THREE of Scotland’s most unspoiled wildlife habitats have been nominated to compete for the title of Britain’s finest natural wonder.
The remote island jewels of Staffa and St Kilda, together with Loch Lomond, the UK’s largest expanse of fresh water, will be put to the vote for the coveted accolade against six other nominees.
The public will be asked to vote next month for their favourite of the competing locations, which include Cheddar Gorge, the Jurassic Coast, Lundy Island and the White Cliffs of Dover, all in southern England, Cwm Idwal and Dan-yr-Ogof Caves, in Wales; and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The winner will be crowned on a programme to be screened on Channel Five in the summer.
Bill Locke, the executive producer of the series Britain’s Finest, of which one episode will be taken up by the search for the most stunning natural wonder, commented that the programme afforded a "fantastic opportunity to film the very best of the best".
He said: "We’ve travelled the length and breadth of Britain to film our finest natural wonders."
The archipelago of St Kilda, at 41 miles west of Benbecula, is the remotest part of the British Isles. It is already listed by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, as a World Heritage Site because of its unique sea-bird colonies.
In February last year, a bid by the Scottish Executive was launched for it to be given a second listing in recognition of both its marine environment and cultural landscape.
If the dual status is confirmed in August this year, and experts generally believe it will be, St Kilda will become the 24th site in the world with joint natural and cultural heritage listings, joining natural wonders which include Australia’s Uluru (Ayers Rock), Machu Picchu (the ancient Inca settlement in Peru) and Mount Athos in Greece.
However, the UK population’s greater familiarity with some of the other contenders which are closer to Britain’s major conurbations may work against the Scottish nominations.
St Kilda is the largest sea-bird colony in the north-east Atlantic, home to almost a million birds, including a quarter of the world’s population of gannets. Its main island of Hirta maintained its population until 1930, when the islanders were evacuated at their own request. Fowling among the great colonies of seabirds was the main employment, augmented by sheep herding, crofting and fishing.
A spokeswoman for the National Trust for Scotland, which owns both St Kilda and Staffa, and also Ben Lomond, the Munro which overlooks the loch, said that the organisation was delighted at the nominations.
They added: "The trust is the leading conservation charity in Scotland responsible for protecting and promoting Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage for everyone to enjoy.
"Of the 128 properties in its care, 35 represent some of Scotland’s most spectacular countryside, including Ben Lomond, Staffa and St Kilda."
Staffa National Nature Reserve is an uninhabited island, only half a mile long by quarter of a mile wide, which is home to important sea-bird populations, including puffins. It is most famous for its basaltic formations, distinctive stepped columns created when the lava of volcanic eruptions cooled many millions of years ago. These columns form the cathedral-like stature of Fingal’s Cave, immortalised by Mendelssohn in his Hebrides overture.
Designated as Scotland’s first National Park in 2002 together with the Trossachs, Loch Lomond has a precious heritage with a unique place in Scottish folklore. Its turbulent history has fascinated millions, and experts believe the area has been inhabited for about 8,000 years. It is famous for its islands that seem to float in an ever- changing setting of mountain and landscape.
The islands were formed when a glacier eroded the valley, leaving behind only the hardest rocks, which have become the islands of Loch Lomond today.
It is the largest freshwater loch in the UK - 24 miles long and five miles wide, and is crossed by the Highland boundary fault line, explaining the unique landscape which has characteristics of both Highland and Lowland Scotland.
A specialist jury, made up of explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Ian Jardine, the chief executive of Scottish Natural Heritage, and Gill Hudson, the editor of Radio Times , came up with the shortlist of locations for the programme.
Votes can be cast by calling 09013 838516.