WHAT better place could there be to visit this week of all weeks than a building famous for bitter conflicts over borders and nationality? It’ll be home from home for us. Except we can’t. Caerlaverock Castle is shut. Visiting it is not allowed. Government says no.

If you haven’t been to Caerlaverock, you’ll know what a pity that is. It’s a beautiful building, rather like the imaginary castles children draw: a fortress with towers at each corner surrounded by a moat. At first glance it also looks like a romantic place (and it is: people get married there). But it’s romance soaked in blood: it was besieged by the English during the wars of independence and bears the scars of many battles.

The latest battle in which it features is more prosaic though: Caerlaverock is among 60 properties run by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) which remain closed or partially closed to the public. What’s more, the Scottish Government quango said this week that it does not know when the castles, churches, and abbeys will reopen. Months. Years. Many years. Who knows.

This is a problem for obvious reasons: Scotland’s heritage should be open to the public because it’s part of our lives and our stories – ruined castles were the first thing that got me plugged into the history of my country. Closing them is also a problem because it hits income from ticket sales (and the HES budget has already been cut). It also affects the wider economy (who goes to a castle without also visiting the local shops and going for lunch somewhere?)

But the deeper problem is why these places are closed in the first place and the kind of culture the decision exposes. As we know, everything was shut down during the pandemic, but whereas the private sector has pretty much returned to normal, the public sector is still far from doing so. HES does not mention the pandemic specifically in its explanation for the closures, but its constant talk of public safety is significant.

What they’re saying is this: HES embarked on a project to assess risks in its properties in 2019. Post-lockdown, the work was restarted and last year they identified a possible risk from unstable masonry and access was restricted at 31 sites. A further 39 were closed in January and HES say the factors causing the deterioration include climate change.

But I have a few questions. Firstly, why has this suddenly become an issue? Has HES had regular inspection and maintenance in place and if not, why not? HES has also complained about the pandemic hitting its non-government funding, i.e ticket sales, so could it please explain the logic of hitting ticket sales further by shutting down? Will public money be expected to plug the gap?

There are also bigger questions about our attitude to safety more generally. By their nature, ruined castles are risky places. Go to my favourite one in all the world – Dunnottar in Aberdeenshire – and the sheer drops and precipitous paths might make you nervous. Most people understand though that if you go to such a place, you accept an element of risk.

I’m also concerned that our approach to public safety in general will take a long time to recover from the pandemic. Do we think, for example, that the approach HES is taking to safety and risk would have been so casually acceptable before the pandemic? Don’t you think we would be getting way more angry at shutdowns if we hadn’t become used to lockdowns?

So my message to HES as a lover of Caerlaverock and many of the other sites that are closed, including Arbroath Abbey, would be this. Public safety isn’t just a matter for you, it’s a matter for the public too. Risk should also be kept in perspective – in other words, is the risk here really big enough to justify closing? We know from experience that you can eliminate risk by shutting things down but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

And if HES will not accept these arguments – and they won’t – then they can at least do better than say they “don’t know” when the mothballed sites will reopen. Prioritise the issue now. Get on with it. And as soon as Caerlaverock is open again, I’ll be there. I am prepared to take the risk.

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