What makes the Giant's Causeway a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Giant's Causeway stones
Published : 16 Apr 2020 Last update : 16 Apr 2021

The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland's only UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site status – a title that brings with it recognition of the landmark’s global importance.

Only countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention, an agreement to protect heritage sites, can be including on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. However, in order to be listed, the site must meet at least one of the organisation’s strict criteria. The Giant’s Causeway meets two.

Beautiful – and important

The Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast is not only beautiful, (and therefore of huge aesthetic importance) but the 40,000 interlocking basalt columns are also testament to a major stage in the earth’s development.

When the UK government joined the UNESCO scheme in 1986, they pledged to protect the natural and cultural heritage of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway was the only natural phenomenon granted World Heritage status that year (although the tiny Scottish archipelago of St Kilda was deemed to have mixed – both natural and cultural -- importance.)

Subsequently, a World Heritage Site management plan was put together by local authorities and charities, addressing the conservation requirements of the site and visitors’ needs in terms of access and information.

Since 2005 the UK’s largest conservation charity, the National Trust, has been the sole guardian of sections of the Causeway Coast World Heritage Site, including its crown jewel, the Giant’s Causeway.

The charity works to protect, manage, and ensure the integrity of this phenomenal natural landscape in line with UNESCO’s requirements, safeguarding its status and future.  

Did you know?

It is now illegal to remove stones from the Giant's Causeway but before the site was protected, many thousands of rocks and even whole columns were removed.

The travel stickers on our column suitcase in the Visitor Centre show some of the places rocks from the Causeway have ended up.

Pieces of the Causeway have been removed by human beings for hundreds of years for a variety of reasons: in scientific study, for use as building materials and as souvenirs. Pieces of colomn have ended up all over the world, despite the warning that bad luck will befall all those who take them! 

The caption on the famous engravings of Susanna Drury’s paintings even refers to ‘This Mighty Quarry’! 

Once explorers and investigators arrived, rocks from the Causeway itself began to be exploited. These visitors wanted pieces to further their scientific investigations and later as curios, mementoes and decorative objects.

By the 1850s large numbers of pieces of the Causeway, even whole columns, were being ‘boxed’, sold, and sometimes shipped as far away as North America.

Men cutting Causeway columns, as pictured in the Belfast Telegraph
Men cutting away Causeway columns, as pictured in the Belfast Telegraph
Men cutting Causeway columns, as pictured in the Belfast Telegraph

While the rocks had once seemed like a limitless resource, by the late 1800s concerns were increasing about overexploitation. During the ‘Causeway Case’ in the 1890s (about whether or not a private company had the right to enclose the stones and charge admission), insults flew over who had allowed stones to be cut and carried away, and the best way to regulate future extraction.

A scandal followed in 1907 when it was alleged that the Causeway was to be quarried out, removed to Philadelphia and set up in a public park. A correspondent from the Northern Whig newspaper had visited and heard about the dastardly scheme from Causeway locals. Outraged headlines followed (“American Vandals Busy!”) in the Belfast and Dublin papers, which were in turn picked up by the Manchester Guardian and New York Times.

In fact, the story arose because the confusingly named ‘Causeway Columnar Basalt Company’ was considering exporting basalt aggregate to North America from its quarries inland. It never mined at the Causeway itself.

While the whole Causeway may not have ended up travelling to Pennsylvania, that’s not to say individual rocks or columns didn’t. The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia certainly has Causeway rocks in its collection. There may be other pieces waiting to be discovered in the city’s parks and gardens, as there are in places all over the world.

From time to time, we still receive anonymous packages in the post containing pieces of Causeway stones which have been removed over the years, with requests to return the stones to the site, in the hope it lifts the bad luck associated with their removal! We naturally oblige, and our team have returned many pieces of rock to the site.

The Causeway achieved the international recognition of World Heritage Status in 1986; 25 years after the National Trust took over caring for the site in 1961-2. A basalt block commemorating the designation was unveiled by Magnus Magnusson in April 1987:

A basalt block commemorates the designation of the Giant's Causeway as a World Heritage Site

The Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site extends approximately 3km from northeast to southwest and 0.5km from northwest to southeast at its widest. It occupies approximately 70ha of land and a further 160ha of sea – so it includes much more than the famous ‘stones’ alone.

World Heritage Site Status is not the only international recognition given to the Giant’s Causeway. It is also a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under European law. SACs are strictly protected under the European Union’s Habitat’s Directive.

Not only that - the Causeway is also a nationally recognised Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI), a regionally important National Nature Reserve (NNR) and it lies within the Causeway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Added together these ‘designations’ mark out the Giant’s Causeway as the most precious and protected place in Northern Ireland.

As a conservation charity, we are custodians of the site. We protect and care for places so people and nature can thrive. By supporting our work you help to make sure the Giant's Causeway is protected for future generations to enjoy. 

Enjoy clambering over the Giant's Causeway rocks
A child enjoying climbing over the Giant's Causeway
Enjoy clambering over the Giant's Causeway rocks