Islands set to lead the way on access to heritage sites

St Kilda continues to attract ever more visitors each year
St Kilda continues to attract ever more visitors each year

The Western Isles is set to lead the way in creating remote access to hundreds of World Heritage Sites which are currently out of reach for reasons of geography, environmental fragility or even being located in war zones.

A high-powered symposium, to be held in Stornoway tomorrow (Thursday) will discuss plans for a St Kilda Centre which, according to UNESCO World Heritage adviser, James Rebanks, should be “something world-class that can be a game-changer for the Outer Hebrides”.

Mr Rebanks was commissioned to write a feasibility study which described the St Kilda concept as “a world-class idea” capable of “providing a global best practice example of remote access story-telling”.

The speakers at the event will include Peter Debrine, Paris-based director of World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism for UNESCO, who have adopted the St Kilda project, as an exemplar of how access to sites of global interest can be created, without large numbers of people actually visiting them.

Mr Debrine said: “We have followed the St Kilda project with great interest, both on its own merits and because of the potential for remote access to the many World Heritage sites which are difficult or impossible for significant numbers of visitors to reach.

“If delivered to a high standard, remote access can provide the best possible alternative for that experience.

“It is also an objective of UNESCO to see communities benefitting from sustainable tourism around World Heritage sites.

“To achieve this, it is essential for communities themselves to involved in defining the nature and extent of developments. In this respect also, the St Kilda project has much wider significance for World Heritage sites in general.”

The project’s origins are in a competition promoted by four public bodies – Highlands and Island Enterprise, the Western Isles Council, Visit Scotland and the National Gaelic Arts Agency – along with the National Trust for Scotland to identify the best site in the Western Isles, within sight of St Kilda.

The chosen site is at Geodha Sgoilt, a clifftop site in the Uig area of Lewis.

A local not-for-profit company was formed to take the concept forward. With support from HIE, and building on James Rebanks’ feasibility study, three consultancy reports were commissioned to make recommendations on the building’s design, content and commercial viability. These reports will provide the focus for the symposium debate.

It is intended that the final blueprint which emerges will attract sufficient support from funders to allow the project to proceed, on a phased basis, opening in time for the 90th anniversary of St Kilda’s evacuation which occurred in 1930.

In a message to the symposium, author Alexander McCall Smith has given his strong backing to the concept. Describing St Kilda as one of “few places on earth that make as strong an impression on the first-time visitor”, he says that the Centre will allow many more people to “reach out to touch it” while “protecting and cherishing the place itself”.

Around 60 representatives from a wide range of government and other organisations will take part in the symposium.