to that of St Kilda.
Iain Buchanan told us: “Here on Lewis, St Kilda is known as the warning.”
Tourism played a big part in what made people leave St Kilda (eventually leading to it’s demise) because it showed those younger generations that there was a different way to live. So the values changed, and that difference in values between generations is what drove everyone to having to leave.
In addition to those able-bodied young islanders emigrating, there was a breakdown of the island economy, and it was these two things combined that caused the remaining 36 islanders to request evacuation to the mainland in 1930.
Now, those in Lewis are concerned about the sustainability of the island, because they, too, are losing young people. Those who leave to go to university, to travel or to live a different life outside of the islands, usually don’t return.
That is why World Heritage Day is important, and why projects like the St Kilda centre are essential – because they remind people of their past and heritage. They help tell the stories of the island and raise awareness of the place to bring people to it, and bring people home.
Without it, these smaller islands have issues with young people leaving, and are then faced with the question of: How do we fix this?
People often forget about their heritage and background. Some of us even shy away from our roots, mother tongue and traditions. What many tend to forget is that our heritage will always be a part of us. It enriches us as human beings and can provide an automatic sense of unity and belonging, especially within a smaller group, and allows us to better understand previous generations and the history of where we come from.
Being reminded of their history and heritage as well as raising awareness of the islands stories, could just be enough to bring more people there, and bring their young people home.
Keep an eye on Dig It! 2017’s Hidden Gems phase of ‘Scotland in Six’ for World Heritage Day here, and you can also visit and chat about World Heritage Day and it’s events on VisitScotland’s Scotland Community. See how many of Dig It!’s World Heritage Sites you’ve seen by checking them of the bucket list here.
Organised by Dig It! 2017 and funded by EventScotland as part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.