‘World class’ Old Scatness visitor centre designed to take on Orkney at heritage


A “WORLD-CLASS” visitor centre with a grass roof might be built in 2012 to house Old Scatness Broch at a cost of at least £7.8 million.

The innovative dome-shaped building would allow Britain’s best-preserved Iron Age village to open all year and steal ahead of Orkney’s UNESCO world heritage site at Skara Brae in the tourist attraction stakes.

The proposed design has been approved by the trustees of Shetland Amenity Trust and involves the broch and village excavations being enclosed under a turf roof. The building’s walls would be crafted from stones already removed in the archaeological digs.

Old Scatness is considered to be the most comprehensive excavation of a broch ever and has helped rewrite what is known about the Iron Age in Shetland and Scotland. It is now thought brochs were built much earlier than previously believed and that people lived in the Scatness settlement for perhaps 4,000 years, even before the broch went up.

The eco-friendly building being proposed would essentially “re­cover” the broch and village, as it was for 2,000 years until dug up since 1995. The inside shell would be timber framed. Ground-source heat pumps and solar panels would help provide a climate-controlled atmosphere to preserve the historic remains. Visitors would be able to view the settlement from above from a series of walkways and platforms within the arena and spend time in the cafe and shop.

The concept is so bold and striking it drew the description “absolutely stupendous” from amenity trust general manager Jimmy Moncrieff when asked this week about its significance. “Every­body we’ve shown the project to agrees, and is very impressed with the vision. It costs money, obviously, and we need to get a handle on how much. If that was affordable we need to be able to persuade the funders that it’s a worthy project.”

Its chances may be diminishing by the day, given the current global economic calamity, Shetland Charitable Trust’s freeze on funds for new projects and recent moves by a crop of SIC councillors to kill off grand projects they think Shetland can no longer afford. However, a factor in its favour is that the centre is intended to need “little or no annual subsidy”, councillors were told last month in a report by economic development official Linda Coutts.

Although the site would be a classy all-weather attraction to visit “year round” there will be some convincing to be done that enough visitors would be likely to make the effort during our long winter. But, as Mr Moncrieff pointed out, there are no birds to see at that time of year at Sumburgh Head and Jarlshof is very exposed to the elements, leaving the Scatness dome as the prime attraction.

Currently the trust is preoccupied with finalising the funding package for a different ambitious heritage tourism project at the Ness, the £3.9m restoration of the lighthouse buildings at Sumburgh Head, which is expected to take until 2011 to complete, providing its own visitor centre as well as self-catering accommodation and offices. Mr Moncrieff said there would be little movement on the broch centre plan probably until next year when time and several hundred thousand pounds may be spent fleshing out the proposal and obtaining more accurate costings. If all goes well with funding, and a fair political wind, it could start to go up in about four years’ time.

The amenity trust is adept at unlocking funds from outside Shetland but Mr Moncrieff said there is some uncertainty now about the heritage lottery fund, which has a new set of rules governing assistance. While the amenity trust has backed the dome, SIC councillors have only made encouraging noises so far after being told about it at a private seminar in May. No formal debate is on the horizon yet but it is expected members will voice their feelings next month at a meeting of the development committee when discussing whether to unlock £233,000 for a programme of work at Scatness Broch over the next two years. They halted the grant in April, telling the trust it would get no more money until it provided a fully costed business plan for the projects it has planned for the next three years.

The dome was the favoured option for the broch site among three investigated for the trust by a project team of Edinburgh-based experts led by specialist architects Groves-Raines. It was rated cheaper than an £8.3m hangar-type industrial shed covering the site. The simplest option was a £4m horn-shaped building sited next to the broch complex, leaving it open to decay by the elements.

The architectural inspiration for the dome draws on a number of ancient and new buildings in Europe and the US including the 5,000-year-old Newgrange passage tomb in County Meath, Ireland, the £25m new Cliffs of Moher visitor centre in County Clare, which opened last year, and the Ladbyskibet Viking ship burial site in Denmark.

According to the preface of Groves-Raines’ brochure, investing in Old Scatness has the potential to benefit the economy directly as a marketable asset and indirectly “through building internal con­fidence and external reputation”.

It concludes the stone and turf building would be best value for money. “It affords maximum protection to the archaeology, allows access to the entire site, and offers the very significant ad­vantage of creating a unique heritage site that will complement rather than compete with other attractions in Shetland. In doing so it will bring a very major addition to the critical mass of attractions on the islands, contribute to extending the visitor season and thus provide additional economic benefits.”

An estimated £2.3m has already been spent getting the Scatness site to its current state, of which over £1.5m was money raised from outside Shetland. The site was first discovered in 1975 when a new access road was being built for the airport. It was identified by the museum curator of the time, Tom Henderson, before being covered up for future excavation.

  • A shopping list of heritage tourism projects was listed in a 22-page report put before councillors earlier this month, most of which were first revealed publicly last year by The Shetland Times. They include ideas proposed by a variety of bodies for some unspecified time in the future, such as a visitor centre for Clickimin Broch; an aviation museum and an agricultural museum in Tingwall; a transport and industrial heritage centre in Girlsta; a museum in Skeld; restoring Brough Lodge in Fetlar; restoring a house at Hamars in Unst to provide self-catering accommodation; and restoring the lighthouse building in Grunay, Skerries.

In the shorter term the list includes the continuing £1m Viking Unst excavations and construction of a new longhouse; the £1m Scalloway Museum; a £500,000 Shetland Textile Working Museum at Voe House, Walls; the £4m new Fair Isle Bird Observ­atory; the final phases of the £1.2m Belmont House restoration and promoting Shetland’s “world-class geological heritage” at a cost of £260,000 over three years.

Another hope is to employ a co-ordinator for the Shetland Heritage Association who could help develop and manage many of the heritage projects in the pipeline.


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