The Dig It! 2017 event at Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. 18/4/17 Tom O'Brien

Scotland in Six: celebrating stone and steel

Since 2009, the Scottish Government has been designating themed years to mark specific aspects of Scotland’s cultural and creative life, as well as the country’s natural beauty. As we look back on 2017, the Year of History, Heritage, and Archaeology, Julianne McGraw explores how Scotland’s World Heritage Sites played their part in the festivities.


Scotland has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, from stone monuments to industrial steel, which cover over 5,000 years of history. These places have been recognised by the United Nations as representing unique, or the most significant or best, examples of aspects of the world’s cultural heritage – and on World Heritage Day, 18 April, all six sites were celebrated through coordinated events, organised by Dig It! 2017 and partners. Known as ‘Scotland in Six’, this countrywide celebration explored aspects of each site’s past to showcase their historic features, with themed activities as unique as the locations hosting them.

Spinning yarns

Perhaps fittingly, it was Scotland’s capital that was the first place in the country to gain World Heritage status. Inscribed in 1996, ‘Edinburgh Old and New Towns’ encompasses both the medieval town – including its distinctive pattern of narrow passageways or ‘closes’, and the main thoroughfare of the Royal Mile running between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace – and the neoclassical 18th-century New Town, which is the largest and best-preserved example of Georgian town planning in the UK. This stark architectural contrast inspired a similarly varied musical extravaganza: as the sun started to rise on World Heritage Day, medieval minstrels faced off against Georgian-era musicians in a decidedly different battle of the bands.

Medieval and Georgian musicians face off in Edinbugh. Image: Dig It! 2017.

The music spread to a railway station, an 18th-century townhouse, and the National Museum of Scotland, before reaching a final crescendo at St Cecilia’s Hall. There, the costumed performers entertained the audience with an interactive show at the music museum, before the victor was crowned following a public vote – which resulted in a diplomatic draw.

Another inscribed site, the cotton-mill village of New Lanark, was founded along the River Clyde near Lanark, south-east of Glasgow, in 1786. Its owner believed that happy workers and a profitable enterprise were not mutually exclusive – a revolutionary idea at the time – and with improvements to housing and education for its community, the mill flourished and continued to manufacture cotton until 1968. Today, it still stands as a well-preserved example of an early industrial settlement, and gained World Heritage status in 2001.

The New Lanark festivities officially began soon after those in Edinburgh, although the participants had already been involved for several weeks before this: months ahead of World Heritage Day, we issued a ‘yarn-bombing’ challenge to the general public. The goal of ‘Knit New Lanark’ was to cover as much of the village’s Institute – a building that was opened in 1816 as an educational and recreational hub, and now forms the main New Lanark Visitor Centre Reception – with as much brightly coloured wool as possible. Knitters from Shetland to London answered our call, and were rewarded with free yarn-bombing kits packed with the essentials: chocolate, tea, and wool. Finished creations flooded in to the organisers, from bunting and pom-poms to knitted flowers, while one dedicated participant even used their yarn to recreate the Norse dragon ‘graffiti’ from the Maeshowe chambered cairn in Orkney.

above Medieval and Georgian musicians face off in Edinbugh. right Yarn-bombing New Lanark.
Yarn-bombing New Lanark. Photo: Rich Dyson.

In the run-up to 18 April, New Lanark also held a series of themed activities, including a ‘scanathon’ to capture the photographs and stories of anyone who worked in the local industries, as well as Archaeology Taster Tours where people could visit a live dig and chat to the on-site archaeologist. On World Heritage Day, the yarn-bombing efforts were given their grand reveal, as visitors were treated to hands-on natural dyeing presentations, sheep-to-shawl spinning sessions, and workshops where they could help add the knitted decorations to the Institute.

Building and baking

Moving away from urban areas, Scotland’s most remote World Heritage Site is St Kilda, a group of five islands lying 100 miles off the west coast of Scotland. Thanks to the analysis of soil samples, surviving ruins, and artefacts like pottery and tools, archaeologists know that the islands were continuously inhabited for at least two millennia, until the last residents were evacuated in 1930.

left Digital St Kilda, recreated in Minecraft.
Digital St Kilda, recreated in Minecraft. Image: Stephen Reid.

In 2005, St Kilda became the UK’s only dual UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural and its cultural significance – but the archipelago’s isolation created a unique challenge for World Heritage Day. Our solution was to recreate the islands digitally in Minecraft, a popular video game that is often referred to as ‘virtual LEGO’. The games-based learning team at ImmersiveMinds spent over 125 hours and used over 3 million digital ‘bricks’ on the topographically accurate map, working closely with Jonathan Wordsworth, the St Kilda archaeologist at the National Trust for Scotland. The final build for ‘Crafting St Kilda’ produced a virtual world featuring abandoned blackhouses, boats, and underground structures known as souterrains, as well as discoverable stories (which players can unlock by journeying from site to site) ranging from a kidnapped noblewoman to an archaeological excavation.

