UNESCO Explained

UNESCO. You might have heard of it. You might even be able to name a UNESCO World Heritage Site or two. But what does it mean and what does it have to do with Scotland?

Founded in 1945, ‘The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’ brings together countries, communities and people, in a global mission to promote science, education, and culture.

One way UNESCO does this is by protecting and celebrating the world’s most extraordinary places –and most importantly; creating awareness of their significance. These places are known as UNESCO designations; places which have the power to change the way we see, experience, and understand the planet and ourselves - and you can see some of them on Scotland’s UNESCO Trail.

From ancient archaeology and incredible landscapes, sustainable communities to technological marvels, Scotland’s 13 UNESCO designations are a treasure trove of natural gems and human ingenuity. Let’s find out more.


First up it’s the biospheres.

These places of extraordinary natural beauty are networks of unique ecosystems where communities exist in equilibrium with their natural environment. Here, traditional ways of life still hold sway, and vibrant & contemporary cultural life thrives.

We’ve got two. Spanning 3000 square miles, Wester Ross Biosphere is set in the stunning north-west Highlands. Here you’ll find an ever-growing array of sustainable attractions and activities and traditional crofting communities, where Gaelic heritage intertwines people with nature.

To the south lies Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere. Ripe with outdoor adventures and amazing geology shaped by shifting glaciers and seismic events; see natural history come to life and delve into a dynamic cultural scene in artists’ towns.


Scotland’s UNESCO designations aren’t just all about nature and history. Entire cities are recognised for having creativity at the heart of their cultural life.

Like Edinburgh, UNESCO’s first-ever city of literature. Books have been part of Edinburgh’s DNA for centuries with some of the world’s best-loved writers having found inspiration here. It’s even home to the largest celebration of the written word in the world – The Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Scotland is also world-renowned for music, thanks to Glasgow. The first-ever UNESCO City of Music has a burgeoning music scene.

Boasting legendary venues, prestigious music and dance companies, a lively busking scene and more, music is the heartbeat of the city. It’s even been known to host up to 130 music events a week!

When it comes to design, Scotland has always held its own, especially in Dundee, the UK’s first-ever City of Design. The Home of Desperate Dan, Grand Theft Auto and the first Victoria and Albert Museum built outside of London, this compact city has made major contributions to fields as diverse as biotechnology, tech and fashion.


Scotland’s geology is a wonder to behold. Home to two UNESCO Global Geoparks, see incredible geological sights, many believe to be among the oldest and most precious in the world.

The North West Highlands Geopark can be like setting foot in the prehistoric era. In fact, it’s one of the most fascinating landscapes on the planet, attracting geologists and scientists from around the world to learn how the planet was made, drawn by some of the oldest rock formations in existence.

Then there’s Shetland. The whole archipelago is a designated Geopark thanks to a geology that spans 3 billion years. It’s one of the most geologically diverse areas in Europe, home to 23 unique plant species and 6,000 years of archaeology.


And finally, there are the World Heritage Sites. These are landmarks of human progress; places that have moved the goal posts of innovation, from the dawn of civilisation to the present day.

First up is St Kilda. See how generations of islanders adapted to this remote environment, sculpted over millions of years by natural forces and thousands of years of human activity.

At the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, trace over 5,000 years of human development at four of the greatest Neolithic sites in Europe.

Or uncover traces of one of the most ambitious constructions in ancient times, the Antonine Wall, a mighty fortification that marked the final frontier of the northerly Roman Empire.

The Romans left and the ideas of the classical world gave way to the revolutionary approach captured during the Scottish Enlightenment in 18th century Edinburgh. You can see how this influenced the transformation of the city which saw the medieval Old Town joined by the elegant Georgian New Town.

The progressive ideals of the Enlightenment are also embodied by New Lanark, a preserved mill village which showed how industry could be a force for good by ensuring humane living and working conditions for workers.

Lastly, we have the Forth Bridge. Spanning the Firth of Forth, this immense railway viaduct is a testament to Scottish engineering and remains the world’s longest-ever cantilever bridge. Regarded as one of the great wonders of the Victorian age, it’s still in operation today.

Be part of the life-changing power of responsible tourism on Scotland’s UNESCO Trail and discover why Scotland’s UNESCO designations make our country unlike anywhere else. From supporting local businesses to opting for eco-friendly transport, the choices you make will enrich Scotland, safeguard the environment and create a sustainable, greener and brighter future for all.