Description of the historic environment

Skara Brae, OrkneyThe Comment on this pagehistoric environment enriches Scotland's landscapes and townscapes and is central to the country's distinctive character. It also makes a major contribution to Scotland's national identity, culture and economy. The various designated elements that make up Scotland's historic environment are explained below.

World heritage sites

Scotland has five World Heritage Sites (sites of outstanding universal value) under the terms of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention

Four are cultural World Heritage Sites:

St Kilda is a mixed cultural and natural World Heritage Site.

Properties in Care

A Property in Care is an ancient monument and/or historic building that is cared for by Historic Scotland under the terms of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

There are 345 properties in the care of Historic Scotland.

Listed buildings

Historic Scotland lists buildings of special historic or architectural interest and maintains an associated dataset of listed building descriptions available on the Historic Scotland website.

The lists ensure that the planning process takes the needs of the historic environment into account and guides the management of change. Scotland’s Historic Environment Audit (SHEA) shows that there were 47,672 listed buildings in Scotland in March 2012, an increase of 507 since 2008 (the baseline date for SHEA).

The number of records relates to listing entries, not individual buildings or ownerships. A number of individually owned properties, such as a terrace of houses, may be covered by a single listing entry.

Buildings are assigned to one of three categories according to their relative importance. All listed buildings receive equal legal protection, and protection applies equally to the interior and exterior of all listed buildings, regardless of category.

  • category A: buildings of national or international importance, either architectural or historic, or fine, little-altered examples of a particular period, style or building type (around 8% of the total);
  • category B: buildings of regional or more than local importance, or major examples of a particular period, style or building type, which may have been altered (around 50% of the total);
  • category C: buildings of local importance, lesser examples of any period, style or building type, as originally constructed or moderately altered, and simple traditional buildings that group well with others in categories A and B (around 42% of the total).

Scheduled monuments

Scheduled monuments are sites or monuments of national importance that are legally protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Historic Scotland maintains the schedule of monuments.

There were 8,205 scheduled monuments in Scotland in March 2012, an increase of 184 since 2008. The oldest scheduled monuments date from around 8,000 years ago, before the advent of farming in Scotland. The most recent scheduled monuments include Second World War defences. In between is a wider range of monuments of all types, including prehistoric chambered cairns, Roman forts, early medieval carved stones and industrial mills. They may be recognisable as banks, ditches, walls, or other upstanding structural remains, but much of a monument may survive beneath the ground, often extending for a considerable distance beyond the visible remains.

Information on scheduled monuments and GIS maps of scheduled areas is available from the Historic Scotland data website.

Gardens and designed landscapes

There are 390 sites on the inventory of gardens and designed landscapes in Scotland, compiled and maintained by Historic Scotland. Sites on the inventory are considered to be of national importance and should be taken account of in the planning process.

Conservation areas

Conservation areas are designated by local planning authorities as:

"…areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance".

There were 645 conservation areas in Scotland in March 2012, compared to 636 in 2008.  Information on Scotland's conservation areas is available on the Scottish Government website.

Wreck sites

There are sixteen nationally protected wreck sites across Scotland.  Of these, eight wreck sites are designated by Scottish Ministers (through Historic Scotland) under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. Seven other offshore wrecks are scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. There is also a single wreck protected as an Historic Marine Protected Area under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. Further information on Scotland’s marine historic environment is contained in Scotland’s Marine Atlas.


There are 28 nationally important battlefields on the Inventory of Scottish Battlefields maintained by Historic Scotland.

Undesignated assets

By far the largest part of the historic environment is not protected by designation and is in private ownership.

The scale of the undesignated built heritage is considerable and is illustrated below:

  • there are 125,685 archaeological monuments recorded by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), of which only 9,967 are linked to scheduled monument designations. This suggests that 92% of known archaeological sites and monuments in Scotland are undesignated;
  • RCAHMS holds 140,197 records relating to historic architecture. Of these, 71,660 records (51%) are not linked to listed building records;
  • 455,000 Scottish dwellings were built pre-1919 (traditionally constructed). Which means that one fifth (19%) of our housing stock is now over 90 years old. These properties comprise the bulk of the vernacular architecture which contributes to Scotland’s unique character;
  • RCAHMS holds 20,675 records relating to maritime heritage. However, there are only 16 protected wrecks in Scotland, suggesting that 99.9% of recorded maritime heritage is undesignated;
  • 92% of gardens and related sites (sundials, garden features etc) recorded by RCAHMS are undesignated;
  • RCAHMS holds 297 records relating to battle sites or battlefields, only 28 of which are on the Inventory of nationally important battlefields.

