History that is worth preserving – and worth celebrating, too

FOCUS TODAY, Scotland is recognising and celebrating World Heritage Day. Established by the International Council on Monuments and Sites in 1982, World Heritage Day is designed to raise public awareness of the diversity of the world's heritage and the need to protect it. It provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what we have, why we have it and what it means for our future.

In 1972, the World Heritage Convention was adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), with the aim of encouraging the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage of outstanding value to humanity.

The convention is based on the principle that there are sites around the world of such great cultural and natural value that there is an international responsibility to protect them for the enjoyment of all. It recognises that the best of our heritage does not have only local significance for the nation in which it is situated but is important in telling the story of all humanity.

Currently, Scotland has four World Heritage sites: St Kilda; the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh; the Heart of Neolithic Orkney and New Lanark. Each is individually valuable in its significance to the world's heritage and collectively they represent the breadth of Scotland's unique heritage.

As we celebrate our country's contribution to Unesco's World Heritage sites, we hope the 32nd session of the World Heritage Committee in July will decide that the Antonine Wall be recognised as part of the International Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage site. That Scotland may soon have five such sites shows our contribution to the heritage of the world. Such status is a high accolade and a cause for celebration, not just today but ongoing in the way we care for the long-term future of our heritage legacy.

So why is World Heritage status important to modern Scotland? Our heritage is important to those who live here, work here and like to visit beautiful places that inspire them. It's part of the identity of Scotland as a nation. Neither should we underestimate the benefits that World Heritage sites bring to Scotland. Tourism makes a significant contribution to our economy and employment. Our nation's history and heritage are important elements in encouraging visitors to choose Scotland over other places in the UK and Europe. So, we have a responsibility to protect our heritage, not just to fulfil our obligations under the convention or to enjoy recognition from international bodies such as Unesco, but for our own personal, cultural and economic wellbeing.

The variety of our sites reflects the aim of World Heritage Day: to celebrate the diversity of the world's heritage. But these magnificent sites also need to be treated and managed in accordance with that diversity. Issues affecting a remote site such as St Kilda are obviously very different to those faced by a city-centre site such as the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. Our duty to protect these sites does not mean development cannot take place. The sites must be sustainable and continue to contribute to 21st-century life. Change has to be managed in accordance with internationally recognised conservation principles, taking full account of the elements that make the sites so important.

There are times when our sites and their World Heritage status could be compromised. That's why we need the ability to marry our built heritage with viable change. Edinburgh has many examples of how modern development can be harmoniously incorporated, understanding and enhancing the historic fabric – this is essential to Edinburgh's future vibrancy as a capital city. Dancebase and Chessels Court are only two examples to be mentioned here. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh – the core feature of the World Heritage site and what makes our capital city so revered – is an example of how heritage and change can work.

An understanding of our heritage helps to inform our future, and should never be seen as outdated and irrelevant. There are many examples of contemporary architecture widely recognisable throughout our country. The Maggie's Centres across Scotland are a great example. We should encourage quality design that considers our historic environment. What we build now does, after all, form part of our heritage of the future. New developments or restoration projects are welcome and can be hugely successful if they take into account the historical significance of buildings, streets, towns, cities and landscapes alike.

Historic Scotland does consider 20th-century buildings for listing, meaning that what was built in the living memory of many of us, such as Fairydean Stadium in Galashiels, or the Dollan Baths in Scotland's first new town of East Kilbride, are recognised as having architectural and historical significance. Sometimes there are questions asked about the architectural merit of more modern buildings from that era, but these are contributions to our built heritage – just as the built environment has progressed, so must our understanding of it.

So, as events take place across Scotland today, including ranger-led events for schools at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney site and a seminar on the value of World Heritage at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, we can join in the international celebration of the world's heritage.

We can also take the opportunity to reflect upon the contribution of our own World Heritage sites and their place in the global story of humanity. We can celebrate, with justified pride, Scotland's contribution.

•Linda Fabiani is Scotland's minister for Europe, external affairs and culture.