Pioneering £22m fund leaves lasting legacy for Highlands and Islands tourism

Pioneering £22m fund leaves lasting legacy for Highlands and Islands tourism

Women looking towards the Old Man Of Storr, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Alan Robertson

The Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund (NCHF) has been hailed a success for supporting 13 major new projects showcasing the outstanding local scenery, wildlife, and culture of the Highlands & Islands.

The projects range from two new visitor centres at Dundreggan and Corrieshalloch Gorge, to virtual reality tours of important archaeological sites along the Hebridean Walking Route, to renovating two museums at Kilmartin and Strathnaver, and innovative grassland restoration on Skye. Another exciting and innovative project is Spirit of the Highlands and Islands. Storytelling is celebrated in this wide-ranging work with 175 stories brought to life through a website, film and photography, audio and two immersive portals featuring 360-degree films of various parts of the Highlands and Islands.

The NCHF, led by NatureScot, and funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), supported projects that encourage visitors to experience a wider range of the unique nature and culture of the Highlands and Islands. The fund also aimed to benefit communities, with the projects it supports helping to retain local jobs and services.

Speaking at an event at NatureScot’s Great Glen House today to celebrate the success of the fund and its projects, NatureScot’s Deputy Director, Eileen Stuart, said: “The NCHF programme has been a resounding success. It’s been a wonderful journey seeing these 13 projects come to life, bringing sometimes overlooked corners of Scotland to the forefront and benefitting rural communities. With its breath-taking scenery, the Highlands and Islands have always drawn people from far and wide, and these projects open the window even wider to the area’s fascinating nature, culture, and history.”

The projects were honoured this month in an event at NatureScot headquarters at Great Glen House in Inverness on 30 May, which included talks and demonstrations covering all 13 projects. As well, Chris Taylor of Visit Scotland discussed the legacy of the fund for tourism in the Highlands and Islands, and Brian O’hEadhra of Bòrd na Gàidhlig explained how Gaelic is integrated into the projects and visitor experience.

Chris Taylor, VisitScotland Destination Development Director, said: “Investing in infrastructure projects such as these creates a long lasting legacy of high-quality visitor experiences in the Highlands and islands.

“Investment in 13 projects - spread geographically across the Highlands and islands – is an amazing achievement and really brings our unique nature, scenery and culture to the fore.

“VisitScotland welcomed the opportunity to be part of the project board, which has helped shape £22m of new investment in the visitor economy. The knock-on visitor economy benefits from these projects will be huge – employment, supply chain, local businesses, food, transport will all get a boost.”

Brian Ó hEadhra, Partnerships and Development Manager at Bòrd na Gàidhlig added: "The Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund has helped ensure that the Gaelic language and culture is integrated into these projects and the visitor experience, which is a fantastic legacy for the Highlands and Islands. From the Gaelic signage at Dundreggan rewilding centre to the Gaelic interpretation in the Uist Virtual Archeaology Project, the NCHF has provided important opportunities to highlight and celebrate the richness and diversity of Gaelic culture in Scotland. We are proud to have played a role in supporting these innovative and inspiring projects that will benefit visitors and communities for years to come."

The Scottish Government’s ERDF programme provided £8.2m of NCHF funding for the 13 projects, with match funding from other sources bringing overall investment to more than £22m.  

Full list of projects

Strathnaver Museum - This redevelopment project conserved the historic church that houses the current museum and improved the visitor experience, telling the story of the Clearances.  It also secured the condition and integrity of the collections, extended outreach work across the area, increased the services offered on site, increased the number of staff, and improved the retail and research spaces. For more detail, see here. (NCHF grant of £900,000; total cost £1.7m)

The RSPB Loch Garten Osprey Centre was reconfigured to increase its capacity without extending the footprint of the building. These improvements provide enhanced views of wildlife and the Caledonian forest. Natural light and solar heat has also enabled the current opening season to be extended from five months to eight months each year. For more detail, see here. (NCHF grant of £252,004; total cost of £360,005)

Orkney Islands Council created greater access to heritage sites and assets across the smaller isles of the Orkney archipelago. The project improved interpretation information about the sites and improved dedicated trails and routes developed to encapsulate the main heritage locations of each isle. It also part-funded the Scapa Flow Museum development. For more detail, see here. (NCHF grant of £287,120; total cost of £797,555)

