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Digital Future of Scotland’s Heritage

6 October 2011

    St Andrews House     Charlotte Square     Royal Mile

Speaking at the Digital Future of Scotland’s Heritage debate today, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop said:

“Scotland is a creative nation, rich in heritage contributing to the world as a modern dynamic country. Our heritage is one of our greatest assets which attracts many visitors from overseas.

Scotland offers not only tremendous natural beauty, but an incredibly rich history which can be observed in its iconic structures, such as Edinburgh Castle or Maeshowe in Orkney; in its variety of traditionally constructed buildings which give the country its character; and in the personal histories of its people over generations, their stories, endeavours and achievements, all of which have contributed to the nation we live in today. People across the world want to learn more about Scotland, its history, places, people and culture; and how all of this connects to them personally.  Our heritage is vital to cultural tourism, with research showing that the Historic Environment contributes £2.3 billion to the Scottish economy and supports 60,000 jobs - using the most modern technologies to enhance its presentation will be crucial to sustaining that contribution.

The relentless development of digital technology is fundamentally changing the world we live in, and becoming an increasingly common element in daily life. It is critical that Scotland not only keeps up but pushes ahead of the field in this area.  Scotland recently hosted an international conference on Digital Documentation and Visualisation, and brought leading experts from all over the world to speak. Our world-leading technical expertise coupled with the extraordinary wealth of our cultural heritage places us in a stronger position than ever to lead in the digital documentation of heritage.

Scotland is also a world leader in the digitisation of archival records in relation to our people and family history.  Digital technology provides tremendous potential not only for increasing access to sites, archives and information, but for capturing the imagination and interest of young and old alike and encouraging more visitors to Scotland.  

Information is ever more accessible as data become available online - digitising archive collections has been pioneered by a  number of bodies in Scotland, including the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). By improving the quality of the information accessible online we can encourage more people to benefit from the considerable resources available to them through the internet.

And it’s not just archives that can benefit from this technology. Digital technologies can be applied to entire buildings, with incredible possibilities. Many of our most treasured heritage sites are either vulnerable or difficult to access. For example, the internal spaces at Neolithic Skara Brae in Orkney are not accessible to visitors, but thanks to recent digital survey work we will now be able to provide virtual access.

Historic Scotland’s ambitious Scottish Ten project uses 3D digital scanning; over five years it will record Scotland’s five UNESCO World Heritage Sites alongside five outstanding international heritage sites for future generations. The project is a unique public sector partnership with the Glasgow School of Art, and an example of effective collaboration to deliver something truly groundbreaking. And I can announce today that work on scanning the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh revealing remarkable architecture in a new way is now under way.

Our digital heritage work is helping to build international co-operation. Through working closely with international partners, we are forging stronger international links for Scotland. We are working in partnership with the United States’ National Parks Service, at Mount Rushmore; with the Indian Government to record the remarkable Rani Ki Vav stepwell; and with the People’s Republic of China on the Eastern Qing Tombs.  Historic Scotland continues to work in partnership with the CyArk foundation, founded by the inventor of the terrestrial laser scanner, Ben Kacyra, and discussions are already underway to develop the next project.

We have made a new commitment to digitally record the 345 properties in the care of Scottish Ministers. The benefits of these digital records move beyond merely creating a record; they can be used for conservation, education and interpretation. Scotland will be the first country in the world to digitally document its national collection of monuments in 3D.

Pushing the boundaries of this technology, the experience being delivered by the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland at Bannockburn in time for the 700th anniversary of the battle in 2014 will employ digital survey of the battlefield combined with 3D motion capture and visualisation to bring the battle and participants to life. The team hope to ‘virtually investigate’ elements of the battle – such as what exactly happens when a mounted knight in full battle armour meets a tight schiltron formation of Scots spearmen – to give visitors a new insight into this momentous point in our history.

Of course, in additional to our fabulous historic buildings, Scotland has an immense wealth of historic artefacts and archive materials. Our libraries, archives, museums and galleries are certainly no strangers to this new digital age.

The National Libraries of Scotland have already digitized more than one million pages, and have an impressive digital gallery of photographs and maps.

The National Galleries of Scotland has a rolling programme of creating digital images of the national collection of fine art and publishing its artworks online; and has also developed a number of mobile phone apps.

National Museums Scotland have digitized over 18,000 objects and images, and are now delivering online records via their website.

Museums Galleries Scotland have a Digital Advice Service for their members, which offers free, best practise advice on all aspects of digital activity.

One of the most important uses of these resources is in support of teachers in their education of our children. In 2009 I launched Scotland’s History, an online resource produced by Learning and Teaching Scotland with support from Historic Scotland and our National Collections. Scotland’s History charts 5,000 years of life in Scotland which can be explored through images, text, audio, video, interactive documents and high quality internet links, bringing history alive in the classroom.

