Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 3, 2023


Historic Environment Scotland (Site Closures)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-07369, in the name of Sharon Dowey, on the impact of long-term closures to historic sites managed by Historic Environment Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises what it sees as the importance of historic sites to communities across the South Scotland region, and the rest of Scotland; believes that any long-term closures to sites managed by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) could have a severe impact for Scotland’s tourism industry, and a devastating impact on any communities and businesses that rely on these attractions being fully open; understands that the heritage sector is a vital part of Scotland’s tourism industry, and considers that it is responsible for attracting millions of visitors from around the world to Scotland each year; further understands that 60 historical sites managed by HES are closed, and that the inspection programme is expected to conclude in April 2024; recognises what it sees as the need to address the shortage of skilled labourers, such as stonemasons; notes the calls on the Scottish Government to make additional funding available to accelerate the reopening of closed sites, and further notes the view that it is vital that all efforts are made to secure the long-term viability of Scotland’s historic sites.


Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this debate to the chamber, and I thank all the members who supported the motion.

We are a nation of proud Scots: we are proud of our culture, our history and our historic sites. We attract millions of visitors from all around the world to Scotland each year. They come to see our beautiful scenery; meet our friendly, welcoming people; and visit our castles, monuments and heritage sites. Tourism is huge for our economy. It gives a boost not only to the sites themselves but to local businesses, hotels, restaurants, shops and communities, where employment relies on those attractions being fully open. For local communities, however, they are much more than just tourist attractions—they are often the hub of a lot of activities and social gatherings.

In February 2022, I made my first visit to Dundonald castle, where I met the general manager, Dr Kirsteen Croll, and her colleagues from Friends of Dundonald Castle, which is the charity that looks after it. I was not able to see inside the castle at the time of my visit, as it was closed due to high-level masonry inspections at the site. However, I heard all about the plans for the castle and the visitor centre; all the activities that could take place, the events that could be organised, and the visitors that the castle could attract, not only from this country but from around the world; and the involvement of the local community and the lifeline that that gave to those who were involved. There was one sticking point, however—all that could happen only if the castle was open. For Kirsteen and her team, all their future hopes and plans were centred on that.

Kirsteen and her team have always had a good relationship with Historic Environment Scotland. At the time of my visit, the first phase of an inspection programme that is expected to be completed by April 2024 was being conducted. That was proving not to be the easiest of tasks. As many of the properties were built for defensive purposes, they have thick walls and narrow doorways, which makes it a challenge to get access with modern machinery. The inspections required careful planning, with some areas able to be accessed only from above, by harness and a rope. The availability of stonemasons was also having an impact on the delivery of repairs.

HES recently hosted a drop-in session in the Parliament, in which it engaged with a number of MSPs and was able to discuss how it was progressing with sites in each area. I also recently met HES on site at Crossraguel abbey, just outside Maybole—the ancient capital of Carrick, as my dad always reminded me. Although the abbey still has Heras fencing around it, the team was discussing how it could safely move the fencing to allow more access and let visitors see more of the site. It was also planning to put story boards in the fencing to allow the story of the abbey to be told. I take this opportunity to thank Craig, Paul and the rest of the team for taking the time to show me around and explain what they were doing; it was very much appreciated.

Since I lodged the motion, the figure of 60 sites closed has now reduced to 47. Although that reduction is welcome, the number of closed sites is still too high. HES has said that it is making every effort to safely reopen sites as quickly as possible, but the Government needs to ensure that it engages with the agency and gives it all the support that it needs.

HES continues to deliver traditional skills training at its two stonemasonry training centres, in Stirling and Elgin, as well as through its craft fellowship programme. The agency works with the Construction Industry Training Board, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland to create a sustainable framework of qualifications and apprenticeships. However, the sector has faced a shortage of skilled craftspeople, including stonemasons, for many years now, and the funding for training must be available to allow the training places to be taken up.