Throughout World Heritage Day, the ImmersiveMinds team travelled to sites across Lewis – an island in the Outer Hebrides which is known as the ‘gateway to St Kilda’ – to record voices and other sounds for the Minecraft world. The free map was then made available for public download from the Dig It! 2017 website to allow gamers all over the world to explore St Kilda’s history, heritage, stories, people, and landscapes.

One of Scotland’s best-known World Heritage Sites is the Antonine Wall, built almost 2,000 years ago and stretching east–west across the whole country. This was the northernmost fringe of the Roman Empire – part of a frontier that covered more than 5,000km over three continents. Since 2008, the Antonine Wall has formed part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site, which also encompasses remains in Germany, Austria, and Slovakia, as well as, closer to home, Hadrian’s Wall – but although thousands of people spent more than ten years building the wall, it was abandoned after just one generation.

right ‘Picts’ race ‘Romans’ beside the remains of the Antonine Wall in Falkirk.
‘Picts’ race ‘Romans’ beside the remains of the Antonine Wall in Falkirk. Photo: Neil Hanna.

Traces of turf ramparts, ditches, and stone forts can still be found in modern parks, suburbs, and cemeteries, and Falkirk’s Callendar Park, which is home to a long stretch of visible Antonine Wall ditch, was selected for this aspect of the World Heritage Day celebrations. Here, we held a Romans versus Picts 5km foot race – indulging in some artistic licence as participants were invited to choose a side and offered blue face paint or a red-plumed helmet. A physical theatre acrobatics troupe, dressed as Picts, and a living history re-enactment group, dressed as Romans, provided moral support. As for the race, the Romans won.

This was followed by a ‘Great Roman Bake-Off’ in Callendar House – a museum and mansion with a 600-year history and plenty of Antonine Wall artefacts on display – where, in addition to a Roman food demonstration, Roman-inspired treats such as ‘Rocky Roman Road’ and ‘Roman Empire Biscuit Cupcakes’ were served to the audience. These were subjected to popular vote, with ‘Spelt and Bramble Roman Rations’ coming out on top.

Bridges to the past

The most recent Scottish site to gain World Heritage status is the Forth Bridge, inscribed in 2015 (see CA 306). It was the world’s first major steel structure and, at the time of its completion in 1890, it had the longest cantilever bridge span anywhere. With its distinctive shape and rust-red paint, this Victorian engineering icon is instantly recognisable, and still carries more than 200 trains a day over the Firth of Forth. The crossing only takes three minutes, which provided the inspiration for this location’s World Heritage Day event: ‘3 Minutes in 1890: A Victorian Festival’.

above Steampunk enthusiasts gather at Forth Bridge in their Victorian-inspired finery.
Steampunk enthusiasts gather at Forth Bridge in their Victorian-inspired finery. Photo: Rob McDougall.

To tie in with this Victorian theme, we invited steampunk enthusiasts – fans of a genre of stylised Victorian-inspired role play, drawing on the era’s literature and machinery to create intricate costumes – to ‘travel back in time and marvel at the newest feat of engineering in 1890: the Forth Bridge’. The North Queensferry train station, which had recently been refurbished to its original Victorian style, hosted a party with live music, a themed photobooth, gin cocktails, a costume competition, and three-minute storytelling sessions with a Victorian quack doctor called ‘Belladonna Mallard’. Over on the south side of the bridge, the Dalmeny train station reverted to its historical name with an official ScotRail ‘Forth Bridge’ station sign that proved popular with local residents and commuters alike.

below The ‘Glow in the ArchaeoDark’ procession around the Ring of Brodgar, in Orkney.
The ‘Glow in the ArchaeoDark’ procession around the Ring of Brodgar, in Orkney. Photo: Tom O’Brien.

From Scotland’s most modern World Heritage Site to its oldest: the Heart of Neolithic Orkney played host to the closing event on World Heritage Day with a night-time procession called ‘Glow in the ArchaeoDark’. Comprising four sites on Mainland – Skara Brae, an astonishingly well-preserved settlement; Maeshowe, a chambered tomb that also preserves a wealth of Viking runic graffiti; the Stones of Stenness circle and henge; and the Ring of Brodgar, a great stone circle 104m in diameter – the Heart of Neolithic Orkney was inscribed in 1999. Each of its components represents a masterpiece of prehistoric design and construction, granting vivid insights into life 5,000 years ago.

Coordinated in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and a local youth organisation (prior to 18 April, young participants took part in a training and event development course, where they learned more about the history of the sites, made glow staffs, and choreographed the procession), ‘Glow in the ArchaeoDark’ began at Skara Brae. Beside this unique cluster of Neolithic houses, a local storyteller entertained the audience, before everyone applied UV face-paint designs mirroring Maeshowe graffiti and the procession began. Celebrations concluded at the Ring of Brodgar, where the youth group led an intergenerational procession around the ancient stones. It was a fittingly communal end to a series of events that had engaged with national organisations, local communities, and an international audience. The stage is now set for future World Heritage Day celebrations, as well as for Scotland’s Year of Young People 2018.

Further information
Dig It! 2017 was coordinated by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Archaeology Scotland, and primarily funded by Historic Environment Scotland. The World Heritage Day events were funded by EventScotland, as a Signature Event for the Year of History, Heritage, and Archaeology 2017.