Abbey assessment will restrict access

Arbroath Abbey is one of three HES properties being inspected, with restricted access in place while assessment is carried out.Arbroath Abbey is one of three HES properties being inspected, with restricted access in place while assessment is carried out.
Arbroath Abbey is one of three HES properties being inspected, with restricted access in place while assessment is carried out.
Arbroath Abbey is being subject to a new approach by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) to inspecting its historic properties in response to the effects of climate change.

A programme of tactile condition surveys on the abbey will assess the extent of deterioration of high-level masonry and ensure public safety against the risk of potentially unstable masonry.

The same process is also being applied to Edzell Castle and Maisondieu Chapel in Brechin, all of which will have restricted access in place. This is part of a national programme involving more than 200 properties across Scotland.

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HES, which cares for 336 historic sites, believes the programme will transform the way the nation’s most precious places are protected, repaired and experienced in the face of accelerating decay from climate change.

The programme will assess the impact of this and the scale of deterioration caused by other factors, including the materials used in the building’s construction, its age and physical location. HES anticipates that remedial works could require significant investment over multiple years and, in some instances, require a different management approach to be taken than before.

HES had embarked on a national project to assess risks to visitors and staff in 2019. Post-lockdown, work was restarted and surveys conducted in spring 2021 identified potentially dangerous fabric at high level, leading to immediate access restrictions at 20 properties to ensure visitors and staff were not exposed to any possible risks.

Restrictions were put in place at a further 11 sites in November and 39 this month.

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Dr David Mitchell, director of conservation at said: “The safety of staff, visitors and contractors is our top priority and access restrictions at Arbroath Abbey, Edzell Castle and Maisondieu Chapel will unfortunately be necessary. We are currently assessing where partial access can be put in place at sites where it is safe to do so, and information will be posted to the HES website as it is available."

In the past two years, HES has awarded grants of over £202,000 to support historic sites in Angus - £109,800 to Gardner Memorial Church in Brechin and £92,387 to the Hospitalfield Trust in Arbroath.

Dr Mitchell continued: “Our routine inspections are increasingly revealing the deterioration of building fabric at high level. While our changing climate is not the sole reason for deterioration, it has certainly accelerated it and brought the issue to a head. Historic properties are inherently fragile by their nature, often ruinous and standing at exposed locations. We face a constant battle against time and the elements.

“We are one of the first heritage bodies tackling this issue head on and the difficult choices it will lead to, but we are not alone. Across the world, cultural heritage assets are seen as barometers of change, and they demonstrate the challenges for the historic environment and traditionally constructed buildings in the face of a changing climate.

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“We are taking proactive action now to assess the nature and scale of the immediate challenge and to explore a range of solutions and options. It is inevitable our approach to protecting historic buildings will have to change; we need to reimagine how we manage these historic and much-loved places. A range of solutions is needed, including repairs, investment, and new and innovative interventions. In some cases, reduced physical access and accepting the natural process of decay will need to be considered.”

While the work is taking place, HES is looking at alternative ways to share Scotland’s story with the many visitors, members and people across Scotland who engage with the sites that it manages. This includes looking at opportunities to provide partial access at some sites where it is safe to do so, while more interpretative performances, the use of innovative technology and new audio tours and trails are also being considered to augment the visitor experience for 2022. HES is committed to opening up as much access as possible as the work progresses.

While the inspection programme is taking place, many of Scotland’s most loved historic visitor attractions remain open to the public, including Edinburgh Castle, Skara Brae, Stirling Castle, Fort George, Arnol Blackhouse, Urquhart Castle and many more across the length and breadth of Scotland.

More information is available on the HES website.