The motion

“calls on the Scottish Government to make additional funding available to accelerate the reopening of closed sites”.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government has now increased funding for HES. I encourage both the agency and the Scottish Government to ensure that the money is indeed being used to help to open closed sites as quickly as possible.

In March this year, I visited Dundonald castle for the second time. There is still some scaffolding in place for repairs that have yet to be completed, but the castle is open, and it is now a hive of activity. It is now open every day, from 10 am to 5 pm, and this time, I was able to go inside. The 14th century hilltop fortified castle was once home to the Scots king Robert II, grandson of Robert the Bruce, and it offers spectacular views across the Ayrshire countryside. When I first walked inside and saw the impressive barrel-vaulted ceilings, my first word was, “Wow!” I then understood why the community was so passionate about its castle.

On the day that I visited, there was a school visit from Glasgow. The kids had an educational talk in the visitor centre, a tour of the castle and then a guided walk in the grounds, which all tied in with the curriculum. Alongside educational talks, the castle hosts theatre productions, movie nights, weddings and the Dundonald games. It is also home to a number of groups, including a writers group, a young walking group, Ayrshire’s Young Archaeologists’ Club, the crazy castle kids group and a Scrabble group, which I am told is diverse and very competitive.

By hosting those groups and arranging visits from schools and care homes, those sites provide cosy spaces, education hubs and placement and volunteering opportunities—they are so much more than just a visitor attraction. Although visitor numbers are not back to pre-Covid levels, the fact that the castle is now open makes life much easier. It is now seeing the return of international tourists, with the visitor book showing visits from tourists from Lithuania, Poland, Italy, the United States, New Zealand and Canada, to name but a few countries.

We need to ensure that all efforts are made to secure the long-term viability of Scotland’s historic sites, and reopening them gives them a starting chance.

I will finish with something that Kirsteen Croll said to me on my first visit to Dundonald castle. It stuck with me, and it sums up how we feel about our heritage. She said:

“At Dundonald, the visitor centre is the heart of the community, but the Castle is its soul.”


Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

I congratulate the previous speaker on bringing the debate to the chamber. The benefits of having heritage and historic sites of national importance in your home town are endless. The passion and pride in our sense of place is evident, as Sharon Dowey has just set out in relation to Dundonald. Our heritage sites not only bring in tourists from around the globe and support our local economy, but provide us with a sense of place: of who we are and where we have come from.

Sites such as Linlithgow palace, in my constituency, offer a direct connection to our local history, offering opportunities to learn and engage with the worlds and the stories of the past. Linlithgow palace, which is the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, was closed at the beginning of lockdown, and it remained closed following investigations by HES into the fabric of the high-level masonry in May 2021. The scaffolding on the north range predated all of that.

In March last year, I personally requested a site visit to the palace, which I attended with the then culture minister. I was taken up the scaffolding on the north side of the palace to see the range of damage and decay that had been found as a result of decades of adverse weather. Wetter climates have had their impact on our ruins, advancing that ruination further. The damage meant that the necessary repairs that were required on public safety grounds were substantial.

There has, on and off, for decades, been a debate in the town about having a glass roof on the palace to allow more functionality, and in recognition that the continuing ruination and decay of the stonework needs to be arrested somehow and that other countries have taken more radical approaches such as glassing historic buildings. Had we done so in years gone by, we would perhaps have pre-empted the current situation.

We need to look nationally at a strategic approach to the problem, which at least is being addressed in Scotland. Historic England and others will also have to face up to it. Planned management of our ruins of sites and buildings, which themselves evolved in different ways between and within different centuries, needs to be addressed and faced up to.

The closure of such an important site as Linlithgow palace has had a massive impact on the town. The connection between the palace, the town and the local community is significant. Local business, heritage sites and national tourism are intertwined. When heritage sites close, therefore, streets lose footfall, businesses lose custom and communities lose their sense of place.

Last year, it was revealed that visitor numbers to Linlithgow palace had soared from 66,500 in 2013 to 94,718 in 2018, which shows the increasing volume of visitors to Linlithgow before lockdown. As the palace is one of the few closed sites that was previously fully staffed, and as it had the largest number of visitors of those sites that were closed, the loss of income for Historic Environment Scotland has been felt in the town also.

