About HLA

The project

The Historic Land-use Assessment project (HLA) is digitally recording land use across Scotland. It maps both activities like industrial farming or ski areas that are current today, and also land use activities from periods in the past, such as charcoal burning or prehistoric agriculture and settlement. The data has been gathered since 1997 as a partnership between Historic Scotland (HS) and the Royal Commision on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and coverage was completed in 2015, a  year that also saw the merging of the two organisations into Historic Environment Scotland.

The project developed in response to a need for landscape-wide spatial data relating to the historic environment, to provide both a historic land use dataset and a connection with landscape character assessments, which focus more on natural heritage.

HLA is a robust source of data for users to apply as best fits their studies. It is a record of fact rather than interpretation. Advice on the latter is available from various historic environment specialists, such as local authority archaeologists or consultants. They will be able to advise on the significance of specific aspects of the historic landscape.

HLA's scale

The scale of 1:25,000 was adopted because it is the smallest scale at which the Ordnance Survey (OS) notes the physical boundaries and structures that characterise the historic landscape. This detailed map base is widely used for fieldwork, land use planning and strategic landscape management. However, this does mean that areas less than 1 hectare in extent are too small to map. As a result features such as minor roads, single communications masts, or individual prehistoric burial cairns are not included in HLA data. However, small-scale historic or archaeological site data can be viewed on HLAmap by adding layers that have been made available by Historic Environment Scotland. Further historic environment data is available if you use PastMap (pastmap.org.uk).

Its sources

As well as using current and historical OS maps, HLA researchers have reviewed the All Scotland Survey of vertical aerial photographs taken in 1988, and other vertical and oblique aerial images available in the archive of Historic Environment Scotland (HES). They have studied the existing records of the extent of archaeological sites, held by HES and by Local Authorities, as well as seeking up-to-date information from Government and others' websites. Some field visits are made to check the data. All of these varied resources provide information that is transcribed in outline form onto a base map (download Sources for further details). 

The data

Identifying the various modern and past land uses has resulted in an index of over 80 types (download Type Definitions for details). Some are quite rare, like early prehistoric shell middens. Others are relatively common, such as modern coniferous and deciduous plantations.

The types have been allocated to one of 12 categories, such as Leisure and Recreation, Transport or Defence, enabling broad analysis at regional or national level, as well for local studies.

The types are also linked to broad dates of use. This enables analysis by period as well as by type.

An area of land is therefore characterised by a modern land use, such as a golf course, but it may also bear witness to past land uses. In this instance, the previous layers of land use – time-depth – might be represented by a 20th century airfield (still visible in part amongst the golf course with its full extent recorded by aerial photography), overlying an early medieval Christian site (known from aerial photography and partial archaeological excavation), overlying a prehistoric ritual and funerary area (recorded during archaeological excavation). Each of these layers is revealed as a defined area in HLAmap, though it is only by using the data in a GIS environment that this information can be fully interrogated and analysed (download Data in GIS for further information). 

Specific study areas

As HLA has developed a variety of regional studies have been undertaken in partnership with organisations like the National Park Authorities (Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs can both be downloaded) and SNH (Solway Coast NSA and Wester Ross NSA can also be downloaded). In addition there are a number of more local studies, such as those for Fife, the outskirts of Stirling and Strathdon (download Pilot and Study Areas for further information). These highlight the nature and extent of the historic environment in different areas and provide useful summaries of the historic character of Scotland's landscapes. 

HLA, landscapes and assessments

Detailed guidance for using HLA data in decision-making contexts is available as a download (HLA in Decision Making). A comprehensive bibliography provides references for users interested in historic landscapes. This includes publications on landscapes, landscape character assessment, historic land use, and the historic environment (the Bibliography is also available for download).