Looking to take a visit to Scotland and want to visit the beautiful World Heritage Sites while you’re here? Here’s an overview of the seven World Heritage Sites in Scotland plus the two tentative sites plus tips for visiting from a local.
(This is a guest post by Graham from My Voyage Scotland about Scotland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. He has visited all of Scotland’s UNESCO sites. Minor tweaks have been made to change the spellings to American English. There are a few additional travel tips from me at the end of the post).
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What is UNESCO?
You may have heard people talk about UNESCO world heritage sites or seen stunning pictures of them on Instagram photography accounts. Perhaps you have even visited several of the world heritage sites yourself and uploaded said photographs.
World Heritage Sites are cultural, historical, or scientific sites of ‘outstanding universal value’, important not only for the land they exist in but for the generations of people that surround it. These sites are protected by several international treaties and are judged as crucial to the collective interests of humanity.
Often people don’t know a great deal about the organization of UNESCO itself and what it strives to achieve. UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. From its headquarters in Paris, France, UNESCO seeks to build peace through collaboration in education, sciences, and culture all around the world.
It promotes people to become global citizens, by providing and developing educational tools to help people become more united, free of hate and intolerance. However, UNESCO is most renowned for its preservation of World Heritage sites in over 150 countries, including Scotland.
Scotland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites
As of October 2019, Scotland has six world heritage sites located across the country, from Edinburgh Old Town to the isle of Orkney. (We’ve broken up Edinburgh into the Old Town and New Town for clarity and to help with your trip. Just note that if you’re a UNESCO counter, they are a single site). The list below summarises these current world heritage sites, covering natural and man-made beauties.
We also highlight several heritage sites that may be nominated for UNESCO world heritage status in the next five to ten years.
St Kilda’s beauty is hard to imagine and unforgettable to experience. Known for being the most remote island in the British Isles, St Kilda lies about 41 miles west of Benbecula in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
It is fondly (or fearfully) dubbed the ‘islands at the edge of the world’ – its ragged cliff edges are instantly recognizable among the Western Hebrides Islands, though the stormy seas of the Atlantic ocean that surround it can make it notoriously difficult to access even by boat.
St Kilda is home to the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins in the UK, the largest colony of guillemots in the world, and its very own unique wren. The island, incredibly, has over one million birds in total, making it the most important sea-breeding station in northwest Europe.
However, it’s not only the wildlife that once made a home here. Humans used to live here for some 4,000 years, with many Hebridean-style huts and cottages built on the island still standing. Sadly, the final 35 islanders were evacuated in August 1930 after their way of life became too unsustainable to carry on.
St Kilda is now an uninhabited island; visitors can take a boat from the Western Isles such as the Isle of Harris to get there in about 2 – 4 hours. From mainland Scotland, a boat can take up to 18 hours, which may give some hint of its remoteness. Don’t expect mobile phone service – there will be none.
St Kilda became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986 and is often considered among the most breathtaking world heritage sites across the globe.
Edinburgh Old Town
As the name suggests, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Edinburgh Old Town and New Town is based in Edinburgh in the east of Scotland. Edinburgh Old Town makes up a large part of Edinburgh’s most famous landmarks and streets, and it has preserved most of its medieval street plan and many of its pre-reformation buildings.
Arguably the most iconic ancient building in the whole of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle looming on top of a rocky crag, formed of remnants of an extinct volcano, holds Scotland’s crown jewels and marks the center of the city and the Old Town. The Royal Mile, a cobble-stoned street of traditional Scottish pubs and shops, as well as the center for advertising shows often through street performances at the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival, also lies within the Old Town.
Other significant buildings located within the Old Town include St. Giles Cathedral, the Old College of the University of Edinburgh, and the Scottish Parliament Building.
Founded in the 12th century, St. Giles’s distinctive crown steeple makes it one of Edinburgh’s most popular landmarks, attracting over one million visitors a year. The Old College of the University of Edinburgh located in South Bridge in the Old Town forms one of the most recognizable university architectures in the world, with building construction commencing in the 1700s.
The Scottish Parliament building has won numerous awards, including the 2005 Stirling Prize, for innovative architecture and design which brings together the Scottish people within the landscape of Edinburgh Old Town. The Scottish Parliament building is near Holyrood Palace, the official residence of the Queen in Scotland.