As the local MSP, I have previously convened meetings between Historic Environment Scotland and local community groups to ensure that visitors who came to the palace would linger longer in Linlithgow. I was pleased to hear that HES had announced a partial reopening of Linlithgow palace, which was planned for this summer, although I understand that that has now been delayed as a result of the shocking act of vandalism on the delicate fountain masonry and walls and flagstones of the palace.

That sort of action on a national monument is heritage crime and must be treated very seriously. It is worth highlighting that irresponsible acts such as vandalism often take place in closed-off spaces, in areas where the perpetrators believe that they are less likely to be caught. HES must consider that factor when it is considering closures and reopening.

It is vital that Linlithgow palace, which is a site of national importance and the heart of a local community, can open in full as soon as it is safe to do so. The people of Linlithgow and beyond need their palace, and the palace needs its people.


Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I congratulate Sharon Dowey on securing the debate, and I associate myself with the words that she expressed. I also associate myself with the words of Fiona Hyslop; I very much agree with her in hoping, as she just expressed, that Linlithgow palace will be open to visitors again soon.

In this country, we have a wonderful history, from the wars of independence and the Jacobite rebellions to being at the forefront of the industrial revolution and the enlightenment, and the defence and liberation of the free world during the world wars. This is our story, and we can take pride in retelling that story from whichever perspective we choose to tell it. I am a Scottish unionist, and I believe that it is very important that we celebrate Scotland’s history, whether it is before or after the act of union of 1707, the 316th anniversary of which was just earlier this week.

If I may express my personal feelings—I have said this before and I will take this opportunity to say it again—I find it frustrating in Scottish politics that there are some people, although not necessarily in this Parliament, who would consign to the margins of the Scottish political spectrum those of us who believe in being Scottish and British, in the sense that they say that we are not true Scots. I am a true Scot. I love Scotland and I take a great deal of pride in our nation and draw a great deal of passion from it. That combination of Scottishness and Britishness is an enhancement. I think that I heard the former First Minister say last summer that she identified as both Scottish and British, and I think that that is a very welcome thing to hear members of the Scottish National Party say, because it will blunt some of the anger and vile hatred that some of us experience.

Whether one believes, as I do, that Scotland is empowered by being in the union or whether one does not, it is important that members of this Parliament are perturbed by and interested in the condition of Scotland’s historic sites—the symbols of Scotland’s cultural independence. All of us who believe in Scotland’s nationhood would like priority to be given to the accessibility and safeguarding of the key sites that shape our Scottish identity. I ask Angus Robertson to explain to Parliament fully why it is that, after so long, Arbroath abbey—the site of one of the proud moments of Scotland’s emergence of a nation with an identity: the signing in 1320 of the declaration of Arbroath, a document of worldwide importance—is still closed. We have heard Fiona Hyslop talk about Linlithgow palace, and it is important that we receive reassurances from Angus Robertson that it will open soon. What is the delay? When can we expect that magnificent site—the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots—to reopen?

Those are just two of the sites managed by Historic Environment Scotland that are currently closed—as Sharon Dowey said earlier, there are 47 of them. For a nation to have a greater sense of its own identity, the places where that identity was forged and continues to be shaped must be accessible to all of us. We must learn lessons from what has happened to some of these historic sites in terms of their upkeep and maintenance. Deep down, we must resolve, collectively, to support the Scottish Government to ensure that there are appropriate levels of investment and care in relation to those sites of historic Scottish heritage.

People who love Scotland feel compelled, as I do, to preserve those things that make us the nation that we are, and these historic sites are one of those things.

I am a Scottish Conservative; I am interested in conserving. I hope that we hear from Angus Robertson exactly the steps that will be taken to open up all of these historic sites, which have been closed for too long.


Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

I thank Sharon Dowey for bringing this important issue to the chamber.

