THEY rank as some of Scotland’s greatest treasures, providing a priceless glimpse into a past which would otherwise be lost in the mists of time.

Now the public is being encouraged to anonymously report damage to historic buildings and monuments as a dedicated new team is launched to crack down on heritage crime.

The Scottish Heritage Crime Group (SHCG) aims to raise awareness of the damage caused by mindless acts of vandalism, following a steady rise in recent incidents.

Officials said it will the first of its kind in the UK, and will allow for vital information to be shared between organisations.

Inspector Alan Dron, chair of the new team and rural crime coordinator at Police Scotland, said it will play a crucial role in protecting the country’s heritage for generations to come.

He said: “Scotland is rich in cultural property and heritage dating back thousands of years.

“Our heritage is diverse in nature, ranging from Neolithic standing stones to medieval castles.

“Heritage crime robs us of our history, and its cost and impact on communities is enormous - not just in monetary value but in social costs.

“Any damage caused denies future generations the opportunity to enjoy our heritage, and this is why the Scottish Heritage Crime Group, working as a sub group of the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime, has been formed.

“It will play a vital role in protecting and preserving Scotland’s heritage for generations to come.”

Scotland is famous around the world for its history and heritage, and is home to six UNESCO World Heritage sites: Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, the Antonine Wall, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, New Lanark, St Kilda and the 2.5km-long Forth Bridge.

The SHCG brings together representatives from Historic Environment Scotland (HES), Police Scotland, Edinburgh Council, the Association of Planning Enforcement Officers and Treasure Trove, the body which helps protect archaeological finds.

It follows a rising tide of vandalism incidents which have sparked anger among experts and local communities.

Earlier this month, graffiti was scrawled on a standing stone at Orkney’s 5,000-year-old Ring of Brodgar.

Police Scotland said the stones were “priceless artefacts” and described the vandalism as a “mindless act”.

Meanwhile, in February, vandals spray-painted the medieval ruin of St Anthony’s Chapel in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park.

And last summer, there was widespread condemnation when yobs sprayed graffiti, smashed a window and set off fire extinguishers at Arbroath Abbey.

The Clava Cairns, a 4,000-year-old burial site near Culloden in the Highlands, were also vandalised in 2017.

The site attracted attention years earlier when a Belgian tourist returned a stone he had removed as a souvenir – claiming it had cursed his family.

Experts say scrubbing graffiti from centuries-old masonry and ancient stone can be a “delicate and time-consuming process”.

It is sometimes not possible to remove it completely.

Officials said the SHCG will work collaboratively to reduce the damage, impact and cost of heritage crime by raising awareness and strengthening information-sharing.

Meanwhile, Crimestoppers, the independent charity that supports the police in solving crimes, is launching a new campaign encouraging members of the public to speak up anonymously about damage to Scotland’s historic buildings and monuments.

Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said Scotland is home to a wealth of cultural property and heritage, generating economic benefits of around £4.2 billion in 2017 and supporting over 60,000 full-time jobs.

In 2017 alone, it attracted more than 18 million visitors, she said.

She added: “I am very pleased that the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime is the first in the UK to recognise heritage crime as a priority area in its new rural crime strategy.

“As guardians of Scotland’s heritage, it is our responsibility to protect it from those who would seek to harm and degrade it through theft, vandalism or other forms of criminality.”

Heritage crime is defined as any criminal activity which causes damage to a heritage asset.

This includes metal theft, vandalism and intentional damage to both historic buildings and monuments.

Alex Paterson, chief executive of HES, said: “Scotland’s historic environment spans a rich collection of unique sites of national and international significance, including six UNESCO World Heritage sites, over 8000 scheduled monuments, 47,000 listed buildings and 44 protected shipwrecks.

“It is vital that we ensure these precious historic assets are safeguarded and the Scottish Heritage Crime Group will enable us to work with our partners to tackle heritage crime more effectively.”