In 2021 Visit Scotland launched the world’s first UNESCO trail. This is a unique project, linking the country’s most important cultural, historical and natural sites, and making it easier for tourists to discover the diverse range of experiences that Scotland has to offer. But what exactly is the Scotland UNESCO Trail, what is the significance of UNESCO sites, and which places are included in the list?
What Is The Scotland UNESCO Trail?
Scotland has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, two Biosphere Reserves, two Global Geoparks and three creative cities. A UNESCO designation means that a region or landmark has been recognised as one of the world’s special places, either natural or manmade. These locations have much to offer tourists and day-trippers; it is also important to preserve them for future generations.
Together the sites form an exciting patchwork of history and science, nature and creativity, and the Scotland UNESCO Trail has been designed to suggest different ways of discovering them. The full trail – ideal for a once-in-a-lifetime visitor to Scotland – takes 40 days. However, it can be divided into six shorter and more manageable sections, with itineraries from 4-8 days. There are also suggestions for family days out.
The website includes tips for reaching and exploring each site. It encourages sustainable travel, including public transport and electric vehicles, and prioritises companies with sustainable practices.
World Heritage Sites
UNESCO describes its World Heritage Sites as places that “are of outstanding universal value to humanity”. Worldwide they cover more than 1,000 historic and natural locations, covering places as diverse as the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis of Athens, and Yellowstone National Park. Scotland’s UNESCO Trail includes six such sites.
1. Old And New Towns Of Edinburgh
You may decide to start your journey with the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, Scotland’s beautiful capital. The old town is a maze of medieval streets dominated by a dramatic hilltop fortress, whereas the new town is an 18th century neoclassical city, regarded as a model of Georgian urban planning. Taken together, the two halves of the city form a striking contrast.
You could spend many days just exploring Edinburgh. For more inspiration have a look at this 5 Day Edinburgh Itinerary.
2. New Lanark
New Lanark, around 50 km from Glasgow, is an early example of a purpose-built workers’ village. Founded in 1785 by the utopian industrialist Robert Owen, it provided homes and community buildings for mill workers and their families.
The village is still inhabited, and its appearance has changed little over the last 200 years.
3. The Forth Bridge
When the Forth Bridge opened in 1890 it was regarded as a marvel of engineering, with an innovative design and materials, and the longest bridge span in the world. It is still in use as a railway bridge, and one of the best ways to see it is to cross by train and enjoy the extensive views across the Firth of Forth.
4. Heart Of Neolithic Orkney
Scotland’s history stretches back to prehistoric times. There are several places where you can explore neolithic stone circles (such as Callanish in the Outer Hebrides). However, the most impressive Stone Age remains are to be found in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.
This extensive site, on the Orkney Islands north of the Scottish mainland, consists of stone circles, tombs and prehistoric houses. Quite apart from the history, the Orkneys are worth a visit for their landscape and wildlife.
You can find out more with this virtual tour of Skara Brae, the neolithic settlement.
5. The Antonine Wall
The Antonine Wall is another ancient site. Together with Hadrian’s Wall in England and the Roman Limes in Germany, it is part of the World Heritage Site known as the Frontiers of the Roman Empire. These were a series of defences marking the northern limits of Roman influence.
The 60 km Antonine Wall, built in the 2nd century CE, was a line of earthworks running between the Forth and Clyde rivers. There are several sections that you can explore today: read more about The Antonine Wall, Britain’s Other Roman Wall.
6. St Kilda
St Kilda is a remote group of volcanic islands in the Outer Hebrides. They are remarkable for their landscape and their biodiversity, with some of the most important seabird colonies in the region. Although St Kilda is now uninhabited, the islands bear witness to more than 2,000 years of human activity, from early times to the First World War.
It has to be said that planning a trip to St Kilda is not straightforward. However, those who do make the boat trip from the islands of Harris and Lewis will find an outstanding landscape, ideal for those in search of birdwatching or solitude.
The UNESCO natural sites include Biospheres and Global Geoparks. Biospheres are areas where the principles of biodiversity and sustainability are put into practice, incorporating the aims of conservation, development and education. And the geoparks are areas of particular geological and scientific importance.
1. Wester Ross
Wester Ross is a biosphere in the highlands of Scotland. Here you will find a mixture of habitats, including beaches, heathland, bogs and forest, supporting a wide range of plant and animal life.
Visitors can enjoy the landscape, the hiking and the fishing. They can also experience a long unbroken tradition of music, storytelling and the Gaelic language.
2. Galloway And Southern Ayrshire
Another UNESCO biosphere is Galloway and Southern Ayrshire, in the southwest of the country. Again, this is a combination of different habitats, including woodland, marshes and wetlands. Birdlife is abundant and the rivers are full of different species of fish. The Galloway Forest Park is also known as a dark skies area.
In addition to nature and outdoor activities, the area offers cultural attractions, with castles and traditional villages. You can also visit Wigtown, Scotland’s “book town”, with its several second hand book shops and an annual book festival.
3. Shetland Global Geopark
The Shetland Global Geopark covers the more than 100 islands (15 of them inhabited) that form the northernmost part of the British Isles. It has a fascinating geology, featuring an extinct volcano, shifting sands and an ancient ocean crust. The hills are devoid of trees, yet wildlife flourishes, with over 70 breeding bird species and more than 400 visiting species.
The Shetlands also offer history, archaeology and traditional Scottish food and drink.
4. North West Highlands Global Geopark
According to UNESCO the North West Highlands Geopark not only “encompasses some of the finest mountain and coastal landscapes in Britain”, but it also contains the oldest rocks in Europe. There is abundant evidence of long-extinct animals; today’s fauna includes eagles, seabirds and marine life.
The area has plenty of opportunities for walking and cycling, and there are driving routes through the highlands.
UNESCO Creative Cities
The UNESCO Creative Cities Network identifies cities that have used creativity “as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development”. There are almost 250 such cities across the world, of which three are in Scotland.
1. Glasgow, City Of Music
Glasgow was the first ever UNESCO City of Music. This was a recognition of the city’s importance in promoting all types of music, with several music schools, specialist music shops, students and buskers. It has a leading place in the UK’s music economy.
Whether your preference is for rock or classical, formal concerts or street performers, you’ll find it in Glasgow.
2. Dundee, City Of Design
A former industrial town, Dundee has reimagined itself as a creative hub, and is now a UNESCO City of Design. It has one of the UK’s top art schools, and several galleries and museums, including the Dundee V&A. However it does not restrict itself to conventional design: Dundee also has expertise in gaming design and comic book graphics!
As a visitor you can enjoy the galleries, theatre, independent shops and fine dining.
3. Edinburgh, City Of Literature
As well as being a World Heritage Site, Edinburgh is also a UNESCO City of Literature. This is partly an acknowledgement of the many famous authors associated with the city, from Sir Walter Scott to Arthur Conan Doyle to J K Rowling. But it is also a celebration of Edinburgh’s profusion of bookshops, publishing firms and libraries, as well as the world’s largest literature festival.