Earlier this year, I visited Linlithgow palace and met some of the Historic Environment Scotland team who work there. They told me about the restoration and preservation work that had been undertaken on the palace. I learned of the unique history of the palace and the important work that Historic Environment Scotland was doing to keep that history alive. Our historic environment is on the front line of climate change and some of our historic sites need specialised restoration and repair work. During my visit to Linlithgow palace, I learned about the work that needs to take place there, which requires skilled labourers and stonemasons to carry out.

I agree with the statement in Sharon Dowey’s motion that the Scottish Government must do more to ensure that there is not a shortage of skilled labourers who are able to do the necessary work. A modern apprenticeship in stonemasonry must be funded and made more readily available. College and further education courses should be fully funded to enable them to teach these important skills. Providing skills to labourers who can help to restore our historic sites is crucial to ensuring that we can reopen some of them.

Fiona Hyslop

The Scottish Government took a serious look at stonemasonry and helped to develop the stonemasonry facility at Forth Valley College, which was referred to earlier. At one point, the number of apprenticeships in stonemasonry had doubled. That commitment is there, and I am sure that the cabinet secretary can tell us what the current situation is when he closes the debate.

Foysol Choudhury

It is good to hear that the Scottish Government is looking into that, and I also look forward to hearing an update on it.

Scotland’s historic environment provides huge support to Scotland’s tourism industry. Statistics show that, in 2019, the sector generated £4.4 billion, as well as supporting 68,000 full-time jobs. The towns and businesses around these historic sites benefit greatly from the increased footfall from tourists and visitors. Many businesses in areas such as Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders greatly rely on the revenue from tourism. However, at the beginning of 2023, those areas had some of the highest reported percentages of site closures or restricted access.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, we must ensure that our historic sites are able to remain open and to keep supporting local businesses and tourism in Scotland. That is not possible if 60 of them remain closed to the public. The Scottish Government’s most recent budget predicted an increase in commercial revenue for HES in the coming year. How will that happen if many of those important historic sites remain closed?

Scotland’s historic environment plays an important role in keeping Scotland’s culture alive. It tells a story of Scotland’s past and our cultural heritage. It supports the economy and thousands of jobs. The Covid-19 pandemic hit the arts and culture sector hard and investment and funding is still needed to help to rescue it. If many of those historic sites remain closed in the coming months, we cannot hope to revive that important part of our culture.


Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I congratulate Sharon Dowey on securing the debate, and I have listened with great interest to members’ speeches. It is clear from them that Historic Environment Scotland’s properties are an important part of our history, our heritage and our culture, but that they also have a major economic role to play and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to Scotland—and to certain localities in particular—with people coming from the rest of the United Kingdom and all around the world. Therefore, it is important that we do what we can to preserve them and ensure that they stay open.

We have already heard about the negative impact of the closures that have taken place over the past few years. At first, those closures were caused by Covid but then, following the pandemic, when we hoped that they would reopen, a range of issues with the fabric of the buildings was identified. On a visit to Dunkeld cathedral, I saw for myself how the masonry was crumbling due to the impact of weather—as the weather gets wetter, the stonework is crumbling to the point at which it poses a real risk to visitors. Sadly, Historic Environment Scotland has had no alternative but to close those properties until they can be properly restored, and we should not underestimate the cost and the time that that will take, in many cases.

However, there is good news. Doune castle in my region reopened last year after some remedial works. Aberdour castle in Fife, which is a lovely property and well worth a visit, reopened in April for the season. I well remember visiting Aberdour castle a few years ago and watching Colonel Hugh Fraser’s dragoons—he is not in any way related as far as I know—which is a re-enactment society that re-enacts a battle from the 17th century. I watched that with great interest, and when I was doing research for my book about the Marquis of Montrose and the Marquis of Argyll, watching Colonel Hugh Fraser’s dragoons with their pike pack was incredibly helpful in helping me to understand how battles at the time of the Scottish civil wars would have been conducted.

