Nowhere in northern Europe has as many extraordinary monuments as Orkney. Mesolithic, Neolithic and Norse periods are all covered in an impressive array of fascinating sites. Chambered cairns, standing stones, brochs and ancient settlements are dotted across these green, fertile islands like stone-built gems. Now a stunning new project is set to improve access to more intriguing Orkney heritage by creating dedicated trails and routes which will open up less well-known history sites.
There are around 30 inhabited isles in the Orkney archipelago. Amongst the islands set to benefit from the ‘Access to Heritage’ project are Hoy, Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre, Shapinsay, Eday, Stronsay, Sanday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay.
Regardless of location, quality interpretation will lie at the heart of improving access to the heritage and landscapes that make this part of Scotland so appealing. Two well established projects — the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme and improvements to Scapa Flow Museum — form the basis for this new combined project.
The drive to celebrate a wealth of archaeology and historic heritage will rely heavily on new and improved interpretation. The aim is to further raise awareness of the distinct culture and landscape which makes the identity of these islands so special. By providing visitors with mapped and interpreted routes through the natural landscape to heritage sites the outcome will be a significantly enhanced visitor experience, which encourages people to stay longer.
Encouraging longer tourism stays increases the potential for greater economic opportunities and benefits for the Isles including accommodation providers, shops, café’s, service providers and transport operators.
Scotland has six World Heritage Sites and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney is one of that magnificent half dozen. It boasts Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar in its ranks and celebrates one of the great Neolithic landscapes of Europe. Understandably these sites in Mainland Orkney are a huge magnet in tempting visitors to cross the Pentland Firth. However, there are other, arguably less celebrated, sites in Orkney’s smaller islands for the curious visitor to explore. And this project will make such explorations a deal easier, bringing them within easy reach and ensuring they are clearly explained.
The list of new sites that will be opened up to new audiences includes Balfour Castle (Shapinsay), Noltland Castle (Westray), St Boniface Kirk (Papa Westray), Dennis Head Beacon (North Ronaldsay), the remaining standing buildings of HMS Proserpine at Lyness (Hoy), and the sheep dyke in North Ronaldsay, which are all ‘A’ listed structures. Several isles also contain unique wartime heritage, structures and history and the designed gardens of Balfour Castle hold national importance.
Why this project now?
Research has identified that some of the major barriers to enhancing the economic benefits for the Isles could be addressed by schemes which promote the assets of the outer islands, develop market opportunities and allow packaging of existing products and attractions.
Partnerships are key to delivering such a wide-ranging project. The various island communities have been heavily involved. Consultation with the Local Development Trusts and Community Councils on each of the islands has seen questionnaires sent to all the Community Councils which helped establish key information. Follow-up questionnaire were then issued to both Local Development Trusts and the Community Councils to review the draft routes and feedback provided.
Potential barriers to delivery were also explored during the consultation to identify any issues that might affect the delivery of the project for example land owner issues, practical constraints, community objections etc.
‘Access to Heritage’ may be all about Orkney but sits comfortably with a range of large-scale national initiatives including the Scottish Government’s ‘Historic Environment Strategy’ and ‘Tourism Scotland 2020’ strategy.
So how to deliver a project of many parts?
The work in Hoy is a fine example. Here the mission will sit alongside the major capital undertaking to restore and develop Scapa Flow Museum. A new museum building will improve exhibitions and displays and improve facilities. The wider site and movement between buildings, however, has long been complex and challenging, poorly waymarked, poorly interpreted and impossible to explore apart from in daylight.
Whilst an urgent focus is on restoration of the buildings, the wider focus and the aim of the Natural and Cultural Heritage Funded project is to create equitable access across the site, interpret the wider context of the buildings and vastly improve visitor understanding of the naval base, which was uniquely placed in both World Wars and was so important in the naval history of the United Kingdom.
Some elements are common to several of the sites being covered. Enhancing key routes across the smaller isles, providing signs and guides to help visitors, installing bike racks to encourage active travel routes and providing seating and picnic facilities. These measures along with improved interpretation boards should greatly improve the visitor experience.
Volunteers will be central to delivering a successful project. Around 50 will be trained and provided with skills and tools to carry out routine maintenance and repairs to the trails.
As befits our current times energetic on the ground work will be accompanied by a thorough web-site revision and further promotion of Orkney’s attractions.
And those attractions are many. They include awe-inspiring sea cliffs, amazing wildlife, green and fertile farmlands, inland lochs, vibrant sea lochs, stunning historic sites, and unsurpassed opportunities for island-hopping. And so the list goes on, and Orkney’s ‘Access to Heritage’ is set to open up yet more gems.
The Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund is part of the Scottish Government’s current European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, which runs through to 2023. This is one of two ERDF Strategic Interventions led by NatureScot – the other is the Green Infrastructure Fund.
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