Scotland needs better safeguards for cultural heritage

Scotland's heritage and tourism industries must broaden their focus from castles and monuments if they want to truly reflect the cultural riches of the nation, says Heriot-Watt University's Professor of European Culture and Heritage, Mairead Nic Craith.

Heriot-Watt Lecture Series

She was speaking at a lecture, 'Scotland's Living Heritage(s): A Global Perspective', part of the University's inaugural lecture series.

Prof Nic Craith argues that €˜world heritage' as defined by UNESCO has always had a strong focus on architecture, historic buildings and the built environment - and that this is also the traditional British approach to understanding heritage. For example, four of Scotland's five World Heritage sites feature buildings or structures as their core element.

However, Prof Nic Craith believes Scotland's heritage industry would provide a better world-class offering if it worked to the more recent UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. This Convention, in existence for the past decade, includes categories such as traditional skills, performances and languages.

Intangible Cultural Heritage

Scotland's oral traditions such as The Mod, traveller ballads or €˜muckle sangs', the waulking songs of the tweed weavers, and festivals such Edinburgh's Beltane or Shetland's Up Helly Aa are all examples of €˜intangible cultural heritage' as defined by UNESCO.

Prof Nic Craith said, "Scotland's emphasis on safeguarding historic structures reflects a perspective that largely regards heritage in terms of the built environment. This is at odds with the Gaelic term €˜dùthchas', which implies a collective heritage - one that connects living people to particular places.

"Scotland has started to embrace living, as well as material, dimensions of heritage; the splendid Parliament building with its weaving together of natural and cultural heritage is a good example of this. But there are some great challenges ahead for the heritage sector, particularly in placing Scottish culture before a global audience.

"Given that the UK has not signed the Convention, none of Scotland's intangible cultural heritage features on the related UNESCO heritage lists and thus does not have the profile it could have. Cultural tourism is a major economic activity for Scotland and this is a major obstacle to development."

Prof Nic Craith said some of the challenges within the UNESCO definition included the intrinsic links between material and living heritage. She gives the example of George MacLeod, who led the restoration of the abbey on Iona, asking was he reconstructing a building or a religious vision, or both? In the same way, visitors to Iona Abbey today respond not only to the physical buildings but also the €˜spirit' of the community.

"While signing the Convention is a matter of urgency for Scotland and the UK as whole, it is only one of many challenges, which include questions of cultural infrastructure, ownership and access," Prof Nic Craith said.

"Telling our national stories in an international context is also challenging. How do we define Scottish cultural space, for example? Whose heritage becomes significant in the national story? Is that national story an all-male story? Where and how do migrants and other minorities fit in and what is the place of the nation in our contemporary, globalised world?

"Ultimately, heritage is a contemporary rather than a historical resource. The UNESCO Convention refers not just to the transmission of intangible heritage from one generation to the next but to its constant recreation by communities in response to their environment. Universities can and should play a key role in enabling communities to do both in a sustainable way."