What is a World Heritage Site?

Author: Friends of New Lanark

World Heritage Sites seem to feature regularly in the news these days. In Scotland, it is not so long ago that the Forth Bridge was made one and now the Isle of Skye wants to be one.

What is a World Heritage Site?

As this is being written, the nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire has been confirmed, coinciding with the 60th Anniversary of the tracking of the launch rocket of Sputnik 1 by the Lovell Telescope in 1957. The University of Manchester is now preparing the papers for nomination, which will be submitted to UNESCO in January 2018. If successful it will be the UK’s 32nd UNESCO World Heritage Site, following the inscription of the English Lake District earlier this year.

So, what is a World Heritage Site (WHS)? This is a question often asked, especially when people visit New Lanark for the first time. And, what does a World Heritage Site look like? In fact, all that the inscription on the World Heritage List does is to attract attention to the fact that this is a really significant place. Otherwise each site, almost by definition, is completely different from the next.

In a nutshell, what it means, however, is that this is one of the 1000 or so most significant cultural or natural places in the world. Following the original World Heritage Convention signed in 1972 by the countries of the world recognised by the United Nations and supportive of the educational, scientific and cultural aims of its sister organisation UNESCO, thoroughly-researched, formal applications are made by member states to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee every year for inclusion of sites on the list. Successful sites have to satisfy the committee that they are truly the most significant representatives of the cultural development of our global society or of the natural environments of the Earth. Criteria for the heritage significance of sites are applied to establish their Outstanding Universal Value, along with the authenticity and integrity of their state of preservation. Further, each site must have in place a management plan for its preservation and enhancement, vouched for by the member state.

What are the current and potential WHS in the UK?

Of the 31 existing WHS in the UK and its Overseas Territories, 26 are cultural sites, four are natural sites and one is mixed (St Kilda). Scotland has six6 WHS - in addition to St Kilda, New Lanark and the Forth Bridge, there are the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, Heart of Neolithic Orkney and the Antonine Wall, which is formally part of the transnational WHS for Frontiers of the Roman Empire in both the UK and Germany.

Overseas, the UK is also responsible for WHS in Gibraltar, Bermuda, Pitcairn Islands and Tristan da Cunha.

For places such as Skye, or even the Cairngorms or the buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, all of which have been talked about for several years, there may be a long wait, as each member state has to work from its current Tentative List as lodged with UNESCO from time to time. Jodrell Bank has been on the UK Tentative List for some time, as have the Flow Country in Caithness and Mousa in Shetland. Those others mentioned above which aspire to be WHS will have to take their place in a future review of the Tentative List which currently includes 11 sites from the home countries and two overseas territories.  Only one site can be nominated each year.

How did New Lanark become a WHS?

Only one year after the World Heritage Convention was signed, and one year before the first New Lanark Trust was established, the New Lanark Steering Committee was formed in 1973 by local and national organisations interested in conservation. One member of the committee was then quoted as saying that New Lanark was “as unique and just as worth preserving as Stonehenge.” Stonehenge was one of the first seven UK World Heritage Sites to be inscribed in 1986 after the Government had ratified the Convention in 1984.

New Lanark was also nominated by the UK Government for inscription at the same time but was thwarted by the need for further investigation and then the withdrawal of the Government from UNESCO between 1985 and 1997. By that time the rules had changed and greater scrutiny of heritage significance, especially of industrial heritage, was involved and a management plan was required. New Lanark was eventually inscribed on the list in 2001 at the meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee held in Helsinki.

What WHS are associated with Industry?

Industrial sites on the list for the UK include not only New Lanark but also Ironbridge Gorge (iron industry and birth of the industrial revolution), Blaenavon Industrial Landscape (coal mining), Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (copper and tin mining), Derwent Valley Mills and Saltaire (both textile sites inscribed at the same time as New Lanark but with unique associations with key themes and personalities).   There are also WHS associated with transport and technological development but with six industrial sites on the World Heritage List, the UK can fairly be said to be the cradle of industry as there are currently only 21 such sites across the world in total.

What makes New Lanark worthy of a WHS?

The key to status as a WHS is the application of the criteria used by UNESCO under their Operational Guidelines. These criteria for Outstanding Universal Value have been developed with the advice of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). The same advice is provided for natural sites by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).   UNESCO states “Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.” The Operational Guidelines set out 10 criteria against which cultural or natural sites are assessed. In summary, these relate to (i) human creativity, (ii) human values, (iii) tradition, (iv) architecture and engineering, (v) settlement and land use, (vi) events and ideas, (vii) natural phenomena, (viii) Earth history, (ix) ecological processes, (x) habitats (reference).

New Lanark’s inscription is based on the following statement of significance under these criteria:

  • Criterion (ii): When Richard Arkwright’s new factory system for textile production was brought to New Lanark the need to provide housing and other facilities for the workers and managers was recognised. It was there that David Dale and Robert Owen created a model for industrial communities that was to spread across the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. 
  • Criterion (iv): New Lanark saw the construction not only of well designed and equipped workers’ housing but also public buildings designed to improve their spiritual as well as their physical needs.
  • Criterion (vi): The name of New Lanark is synonymous with that of Robert Owen and his social philosophy in matters such as progressive education, factory reform, humane working practices, international cooperation, and garden cities, which was to have a profound influence on social developments throughout the 19th century and beyond.

In addition, New Lanark is considered to have a high degree of authenticity and integrity in its state of preservation:

“The appearance of the buildings of the village is now close to that of the early nineteenth century, during Owen’s management…”


“The village has seen little change from its heyday of cotton production in the early nineteenth century. Where elements are missing or have been replaced, the property is clearly interpreted to reflect this. Where rebuilding or reconstruction have been necessary, this has been carried out to the best conservation standards…”