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April 7, 2020

Connecting community heritage 

Over the course of the past year, what you might call a ‘proof of concept’ has been unfolding in far flung venues – from Voe in Shetland to Dumfries in the south and Leverburgh in the Western Isles and a fair amount in between. The concept relates to what is loosely described as community heritage and whether the hundreds of local heritage groups that exist across Scotland recognise their shared interests and indeed whether they see the value in becoming a little more organised on a national level to promote those interests. It seems they do.


Catherine Gillies, Ergadia Museums and Heritage and Karen Brown, St Andrews University

Full report from research, surveys and roadshow of community heritage research workshops

What is community heritage?

The term “community heritage” encompasses a wide range of heritage-based perspectives and activities developed and run by communities themselves. It is a term widely used to describe groups of people working to preserve tangible and intangible aspects of their local culture. Despite having no overarching national policy framework, many people in Scotland are involved with community heritage in some way, independent from core funding through the state heritage system. For many of them, cultural heritage is central to their sense of identity, and they spend many voluntary working hours making it sustainable and accessible. These activities are grown by and embedded in communities rather than to be understood as “engagement” in a project determined by outside entities.

For the purpose of this community heritage project, we deployed the definition of Cultural Heritage from the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society – Faro, 27.X.2005 []

Community Heritage, however, distinguishes itself from built heritage and environment and archaeology (which are the most dominant concerns nationally), to consider local archives and libraries, historical societies, social/health-facing activities, and the performative arts among other endeavours. These are the elements that constitute a “sense of place” and can bring a community together through their shared interest in and engagement with local heritage for local benefit.

Why does community heritage matter?

Community Heritage is a term increasingly used by policy makers and funders in Scotland to describe the activities of heritage groups seeking to safeguard and celebrate their local place and sense of place. It matters at a local level for a range of reasons, including feelings of identity and belonging, environmental safeguarding, natural and cultural heritage protection, and community cohesion, to name a few. The situation in Scotland is special in many ways owing to the range of national initiatives affecting community heritage that could be described as UK – or even world-leading.

Therefore, as a backdrop to community heritage work are the framework initiatives of: the Development Trust Association Scotland, founded in 2003 to support community-led regeneration; the local government reorganisation in 1996 and localisation agenda of the Scottish government and in the national outcomes since 2007; Community Empowerment Act Scotland 2015 which, together RSE Community Heritage Scotland Research Workshops (2019) with the Scottish Land Fund have enabled a large number of asset acquisitions and transfers; creation of Historic Environment Scotland in 2015 encouraging local community asset management ; Scotland’s archaeology strategy since 2015, and Archaeology Scotland initiatives (for a fuller description of each of these developments, see Community Heritage Scotland Discussion Document, 2018).

All of the above Scottish initiatives aim to empower local communities to better manage their local cultural and natural resources. However, as our workshop research findings will evidence, there exists a greater need for community consultation and networking of ideas for their full potential to be realised for Scotland, and a pathway for bridging communication between the voice of grassroots groups, and national statutory organisations and decision-making bodies. A number of concerns raised consistently by participants in community heritage consultation workshops appear around capacity, skills, funding, and over-reliance on volunteers.


In conclusion

The 2019 RSE workshops and conference project exceeded expectations on the part of organisers – and it is probably fair to say – for participants as well. What does not come through on the data, but was a common experience, was appreciation of the fact that this discussion had been taken directly into communities; that opinions were being sought; and a commitment given that voices would be heard. The quality of debate was exceptional in each location – this at least was expected, based on the experience of all who have worked with people involved with heritage in their communities.

There were predictable findings and common problems, particularly around questions of need which focused on the triangular matrix of money, time and skills, but less predictable was that there are regional variations particularly in how community heritage organises itself and interacts in different areas.

The big outcomes were consistent:

  • Yes to “something” – a network or new organisation
  • Keep it driven by the grassroots
  • Ensure it has a regional as well as national approach
  • Ensure it is sustainable – both with people and funding

In addition to this this it was also possible to draw conclusions about the sector as a whole, which came through as distinct, diverse and self-aware. Organisations and individuals came across as practical and resourceful, expressed through discussions around sustainability and social enterprise. The community heritage sector is also articulate and ambitious, and as will have become clear through comments in the speech bubbles above, regards itself as entitled to a place at the top table in the national hierarchy of heritage as its own self-contained sector.

The data is already being considered by the Scottish Community Heritage Alliance, and with expressions of interest in the developments going forward from workshop participants, it is clear that the outcomes of both this project and the 2018 survey and pilot workshops will continue to have currency.