Why are some assets not protected?

There is a wide range of undesignated archaeological sites, monuments and areas of historical interest (including battlefields), historic landscapes, gardens and designed landscapes, woodlands and routes such as drove roads, which does not have statutory protection. There can be a number of reasons why a historic environment asset is not designated, including:

  • the asset has been assessed for designation but will have failed to meet the required criteria;
  • the asset has not yet been assessed for designation;
  • the asset is not of a type that can be designated;
  • the asset has not yet been recorded.

Scottish planning policy 23: planning and the historic environment sets out Scottish Government policy relating to undesignated assets in the planning system. In essence, planning authorities are expected to consider the potential to protect these resources through the planning process.

Historic land-use assessment

Historic land-use assessment (HLA) is an ongoing project undertaken by RCAHMS and Historic Scotland. It is a key approach for understanding the historic environment as a whole and aids in assessing significance. It is designed to map past and present land use across Scotland to help us understand how today's landscape is influenced by human activities in the past. Around 80% of Scotland had been mapped using HLA by March 2012.

Condition of the historic environment

It is difficult to assess the current and changing state of all of the elements that make up the historic environment because of a lack of nationally consistent trend data, from which evidence of change can be determined.  The sector is working together to develop an evidence base.

Although there is only limited nationally collated information on the condition of the historic environment, the presence of management plans and regular inspection regimes for many built heritage assets means that a considerable amount is known locally.

The sources listed below provide useful national data on condition of the historic environment.

Condition of listed buildings (buildings at risk register)

Established in 1990 and managed by Historic Scotland, the buildings at risk register (BARR) for Scotland highlights properties of architectural or historic merit throughout the country that are considered to be at risk or under threat.

Buildings at risk are not necessarily in poor condition; they may simply be standing empty with no clear future use.

A national report on A-Listed buildings at risk  is available from the BARR website. Key points are:

  • in 2013, 8.0% of A-listed buildings (nationally or internationally important) are at risk, compared to 8.2% in 2011 and 8.7% in 2009;
  • a-listed entries in rural areas are more likely to be at risk than those in urban areas;
  • nine out of ten A-listed BARR entries are vacant.  

Changes in the proportion of A-listed buildings at risk are used to measure the 'Scotland performs national indicator: improve the state of Scotland's historic buildings, monuments and environment'. The Scotland Performs Technical Assessment Group has awarded a 'Performance Maintaining' arrow for this indicator.

Condition of scheduled monuments

Historic Scotland's Field Officer reports (previously known as monument warden reports) provide the only systematically generated, detailed condition data about ancient monuments in Scotland. The data relate only to scheduled monuments and need careful interpretation. It is not possible to extrapolate figures to produce estimates of condition and risk among the population of ancient monuments as a whole. However, the range of issues faced by unscheduled monuments is likely to be very similar. 

 Historic Scotland undertook analysis of the condition of scheduled monuments based on Field Officer reports.  Key findings are reported in the 2012 Scotland’s Historic Environment Audit (SHEA) and are summarised below.

  • the percentage of monuments in an optimal or satisfactory condition has increased over the last 13 years, and is currently around 87%;
  • there is a direct relationship between condition and risk, with monuments in an optimal or satisfactory condition likely to be associated with a low risk of future deterioration;
  • there is an increasing trend of monuments assessed as being at high or immediate risk of further deterioration. Currently around 12% of monuments fall into this category;
  • particular monument types appear more vulnerable than others. There is a significant variation in condition between each category of monument. Prehistoric and roman monuments are in general in a better condition than ecclesiastical, secular and industrial monuments;
  • around 28% of scheduled monuments show an improvement in condition over time, with 26% showing a decline;
  • around 26% of monuments show an decrease in assessed risk over time, with a further 26% showing an increase.