Advice and Support

What is a Marine Protected Area?

Learn about Scotland's underwater heritage, which can include wrecks, harbours and remains of human settlements.

1 Overview

Scotland has a wide range of heritage assets at the coast edge, on the foreshore and out to sea.

Throughout history, our coasts and seas have provided:

  • a source of food and energy
  • a means of defence from invasion
  • opportunities for trade and communication between communities and across oceans

Marine heritage helps to create a sense of place and identity, and make our coastal areas more distinctive, attracting visitors to Scotland.

Scotland’s marine historic environment includes:

  • remains of ships and aircraft lost at sea
  • harbours, lighthouses and other structures relating to transport and trade by sea
  • remains of human settlements at the coastal fringe (sea level changes may mean that some sites are now underwater)

Download Scotland's Historic Marine Protected Areas (available in English and Gaelic).

Find out more about our designation priorities and plans in our Designations 2020 Onwards document.

2 Scotland's marine heritage

We are working with Marine Scotland and other partners to create a well-managed network of Marine Protected Areas in the seas around Scotland.

We believe that underwater heritage should be recognised and investigated as carefully and thoroughly as heritage on land, as far as is possible.

We support this by advising the Scottish Government on our most important historic wrecks and other marine heritage sites so that they can be valued and understood.

The Scottish Government’s vision is for coastal and marine environments that are:

  • clean
  • healthy
  • safe
  • productive
  • biologically diverse
  • sustainably managed to meet the long-term needs of people and nature

Read more about the Scottish Government's vision:

Download Making the most of Scotland's seas [PDF, 461KB]

Historic Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) aim to preserve marine historic assets of national importance. Historic MPAs were introduced in the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 and may be designated in Scottish territorial waters (up to 12 nautical miles).

3 Effects on sea users

Historic marine protected areas (MPAs) are the way that ‘marine historic assets’ of national importance which survive in Scottish territorial waters (up to 12 nautical miles offshore) are protected by law under Part 5 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. They have replaced use in Scotland of Section 1 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.
Historic MPAs were first used in 2013. To become a Historic MPA a site must be of national importance and meet set designation criteria. We advise the Scottish Government on the designation of Historic MPAs. Anyone can apply for a site to be designated.
The term ‘marine historic assets’ is defined in law and can include the remains of a wide variety of man-made structures, including wrecks of boats and aircraft. It can also include more scattered remains such as groups of artefacts on the seabed from a submerged prehistoric landscape. 
The purpose of Historic MPAs is to preserve marine historic assets of national importance.

It is a criminal offence to:

  • intentionally or recklessly remove, alter or disturb marine historic assets
  • carry out activities which could damage or interfere with a marine historic asset
  • carry out activities which could have such a significant impact on the Historic MPA that its ‘preservation objectives’ are hindered

You don’t need a specific type of consent to carry out works inside a Historic MPA, but you may need planning permission and/or a marine license. You should apply to your planning authority for planning permission and to Marine Scotland’s Licensing Operations Team for marine licenses.
Planning authorities and Marine Scotland may ask for our view on certain proposals which will affect Historic MPAs. We are happy to discuss proposals with applicants at an early stage and we encourage you to contact us. 
Find out how to propose a site as a historic marine protected area.

Find out how to report an object or wreck that may be of historic importance.
As well as Historic MPAs, there are Nature Conservation MPAs and Demonstration and Research MPAs. Marine Scotland administers both these other types of designation.

4 Listed buildings and scheduled monuments on the coast

Archaeological sites on the foreshore may be protected as scheduled monuments, for example:

  • crannogs and fish-traps
  • coast edge remains of castles, industrial and religious sites
  • settlements
  • defence networks
  • military defences

Buildings of special architectural or historic interest may be protected as listed buildings, for example:

  • harbours
  • lighthouses 
  • bridges with landward and marine components

5 Underwater war graves

All military aircraft wrecks are automatically designated as Protected Places under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Vessels may be designated as either a Protected Place or a Controlled Site.

Divers can visit a Protected Place on a ‘look but don’t touch’ basis. Divers may not visit a Controlled Site without a license.

The UK Ministry of Defence administers the Act: the RAF for aircraft, the Royal Navy for vessels.