Reduce, reuse, recycle – St Margaret’s Well

St Margaret’s Well, in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh is a great case demonstrating the multiple lives and forms of heritage sites.  Since it was first built at Restalrig in the late 15th century, it has been moved and reconstructed, and the design itself was a miniature copy of another historic site, St Triduana’s Aisle.

With apologies for the poor photo focus (taken in pouring rain), the Well has a classic Royal Label Factory design site sign, though the font is a slight variant from others.  The site forms part of the larger Royal Park of Holyrood, looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.

Radical Road, radical response

The Radical Road runs along the side of Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, providing panoramic views over the city of Edinburgh and its surrounding landscape.  The path, which runs steeply along the face of the Crags, gained its name from unemployed weavers from the west of Scotland who were given work to pave the track following their failed efforts during the so-called ‘Radical War’ of 1820.

This insurrection arose as social unrest by workers who were fed up with poor working and living conditions from the government. A national strike which began in Glasgow on 3rd April 1820 spread, with protest leaders arrested in different parts of the country. Executions and transportation to the colonies was the result for some of them.

Following a Royal visit to the city by King George IV in 1822, Sir Walter Scott suggested that work could be given to unemployed weavers to build a footpath around the Crags, as part of an improvement for recreation in the Royal Park surrounding the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The Radical Road has, however, been closed to all access since September 2018, following a major daytime rock fall, when over 50 tonnes of loose rock landed on and around the popular pedestrian pathway.

In March 2019, there were calls in the local press to reopen the route, but it remains closed with normally temporary barriers looking like permanent features. At the time of the last press coverage, Historic Environment Scotland which manages Holyrood Park commented:

“There have been a number of substantial rock falls from Salisbury Crags onto the Radical Road and surrounding area over the last few years with increasing regularity. Following the rock fall in September 2018, and with the continued risk of further rock falls, HES took the decision to close this path and adjacent desire routes to public access. These routes will remain closed while we assess the situation with advice from our geotechnical engineers. We are very conscious of the significance of Hutton’s Section and the desire for public access to it. However at present, visitor safety is our main concern.”

A further update appeared in the media in July 2019, following a BBC Freedom of Information request. This suggested that the path could be permanently shut amid fears on continuing and increased rock falls.  Various options identified by consulting geotechincal engineers are requiring careful consideration given the high levels of visibility of the path given its height in the city’s landscape, its popularity as a recreational asset  and the fact that Holyrood Park is scheduled as an Ancient Monument requiring specific management regimes.  Given the deteriorating weather as Winter approaches, there is little prospect of access anytime soon and there have been few updates on the situation beyond the gnomic comment from Historic Environment Scotland that, “Due to the complexity of the situation, there is no specific timeframe at the moment”.

The situation in the Park is unfortunate, due to its ever-increasing popularity, the park being a superb recreational asset for the city, and desire for good viewpoints over the skyline of the city which is a key component of the Edinburgh destination image.

Such situations are likely to become more widespread  though, given climatic changes and increased incidences of freeze/thaw cycles and heavy rainfall at different parts of the year.  Balancing of access and health and safety, through risk analysis and environmental change risk modelling is high on the agenda for the heritage sector, but this is often thought of in more remote locations than the centre of the capital city.  Historic Environment Scotland is at the forefront of thinking about this – as seen in the recent Climate Change Risk Assessment for its properties in care.

In Holyrood Park however, given its high level of expected accessibility by residents and visitors, there is perhaps therefore a case for a better interpretive strategy than simple warning barriers and notices currently provided, to bring the message of environmental threats and risks to the historic environment and otherwise taken-for-granted cultural landscapes to broader attention.

 

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