HISTORIC monuments are being "swamped" by new developments, ruining their setting and destroying valuable archaeological information, TV historian Mark Horton warned yesterday.
As he joined a campaign to stop houses being built around a ruined abbey, the presenter of the BBC's Coast said Scotland's heritage was under threat
His concerns were welcomed by heritage experts who said development was threatening other important Scottish sites.
"The concept of setting is pivotal to the historical value of a structure," Mr Horton said. "These buildings have survived down the ages, in some cases for thousands of years, then somebody comes along and swamps them with a bunch of horrible modern developments."
Mr Horton has joined the campaign to oppose plans to erect 11 houses in the grounds of 13th-century Balmerino Abbey.
In a letter to Fife Council, he claimed that if the development went ahead its effect would be "obliterating altogether the archaeological evidence" beneath the site, which he believes has a historical status similar to that of Fontrevauld in France or even Westminster Abbey.
Balmerino was a Cistercian abbey founded by Queen Ermengarde, widow of William the Lion and great granddaughter of William the Conqueror, in 1229, on the north coast of Fife, overlooking the Firth of Tay.
Its remains were among the first properties bought by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) when it was established in the 1930s. But it only owns the physical ruins, and protesters claim the development will be built in an area believed to be rich in archaeological value.
Mr Horton said: "The main site itself is fine, it's owned by the National Trust, but this was a huge royal abbey, massively constructed with outer precincts, so a lot of the original area of the abbey is outside the trust's ownership and it's in that area, especially to the west of the abbey, that this huge housing development is being proposed.
"It will almost certainly build on outer courtyards, guest houses, all sorts of things. No one has any idea what's out there. But it was built parallel to Melrose Abbey, which was the 'mother house' to Balmerino, and recent excavations there produced huge amounts of archaeology."
A National Trust for Scotland spokesman said there was "concern" over the development.
Mr Horton's comments were supported by Terry Levinthal, director of the Scottish Civic Trust, who said:
"The difficulty you run into is when you have important buildings or monuments that are then surrounded by a sea of dross, which then actually compromises the setting and integrity of what attracted people there in the first instance."
Joe Headon, managing director of Headon Developments Ltd, which has lodged the plans for the abbey, said the development would not damage the area's archaeology: "Fife Council's archaeological unit has given us a brief on the area and while we expect a certain amount of excavation, the unit says it wouldn't expect anything of significance to be found."
FOUNDED BY A GRATEFUL QUEEN
BALMERINO Abbey was founded in 1229 by Lady Ermengarde, the second wife of William the Lyon, the daughter of the Earl of Beaumont, and the great-granddaughter of William the Conqueror.
She had the Cistercian monastery built out of gratitude for the peace she found at "Balmurynach", dedicating it to the Virgin Mary and to her relative King Edward the Confessor.
A vast Spanish chestnut tree, believed to have been planted by Ermengarde to mark the founding, still stands today.
A frequent visitor to the abbey, she died in 1234 and was buried there, but her grave was discovered in 1831 and her bones were dispersed as curiosities.
The National Trust of Scotland obtained the abbey's ruins when it was established in 1931.