The Palace has served as a residence to Kings and Queens of Scots since the 16th century and is open to visitors all year round, except when royal visitors are in residence.
With Edinburgh New Town, they were inscribed together as a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Edinburgh New Town
Edinburgh New Town is the largest complete town from the Georgian period anywhere in the world, with construction taking over a century to complete between 1767 and 1890. It is this fact that makes the elegance and beauty of its architecture and design historical and cultural importance.
The most popular highlights within Edinburgh New Town include Charlotte Square, for being an exemplary example of exquisite Georgian architecture, George Square, and the assembly rooms which date from 1787, and the gorgeous gardens at St Andrew’s Square.
A stroll along picturesque Princes Street Gardens is also a must if only to gaze up at the Scott Monument tower which overlooks the gardens as a memorial for the beloved Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott. The new town hosts an extensive array of public and private spaces, with many public museums such as the National Portrait Gallery among them.
Edinburgh New Town was originally planned as a means to combat overcrowding in Edinburgh Old Town, yet it has become an outstanding model town of a period of history in its own right.
Heart of Neolithic Orkney
The isle of Orkney lies around 15km north of mainland Scotland, and it has always had rich historical and ancestral ties with Nordic culture. It is this charming and raggedly stunning group of islands that hosts the most impressive landscape of Neolithic monuments in all Western Europe.
The monuments consist of a large chambered tomb, two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar), and a settlement (Skara Brae) as well as many other burials, ceremonial, and settlement sites.
Skara Brae is perhaps the most famous of all the Heart of Neolithic Orkney monuments, fondly dubbed “the Scottish Pompeii” because it is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village and older than Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramids in Egypt.
The monuments were reportedly made by the prehistoric people of the Orkney Islands some 5,000 years ago. They give incredible insight into the skills and beliefs of the people who built them, as well as the wider society that they lived in.
Recent discussions about climate change and growing concerns that rising sea levels could destroy or damage these ancient artifacts show greater care to preserve these monuments is required.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. See the breathtaking monuments for yourself near the Stromness, on the island of Mainland, Orkney.
New Lanark is a unique 18th-century mill village located about 25 miles southeast of Glasgow on the bank of the world-famous River Clyde. Founded in 1785 by David Dale, and continued by his son-in-law, Robert Owen, the mill comprised of cotton mills and housing for mill workers, so they could take advantage of the flowing water supply provided by the only waterfalls on the River Clyde.
The cotton mill, powered by the water-wheels, operated from 1786 to 1968. At the beginning of the 19th century, the mill offered one of the largest industrial groups in the world. Now the New Lanark mill offers an incredible representation of over 200 years of fascinating social history.
Dale and Owen had a unique vision of providing good quality living conditions to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the mill workers. The village showed the world a greater idea for how to improve workers’ conditions all over the world, and still stands to testify David Dale and Robert Owen’s humanism, even in business.
New Lanark Mill became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. A continued effort has been made to preserve the historic buildings and the wider natural landscape that surrounds the mill, and it has now become a popular landmark with over 300,000 visitors every year.
The Antonine Wall
The Antonine Wall is an astonishing memory of a period in history, long gone. The wall was built by the Romans around 2,000 years ago after its construction was ordered by Roman Emperor, Antoninus Pius. Construction of the wall began in AD 142 and took about 12 years to complete.
At one point in time, around 7,000 Roman soldiers would’ve been based there. The wall ran across what is now known as the Central Belt of Scotland, spanning approximately 39 miles – although as the Romans had their own system of calculating distance, the total miles are often debated.
Situated between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, the Antonine Wall was a representation of the northernmost barrier between Britain and the Roman Empire, with the southern barrier of Hadrian’s Wall in what is now northern England.
The Antonine Wall has several distinct differences from its southern counterpart, Hadrian’s Wall.
Firstly, the Antonine Wall was much shorter. Secondly, instead of being made of stone, like Hadrian’s Wall was, the Antonine wall was made of stone foundations filled in with turf that formed into a wide and deep ditch that crossed five of the modern local authorities in Scotland: East Dunbartonshire, Falkirk, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, and West Dunbartonshire.
