SCOTLAND'S castles and ancient structures which have stood for hundreds of years could be left to crumble and ‘gracefully die’ rather than undergo work to repair their crumbling masonry.

Historic Environment Scotland, the public body charged with protecting the nation’s historic structures, says a combination of climate change, damage caused by soaring visitor numbers and the natural ageing process at hundreds of properties has raised difficult questions over which ones might be saved, and which might be left to rot.

The organisation has held internal talks over the criteria it could use to choose which of the hundreds of castles, abbeys, priories and other ancient structures it manages should be left to enter a state of ‘managed decay’.

That would see a ‘hands off’ approach, with beloved structures steeped in Scottish history being sealed off from the public behind security fences and allowed to eventually topple.

Dr David Mitchell, director of the conservation at HES, described the approach as “revolutionary” and called for a national conversation concerning the future of the nation’s historic sites.

He also urged an understanding of structures’ finite lifespan and the need to balance pouring money into some properties at the possible expense of others.

He said: “Everything decays, we are fighting against the ravages of time.

“In some instances, we will have to let some stuff go.

“We have to be bold and make decisions about what we are going to focus on. That’s very difficult because these sites are loved by people locally and we understand that, but they are the kind of choices we have to make.”

The suggestion that some of Scotland precious historic sites will be left to simply collapse and be lost forever, is bound to pose questions over how they have managed to slip into such disrepair that they now face being lost.

It may also spark debate over how HES spends its money. In a typical year, the organisation’s income exceeds £100 million, with around £5 million flowing into its coffers from public memberships. However, according to its 2019-2020 report on its 336 ‘properties in care’ (PiCs), the body invested just £8.3 million on conservation and maintenance work. The figure included works carried out at visitor centres and HES depots.

At the same time, the report recognised the huge benefits the ancient structures in its care bring to the nation from tourism, putting the figure at £620 million of net direct tourism expenditure.

Meanwhile, the organisation has also distributed around £14.5 million in grants since 2015, including cash for private landlords to carry out building repairs, book publishers and railway preservation societies.

The stark warning that Scotland faces losing precious historic structures comes as HES embarks on a new inspection programme at more than 200 properties. The surveys will assess the extent of deterioration of high-level masonry amid concerns that some has become potentially unstable, posing a risk to the public.

The tactile survey programme will also examine the impact of climate change and other factors related to deterioration at the sites. It will also record details of construction, age and physical location, which would be used to help HES establish how the buildings should be managed in the future – potentially leading to a ‘curated decay’ approach.

The programme was sparked by a high-level inspection at Melrose Abbey last summer, which revealed significant decay to the stonework.

That prompted access restrictions to be placed around the 12th century Abbey, known for its carved gargoyles and stairway inscription “Be halde to ye hende” – “Keep in mind, the end, your salvation".

It also led to restrictions at a further 19 sites, including Arbroath Abbey – famously associated with the Declaration of Arbroath – Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, St Andrews Cathedral, and other Borders abbeys at Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso.

Visitors to some have been met with unsightly metal fences similar to those normally found on construction sites.

Since November, restrictions preventing public access have also been placed at a further 50 sites, including Culross Abbey, known as the birthplace of St Mungo, St Anthony’s Chapel in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, and 12th century Dundrennan Abbey in Kirkcudbright, where Mary Queen of Scots spent her final days on Scottish soil.

Dr Mitchell said the impact and pace of climate change had shocked experts within the organisation. He added HES also has to also balance the potential risk of injury to visitors and the costs of carrying out repairs, with the cultural significance of individual buildings.

He added: “Our traditional objective is to conserve and maintain to try to perpetuate – this goes against the grain in some respects. “But I think the days of us just looking at these sites as historic in their own right, like museum pieces in the landscape, have gone.”

He said high level buildings without roof cover, such as Tantallon Castle in East Lothian and the distinctive moated castle Caerlaverock in Dumfries and Galloway – both currently restricted to the public - were particularly susceptible to decay.

Others, including Doune Castle in Stirlingshire, were suffering from their popularity: the site is a regular destination for fans of Amazon series, Outlander.

He added that while climate change has had a faster than anticipated impact, while some sites are simply reaching the end of their lifespan.

“Our traditional approach has been to conserve sites like Melrose Abbey as romantic ruins,” he added. “There has been the absolute minimum intervention that we needed to do without messing around with cultural significance or authenticity or original fabric.

“But over the past 30 years, the rate of decay has accelerated to point we are going to struggle to maintain that care and maintenance.

“Putting a full-size scaffold around Melrose Abbey is significant money.”

He added: “We can repair and we do repair. But everything decays, we are fighting against the ravages of time.

“We have some properties where we need to make difficult choices, where we have to ask if we can carry on or justify the level of investment required to conserve or manage that site.”

Dr Mitchell pointed to Lochmaben Castle in Dumfries and Galloway, purported by some to be the birthplace of Robert the Bruce. Having fallen into disrepair last century, it underwent consolidation work on its walls which is now also crumbling.

“It’s a cracking little site, but there is not much left to do there.

“Do we spend £10 or £15 million consolidating something that is on its last legs and was heavily intervened with in the 1940s, or just let it die gracefully?

“We are taking a chance on what survives but we have to be bold and make decisions about what we are going to focus on.

“That’s very difficult because these sites are loved by people locally - we understand that - but they are the kind of choices we have to make.

“If we don’t, the decisions will be made for us. It’s a difficult conversation to have.”

Under a managed decline approach, structures would be made safe and efforts made to enable visitors to see the sites, while allowing natural decline to take place.

“We are not going to go and knock things down,” he stressed.

Leading architect, Prof. Alan Dunlop, said ‘curated decay’ is already taking place at some more recent structures of historic significance, including A-Listed St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, described as one of the finest post-war buildings in Scotland.

“The idea to consolidate the structure and make it safe to be left as a beautiful ruin or a managed curated decay was first suggested by HES.

“There are so many important historic buildings needing substantial investment that have been left to decay, and HES doesn't have the money.

“I think the announcement that HES are surveying their properties is a good move.”

Dr Mitchell said other historic heritage organisations around the world were having similar conversations.

“I’m incredibly passionate heritage person, but even I can see there’s a point where levels of investment required are not sustainable, particularly if the asset is not as significant as some others.

“I’ve been through the painful emotions of thinking about this. I’m convinced that if we don’t make these difficult decisions, we might lose the stuff that is really important.

“And if we can’t save everything, then what do we save?

“Traditionally no one would have wanted to face up to this. But if we sweep it under the carpet, it will be too late.”

Professor of Historic Environment Management at Heriot-Watt University, Ian Baxter, said a shift by HES towards ‘curated decay’ of previously safeguarded sites would place Scotland in the global spotlight.

However, he added that similar conversations are taking place behind closed doors in other countries, and that HES was leading the way by raising the issue publicly.

“We have world class conservation and heritage thinking within the sector, and Scotland has often been ahead of the game. The work that HES does on climate change is sector leading,” he added.

“We're going to have to have these uncomfortable and awkward conversations.

“You don't want to let things go but we have to recognise the challenges.”

He added: “I don’t think there’s any blame to be attached to HES at all, but both the conservation need and difficulties grow every year.

“The major issue is the acceleration of climate change. A lot of masonry sites are very exposed ruins and HES faces a huge challenge looking after these.