I said earlier that I have visited Dunkeld cathedral. Last summer, I was contacted by a number of constituents who were concerned that Dunkeld cathedral and its grounds were closed to the public. Dunkeld is quite an unusual property because the choir and the east end of the property are still in use by an active Church of Scotland congregation as a place of worship. However, the west end of the property—the nave—is ruined; it has no roof and is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland. The whole building has been affected by crumbling masonry, which is why it was closed, although church services could still take place under a canopy over the entrance. It also meant that the grounds down by the River Tay, which are very attractive and popular with visitors, were also closed. Following contact from me and work that was done by the kirk session, I am pleased that the grounds can be reopened so people can at least visit them, although safety fencing has had to be put up around the nave of the cathedral to prevent people from getting too close and putting themselves at risk from falling masonry.

It is terribly sad to see such a building, which should be open and accessible to visitors, closed because of the risks. I saw for myself the work that HES has done to restore it. However, we should not underestimate how much that will cost, nor should we underestimate the difficulties of getting the work done because of the shortage of stonemasons, as other members have talked about. Stonemasons are in high demand in our country and right across Europe; it is difficult to recruit them. HES is doing good work in trying to recruit apprentices by making it an attractive career option, but there is a lot more work to be done.

The constitution secretary knows that this is a vital issue for Scotland and that funding will be required to support HES, which also requires funding to allow apprentices to train to be stonemasons. It is vital to all our communities across Scotland that these historic monuments are put in a condition that means that they can not only last for future generations but be enjoyed by locals and visitors as an important part of the visitor economy that we have heard about.


The Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

I begin by extending my warm thanks to Sharon Dowey for providing the opportunity to highlight and discuss the importance of protecting the historic environment for the benefit of everybody in Scotland and people who travel to this country wishing to enjoy it. I also underscore my appreciation for the entirely positive tone and approach from right across the parties to the challenge that our historic environment faces.

In addition to Sharon Dowey, we heard from Fiona Hyslop, who has been a consistently strong advocate for Linlithgow palace, and her call was echoed by Stephen Kerr. We heard from Foysol Choudhury and Murdo Fraser, who said, among many other things, how important it is to understand the scale of the issues that our historic environment faces and the challenge that that poses, given that we are a country full of castles, abbeys and other historic sites that are being challenged by the 21st century environment.

The motion mentions the important benefits that the historic environment sector delivers, and the Scottish Government very much agrees with that. Those benefits feature heavily in the revised strategy for Scotland’s historic environment, “Our Past, Our Future”. The strategy focuses on priorities that have been identified through extensive consultation with the sector and the people of Scotland. Those priorities include the core themes of

“Delivering the transition to net zero”

in response to climate change,

“Empowering resilient and inclusive communities and places”

and “Building a wellbeing economy”, all of which align with Scottish Government ambitions. I therefore commend the strategy to all members who have taken part in the debate or who have been in the chamber throughout it. The strategy was published on 28 April, and I look forward to its formal launch in June.

Regarding the closure of historic sites, I appreciate the great frustration that Sharon Dowey, other members across the chamber and the wider public feel when they see some of our historic properties with access restrictions. I think that we all understand that. However, it is vital that we recognise the reasons for those restrictions, which we have heard about, because the health and safety of visitors, Historic Environment Scotland staff and our contractors, and the associated challenges, must be of paramount importance. Therefore, safety must remain our top priority while the inspection programme progresses and while work to repair our historic properties takes place.

I recognise that Historic Environment Scotland acted responsibly with the speed at which access was restricted at affected sites when it became aware of significant high-level masonry concerns. Those concerns make it clear that the increasing effects of climate change are having a marked effect on our built environment. Historical structures were not designed or built to withstand the current levels of precipitation or the fluctuation in temperatures that have now become commonplace. Those stresses are felt not only on the original fabric of our historic buildings but on repair work, which has exacerbated weaknesses in our historic high-level masonry.