Unfortunately, most of this turf has weathered away or been destroyed over time – the last surviving ditch can be found at the Watling Lodge in Falkirk and is well worth a day trip to Stirlingshire to see it.
However, by far the most unique element of the Antonine Wall was the beautifully decorated distance slabs. There were 19 stone tablets in total, all featuring written inscriptions carved onto sandstone. After each section of the wall was built, soldiers would celebrate by carving the distance slabs and sticking the stone tablets to the wall.
These stone tablets remain one of the most important collections of Roman sculpture, and you can see all but two of them on display for yourself at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.
The Antonine Wall became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
The Forth Bridge
The Forth Bridge is easily one of the most recognized and loved landmarks in Scotland. Crossing the River Forth about nine miles west of Edinburgh City Centre, and stretching a distance of over 2.5 kilometers, the Forth Bridge was the first major steel structure in Britain and a key milestone in railway civil engineering history.
Built between 1883 and 1890 by Sir John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, it took a lot of design and collaboration to officially open the bridge in 1890. Due to its unique look of red circular piers (each one about 150 meters high) and groundbreaking construction materials, the Forth Bridge is widely considered an innovative and outstanding feat of engineering.
Shortly after becoming a world heritage site, the Forth Bridge was voted Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder in 2016. To this day the Forth Bridge continues to astound visitors from around the world as a truly magnificent icon of Scotland.
The Forth Bridge is Scotland’s newest world heritage site, having been granted UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2015, the year of its 125th anniversary. Combine a viewing of the Forth Bridge with a road trip to nearby coastal town Anstruther, and you will have the perfect getaway weekend.
Potential Future Scottish UNESCO World Heritage Sites
In a country so full of culture, history, art, and natural wonders, it is surprising that Scotland only has six current world heritage sites. There are several more in the pipeline, with two currently undergoing a formal process of evaluation. These sites are listed on the UK’s tentative list to be nominated to become UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the next 5 – 10 years.
The Crucible of Iron Age, Shetland
Comprising of three cultural sites in the Shetland islands, Mousa, Old Scatnoff, and Jarishof are among the best-preserved prehistoric buildings in Europe. The sites, managed by Historic Scotland, have evidence of Bronze Age settlers, Viking and medieval remains dating back thousands of years. The nomination for world heritage status was submitted in 2010.
The Flow Country
An expansive marshy wetland in the area of Caithness and Sutherland in the northeast of Scotland, the Flow Country is unique for being the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe.
The area, dotted with bog pools, is an essential habitat for natural wildlife, including animals and plants – it is especially important for the breeding of several bird species. The Flow Country is currently being considered for UNESCO World Heritage status.
Get Ready to Explore Scotland
Go and explore Scotland’s beautiful UNESCO World Heritage sites for yourself, and on your way adventure around the rest of Scotland’s breathtaking landscape. Wander far and wide, and you will not be disappointed.
Author Bio: Graham Grieve has spent the last 25+ years traveling the length and breadth of Scotland on hiking trips, random getaways, and camping trips. During his travels, he has visited all of Scotland’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Graham is based in Glasgow and documents his travels at his website My Voyage Scotland where readers can find in-depth guides to top, off-the-beaten-track, places in Scotland. You can keep in touch with him via his website or on Facebook and Instagram.
5 Things to Pack for Your Trip to Scotland & the UK
- The Lonely Planet Scotland guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you land, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
- An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use a UK sim card while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road.
- Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS system, and general travel genie.
- A Camera since Scotland is super photogenic. I use a mix of my Nikon D810 and my Samsung8 smartphone these days.
- A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for Edinburgh because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
More UK Travel Resources
Check out my guide to the best Scotland quotes and Scotland Instagram captions and Scotland puns for your trip!
If you’re interested in visiting UNESCO sites and historic places in England as well as Scotland, check out my posts on How to Visit the Tower of London, How to Visit Westminster Abbey, and How to Visit Westminster Abbey.
Love to listen while you plan your travels? I have episodes about London and Northern Ireland on both of my podcasts. You can check my podcast episode about the Roman Baths, The History of Windsor Castle, and Banqueting House. For Northern Ireland, check out Belfast and the Best of Northern Ireland and Belfast and the Troubles.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for the UK make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in cities (like Edinburgh…ahem) where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.