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 on Thursday 18th August 2016, 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”. He wrote: “Technology is the key bridge between the World Heritage Site and Lewis and between archive material and a major live or virtual audience”.
The speakers at this week’s 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 and contents, as well as commercial viability.
These reports will provide the focus for debate at the symposium. It is intended that the final blueprint which emerges will attract sufficient support from potential funders to allow the project to proceed, on a phased basis with an 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”.
Mr McCall Smith writes: “It will also be of great benefit to the people who live in the Outer Hebrides and who face very particular challenges in being on the periphery. St Kilda may no longer have a people but people still want to have St Kilda and that, in essence, is what this remarkable project will do so much to ensure”.
Iain Buchanan, chairman of Ionad Hiort Ltd, said: “This would be a transformational project for a very fragile community and would bring economic benefit to the Western Isles as a whole. It will only succeed if it a world-class facility, both as a visitor attraction and also as a research centre for the study of remote communities and the challenges they face”.
Around 60 representatives from a wide range of government and other organisations will take part in the symposium. They include Scotland Office Minister, Andrew Dunlop, HIE chief executive Alex Paterson and Alexander Bennett of the National Trust for Scotland who own the St Kilda archipelago.