The situation is not unique to Scotland because, as we know, climate change is having an impact across the world. Although the situation is far from ideal, I am heartened that Scotland’s lead public body for the environment, Historic Environment Scotland—known by many of us as HES—quickly put in place a prioritised inspection programme to assess our historic properties. That programme of work has allowed sites deemed safe to reopen as soon as possible—Sharon Dowey outlined the number that were able to open, which I welcome—or partial access to be provided when it is safe for that to happen.

It is important to note that many of the properties in care are routinely closed during the winter months, and Historic Environment Scotland recently announced the reopening of more than 20 sites as part of its seasonal reopenings. I think that we can all welcome that. It has also fully reopened or increased access at more than 40 sites as part of the high-level masonry inspection programme.

I am pleased that Sharon Dowey has had the opportunity to visit Crossraguel abbey, which is affected by high-level masonry issues, to witness at first hand the work that is being undertaken by Historic Environment Scotland. I encourage other members with affected properties in their constituency or region to take up Historic Environment Scotland’s offer for site visits in order to learn more about the challenges at individual properties.

Stephen Kerr

I make a plea to the cabinet secretary to use his good office to intervene in relation to the excellent stonemasonry coursework that is done at Forth Valley College, which has been highlighted by a number of members and which I have seen myself—it is absolutely superb. Regardless of the current flux in the finance arrangements for colleges, will the cabinet secretary intervene to ensure that that particular course, given its vital importance to the preservation of our historic sites, will be properly funded and protected?

Angus Robertson

I will certainly be raising the issues that Stephen Kerr has raised with my colleague the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, who takes the lead on that matter within the portfolio.

Undoubtedly, substantial resources are required to undertake the high-level masonry inspection programme and subsequent conservation work. We are providing HES with unprecedented levels of funding: £72.7 million in 2023-24 to maintain Scotland’s heritage and historic environment. That is an 82.6 per cent increase from the £39.8 million of support that it received in 2019-20, before the impact of the pandemic.

Will the member take an intervention?

I am running out of time, but I will take a very brief intervention.

Fiona Hyslop

It is important to reflect on the issues around lost income. Clearly, before the pandemic, Historic Environment Scotland had a very buoyant income, not least from Linlithgow palace, so the cabinet secretary might want to give that perspective when presenting such figures.

Angus Robertson

Indeed. Taken with the commercial income of HES, which is showing strong signs of recovery, the current funding means that HES’s operating budget for this financial year is £114.5 million, which is 22.4 per cent higher than it was before the pandemic.

I draw members’ attention to the increase in visitors to the top-five visited properties in 2021-22. Visitor numbers to all those increased by more than 300 per cent. Glasgow cathedral was visited by seven times more people than it was in 2020-21.

I will briefly take the opportunity to encourage everybody in the chamber and anyone who is watching the debate to join Historic Environment Scotland, which is an extremely effective way of supporting the organisation.

I have been asked specifically about skills training, which is extremely important. A short-life working group has been established with a diverse membership to investigate the skills gaps and the demand for stonemasons. The working group will report shortly, and I will ensure that members are updated on its work.

However, it is important to point out that the shortage of skilled craftspeople has not yet had an impact on the high-level masonry inspection programme, as there are other more relevant restricting issues, as Sharon Dowey correctly highlighted. Those issues include the availability of the limited stock of specialist heavy plant hire to undertake high-level work; the remote location of many sites, which causes access issues for equipment; and the protection of certain species of nesting birds, badgers and bats, which delays some inspections. Therefore, there is a variety of complications for Historic Environment Scotland.

The Scottish Government remains committed to the protection and conservation of our historic environment and is proud to champion the role that it plays, not only as a defining waypoint in our past but in presenting opportunities to build a fairer and more sustainable future for Scotland.

I again thank Sharon Dowey for bringing the debate to the chamber and other members for their interest in and support for the historic environment. I welcome the views that have been expressed in the debate, which have been helpful in raising the profile of these important issues. I will forward the points raised today to the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development to inform her future discussions with Historic Environment Scotland regarding this vital issue.

Meeting closed at 18:12.