SCOTLAND'S first geopark, the major part of which lies in north-west Sutherland, is to host a major international conference later this year.Up to 250 delegates from across the globe are expected to take part in the 7th European Geopark Network Open Conference in September.
The North West Highlands Geopark covers 2000 square kilometres stretching from Coigach to Cape Wrath and Loch Eriboll.
The area attained geopark status in October 2003 largely because of its outstanding geology and landscape, including the iconic mountains of Suilven, Arkle and Stac Pollaidh, the pristine beaches of Sandwood and Balnakeil, and dramatic coastal cliffs such as those at Cape Wrath.
This year's Geopark Network conference, which runs from September 13 to 17, has as its theme "Landscape and People: Earth Heritage, Culture and Economy". It will examine the links between geology, culture and land use.
Project officer for the North West Highlands Geopark, Issy MacPhail, was delighted the area had been chosen to host the conference. "It's a big deal for us because we are really a very small Geopark - not physically, but in terms of population and staffing," she said.
"It is certainly a big event and will bring people from all over the world to the north-west Highlands. It will give us a chance to showcase the area and put on a big welcome."
She explained that there would be three strands to the event - a meeting in advance of the conference, the conference itself and then a series of field trips.
The pre-conference meeting is to be held in a marquee close to the Inchnadamph Centre in Assynt and will be attended by around 70 delegates, while the conference proper will take place at the Macphail Centre in Ullapool with up to 250 delegates expected.
Field trips have been organised to Inchnadamph, Ardvreck Castle, North Assynt and Eddrachilles, to Balnakeil Craft Village, Smoo Cave and Knockan Crag Visitor Centre, and to Kinlochbervie, the beach at Oldshoremore and Achfary.
It is anticipated that some of the delegates will also visit Lochaber which last year became the 31st area in Europe but only the second in Scotland to be awarded Geopark status. Shetland is currently working towards becoming a Geopark.