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Letters / A cringing embarrassment of a geopark

This June I had what should have been a pleasurable experience guiding distinguished geologists from the UK and the USA through the best of our geopark.

Instead I suffered cringing embarrassment by having to make excuses for overgrown sites, unreadable interpretation boards and a lack of geopark information in the museum and heritage centres.

Twenty years ago, I visited the Marble Arch Caves European Geopark in Co. Fermanagh and discovered the fledgling European geoparks movement that had begun just two years earlier.

Following that visit I wrote an article for the Shetland Times enthusing the virtues of the geopark movement. In it I suggested that Shetland’s unique geology, landscape, natural and human history more than qualified us to seek a European geopark designation and the benefits to Shetland that would spring from membership.

My article received an enthusiastic response from the SIC’s economic development unit, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Shetland Amenity Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Visit Shetland.

To cut a long story short: a working group drawn from these organisations progressed the project to meet the criteria for Shetland’s European Geopark membership under the management of Shetland Amenity Trust and their geology project officer.

Overgrown horse mill. Photos; Allen Fraser

Through the hard work of the project officer and the working group Shetland became a European Geopark in 2009, a Global Geopark in 2010 and a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2015.

Our geopark interacted with the community and cooperated with other national and international geoparks to enhance tourism experience and the understanding of our geological heritage; in fact meeting all the criteria and aims of the Global Geoparks Network.

Following the departure of the geology project officer in 2016 our geopark has gone into a steady decline. Despite protestations from me over the last few years, Shetland Amenity Trust have failed to maintain geopark infrastructures such as the overgrown (and wrongly interpreted) Hagdale Horse Mill, failed to update trail information and replace weather-degraded geosite interpretation boards.

Degraded interpretation board.

It took them years to put a requested ‘site protected’ interpretation board at the Exnaboe fossil fish beds. This board only went up long after the site had been illegally robbed out of the best fish exposures and carries no mention of Shetland Geopark.

The lack of maintenance and failure to Shetland Amenity Trust to update and expand Geopark interpretations was going on long before Covid and staff furlough (their latest excuse for inaction).

Shetland Amenity Trust’s summer nature programme states: “The programme is also an opportunity to celebrate Shetland’s remarkable landscape and geology, recognising its status as a UNESCO Global Geopark.”

Yet incredibly this programme does not have one single geological site or geology and landscape linked event included. Each September, throughout Scotland, there are popular Scottish Geology Festival events but, unlike other Scottish geoparks and geological associations, Shetland Amenity Trust has shown no interest in Shetland taking part.

Since 2016 I have met with hostility from Shetland Amenity Trust over work I have done for them. I have been fobbed off by the SIC’s outdoor access officer and the trust when trying to get protection and better access to important geology sites.

It has become clear to me that all five organisations involved in the original geopark working group no longer have any interest in maintaining Shetland’s geopark designation.

They just don’t get the ethos of being a UNESCO Global Geopark. They seem to think it is just another label that doesn’t matter if it is lost. They clearly don’t understand that to keep the designation the geopark has to maintain a high standard and to progress.

All this might just be shrugged off as a passing bout of the trust’s incompetence, except for the fact that our UNESCO designation is up for revalidation in 2023. I suggest that under the present management and trusteeship of Shetland Amenity Trust Shetland will fail to be revalidated as a UNESCO Global Geopark.

Our hard-won UNESCO Global Geopark designation is the geological equivalent of UNESCO World Heritage Status. In fact, I wonder if it is the intention of Shetland Amenity Trust to shed itself of the UNESCO Global Geopark designation altogether.

I am told that the trust is trying to obtain UNESCO World Heritage Status for a combination of Old Scatness, Jarlshof and Mousa broch. This is in spite of the fact that all these sites already lie within our global geopark designation and formed part of our original application.

If this is the intention of Shetland Amenity Trust’s management and trustees, I for one will write to UNESCO pointing out that the trust is an organisation now incapable of managing a UNESCO designation.

Allen Fraser