Scottish History and Culture is at Risk of Being Lost Forever Under Climate Change

By William Angus

11th May 2022

(Historic sites all over Scotland are at risk from coastal erosion among other environmental effects. Photograph: William Angus)

Scotland is famous for its rich cultural and historical sites. Tourists from all over the world are inspired to visit Scotland, bringing necessary business to some of Scotland’s most rural areas. However, thanks to the worldwide abuse of fossil fuels global warming is accelerating the risk of these sites being lost forever.

This is where the work of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and other environmentally conscious organisations come in. They have been tasked with the important preservation and protection of these sites before climate degradation becomes too great.

The sites that are facing an immediate threat of damage are those on or near the coast. Rising Sea levels and more extreme weather caused by the climate crisis means there are now many at risk sites around Scotland that require protection. If no action is taken, Scotland is set to lose £1.2 billion in assets along its coastline from erosion and flooding.

Sites like Skara Brae in Orkney have had a long-standing run in with the rising tidal effects. The first protective wall around the site was built in the 1920s, and still stands to this day underneath all the extra protection that has been added over the years. The climate crisis is accelerating the deterioration of the beach which supports the sea wall, requiring further protection that could be offered to other sites within Orkney itself. 

Mairi Davies, Climate Change Policy Manager for HES said: “We have to look at how these natural hazards might be affecting each of the properties and focus on where we are exposed to one or more of these hazards at a high or very high level.” 

For some sites, this is a new development. While the climate was always a factor, the climate crisis now has brought more attention to them as they are at higher risk of damage. The remains of an active fishing community in Findhorn Bay was brought to the attention of locals who wanted the site to be documented should the rising seas not accelerate its deterioration.

Aside from the flood risk, Scotland is now facing upwards of 21% more rainfall each year. This presents a risk for sites both on the coast and inland as stone decay develops into a major issue. Many sites like Arbroath Abbey, Lochranza Castle and Inverlochy castle have been marked for further inspection for stone decay after a preliminary report was made last year identifying those sites particularly at risk.

Investigating the stone at a microscopic level has shown higher levels of water ingress from the increased rainfall. It is reaching parts of buildings that were never intended to handle that level of moisture. It creates a higher risk of collapse that make it impossible for visitors to attend the sites, forcing them to close to the public.

Davies said: “It’s not directly caused by climate change. But climate change is one of those things that exacerbates an existing issue.”

Additionally, a degree of human error is compounding these issues felt around the country. Early technological developments in the 20th Century brought in an array of new materials and resources. Some of these new materials were used in conservation, with the intention to reinforce sites that were already vulnerable. However, they failed to consider the longevity of the materials they were working with. 

Davies said: “We’re dealing with a legacy of both the climate change that’s already happened and those inappropriately used materials.”

‘Modern’ historical developments such as Hill House were built using these new age materials that have not withstood the Scottish climate test.  Now shrouded in a porous ‘dying box’, in many situations around Scotland resources have to be spent removing or adapting the work of previous generations in order to increase the chances of survival for the future.

It is clear that there is a cacophony of factors directly impacting many of the sites around Scotland. They are being attacked from various environmental angles which is catalysed by climate change to produce an unstable environment, leaving the future unclear for many bastions of Scottish history. 

Davies said: “We can’t save everything. We [HES] directly look after 336 sites but that is a tiny proportion of the approximately 8000 historic sites and monuments of Scotland. Lots of them are quite vulnerable.”

In order to preserve these bastions of history and culture, new innovative technologies are being used to map them onto a virtual space. Drones and new 4D mapping technology grants a seamless transition for these sites to be digitalised in stunning fidelity allowing future generations to explore sites that may be lost to the climate crisis in the very near future. 

The HES’ ‘Climate Change Explorer’ App demonstrates a good example of this. It features several locations around Edinburgh, such as Charlotte Square and Calton Hill that have been subject to unforeseen developments due to the climate crisis. More sites are in the process of being digitised, such as the unique Pictish carvings in Wemyss Cave.

(Climate Change Explorer is hopefully just the start of many new virtual preservation projects. Photograph: William Angus)

While Davies’ makes a poignant remark, there is hope that while the original site might not be protected, it is documented and preserved. If these methods of surveying, documentation and protection are refined it could allow for a greater number of them to be protected. 

Every dimension of Scotland’s history and culture is formed through permanence, simply adding to what already stands, each more vibrant than the last. It deserves protection, or at least has the comfort of knowing we tried our best to save them.

For more information on other sites around Scotland that are at risk from the climate crisis, explore this storymap:

(Storymap created using Knightlab. Creator: William Angus)

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