Highlife Highland created Spirit of the Highlands and Islands, a suite of digital communications, promoting places, people, and their stories, with a legacy of content, social advocates, and engaged communities. A tapestry, the Great Tapestry of Scotland, telling the history of the Highlands and Islands, is also being created with 650 local volunteers involved. The project encourages visitors to get off the beaten track and consider exploring the region at different times of the year. For more info, see here. (NCHF grant of £749,760; total cost of £1.17m)

The Outdoor Access Trust, working in partnership with local groups, has improved infrastructure and interpretation at three iconic sites (the Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing and the Fairy Pools) for its Skye Iconic Sites Project. Each site has more inclusive access, viewpoints, and better co-ordinated information on and off site to give high-quality visitor experiences for the high number of visitors these sites attract. The approach to restoring grassland on previously braided paths has been innovative. For more detail, see here. (NCHF grant of £650,516; total cost £929,309)

UHI West Highland College created The Coast that Shaped the World (COAST) website and app, as well as a programme of digital exhibitions along the west coast of Scotland, narrating almost 400 maritime stories of coastal communities, conveying how the maritime, cultural, and natural heritage of the west coast of Scotland helped to shape the world. Using the app, users can visit the place where events occurred and hear a story being recorded while standing on the site. For more detail, see this NCHF blog.  (NCHF grant of £370,803; total cost £529,718)

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and UHI Archaeology Institute based at UHI Outer Hebrides created a series of augmented reality experiences called the Uist Virtual Archaeology Project for five archaeological sites located along the Hebridean Way walking route, with the Uist Unearthed app and complementary mixed-media exhibitions established at key locations. The exhibition has toured locations across Uist and further abroad, including the British Museum. For more detail, see the website.  (NCHF grant of £295,686; total cost £422,629)

Kilmartin Museum was renovated into a modern visitor attraction and learning centre, scheduled to open in summer this year. The work involved remodelling the existing buildings, adding a new extension, improved visitor facilities including a re-modelled shop, a café with modern kitchen and an overflow car park.  Outdoor interpretation and digital interpretation was also developed. For more detail, see here. (NCHF grant of £950,000; total cost of £4.01m)

National Trust for Scotland opened its new visitor centre late last month. The centre forms a gateway to Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Falls of Measach.  New viewing platforms and path networks with wayfinding and signage were developed and car parking provision improved and expanded, including environmental improvements such as electric vehicle charging and harvesting rainwater from the roof for flushing toilets.  A key point on the NC500, it provides the visitor with an enhanced experience at one of Scotland’s few slot gorges (NCHF grant of £1.297m; total cost of £2.066m) For more detail, see here.

Trees for Life opened its new rewilding centre at Dundreggan last month, allowing visitors to experience an ancient pinewood and unique juniper forest, and discover more about Gaelic history and rewilding.  The centre features interpretation about Dundreggan’s natural heritage, engagement with Gaelic culture, forest play facilities, accessible trails, outdoor learning and events, indoor study and research, along with improvements to the wider natural heritage. For more detail, see here. (NCHF grant of £1.05m; total cost of £3.64m)

NatureScot installed a boardwalk at Hermaness Hill Path, which opened in May 2022, reinstating the historic route to Muckle Flugga lighthouse signalling station and creating a circular walk around Hermaness National Nature Reserve while protecting fragile blanket bog and rare nesting birds. For more detail, see here. (NCHF grant of £562,098; total cost of £886,572)

Archaeology Scotland is working with the West Ardnamurchan Community to  develop an Adopt-a-Monument scheme, called the Real Wild West, creating a trail, tourist hubs and physical and digital experiences, improve the condition and maintenance of 10 heritage sites and develop ‘slow tourism’ adventures for visitors. For more info, see here. (NCHF grant of £375,926; total cost £537,037)

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland will open its new Scotland’s Wildlife Discovery Centre in spring 2024, showcasing the richness and diversity of Scotland’s native wildlife and its place in the world. The centre, at the Highland Wildlife Park, will become a gateway to the landscape and wildlife of the Cairngorms National Park. For more detail, see here. (NCHF grant of £1.2m; total cost £4.8m)