National Records of Scotland holds historical records covering 900 years of Scottish history from the 12th century up to the present day.  This is a unique resource for the study of family and social history in Scotland and we are exploiting digital technologies to make these records accessible across Scotland and the world.  

ScotlandsPeople is a world-leading service provided by National Records of Scotland, which gives direct, paying access to a wide range of records for over 80 million Scots. Digital technologies make this available online, at a must-visit Centre in Edinburgh, and through a growing number of local authorities across Scotland. The website currently has almost 1 million subscribers and saw over 4 million visits in 2010-2011.    

National Records of Scotland is working to expand the ScotlandsPeople service through, first, encouraging local authorities to develop more local centres for family history; and second, adding new material to the databases. By combining remote access to national datasets, local archives, and the local knowledge of registrars, archivists, librarians and others, these centres can provide a resource to attract our Diaspora visitors out of Edinburgh to visit other parts of Scotland. Later this year, valuation rolls detailing every property in the country from 1855 onwards, and containing tens of millions more names will be added. Although paying rates was never popular, the records they have generated give a wealth of fascinating information. The related name index we have created will allow searches of inter-Census years, enhancing the information already available in Census records.

And digital access to 3 million images of the kirk session records will be made more widely available by subscription through ScotlandsPeople from next year. Some kirk session records go back to the Reformation but most date from the late 17th century.  As well as a sometimes unhealthy concentration on the sexual misdemeanours of parishioners, the Session Clerks also report on local events – for example witch pricking in the Borders and the passing through of the Jacobite army.  They are a priceless, unique resource for both family and social history.

National Records of Scotland makes over 50 million images of records held in a wide range of archive collections available to researchers in its Historical Search Room through the Virtual Volumes system.  These images act as surrogates for original documents and allow researchers to view and copy information without retrieving original items.  Use of digital images in the search room has increased from around 66,000 images viewed in 2008, to nearly 121,000 in 2010.  National Records of Scotland is investigating ways in which wider use can be made of these images.

National Records of Scotland also works closely with RCAHMS and the National Library on the ScotlandsPlaces website, which brings together data from all three organisations in real time.  Maps and plans, photographs of sites and buildings, archaeological reports on historic and prehistoric sites, tax rolls and other related records provide the user with a unique guide to places in Scotland over time.  The partners are committed to adding new material progressively to the site.  

Digital history has huge opportunities for education. National Records of Scotland’s education service uses our unique archival resources to connect children, young people and adults to their cultural heritage.  The service provides teachers and pupils with free access to digital copies of original records with the aim of equipping learners of all ages with the skills and confidence to interpret and evaluate unique primary sources and, inspired with this knowledge, to go on to investigate other aspects of their written heritage for themselves.  This is achieved through the Scottish Archives for Schools website, the Schools Programme of free workshops delivered in General Register House in Edinburgh and the Glow Meet web-conferencing service available across Scotland via the Scotland National Glow Group.  

As well as connecting people with past generations and places, and linking up diaspora Scots, these digital services provide a real stimulus to ancestral and heritage tourism, a valuable and expanding market, which attracts visitors who stay longer, return more often, travel more widely to see their ancestors’ places and, ultimately, spend more in support of our economy.

So a digital future of our past is not just about conserving and recording it is about telling our stories, understanding more about ourselves and our people.  Scotland has one of the most interesting stories in the world to tell and our digital translation is leading the world and I am sure colleagues will agree it is right to recognise and celebrate it.”

Notes for editors:

  • Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers and through them to the Scottish Parliament.

  • National Records of Scotland formed in April 2011 from the merger of National Archives of Scotland and the General Register Office for Scotland. For more information visit


St Andrews House – This image of St Andrews House in Edinburgh was created by a team of experts using laser scanners to record every inch. The team are part of the Scottish Government’s Scottish Ten project to digitally record all five Scottish World Heritage Sites.

Royal Mile – This image of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile was created by a team of experts using laser scanners to record every inch. The team are part of the Scottish Government’s Scottish Ten project to digitally record all five Scottish World Heritage Sites.

Charlotte Square – This image of Charlotte Square in Edinburgh was created by a team of experts using laser scanners to record every inch. The team are part of the Scottish Government’s Scottish Ten project to digitally record all five Scottish World Heritage Sites.

For more information visit

Scottish Ten Edinburgh Animations  can be download here
This link will allow you to download 5 animations of 3D Models generated as part of the Scottish Ten Project.

For further information

Lesley Brown
Communications and Media Officer
Communications and Media
0131 668 8603 or 07920 768096