Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world (it even has the awards to prove it), but its stunning coasts and rich history are being threatened by rising sea levels. What could be lost are artefacts and archaeological sites dating back to 3000 B.C.
Scotland’s Orkney Islands are 70 small islands off the north coast and their rolling green hills are a treasure trove of over 3,000 historical sites. You’ve got your stone circles a lá Outlander (and Stone Henge), Viking graffiti in Neolithic tombs, Norse halls and Stone Age villages with surprisingly well preserved homes. In Skara Brae, one of the best-preserved Stone Age sites in all of Europe, you can step back in time to when the islands were inhabited and see a house complete with stone cooking hearth, cupboard, beds and doors, from 3180 B.C. It’s mind boggling how well it has all stood the test of time… until now.
Sadly, Skara Brae and the countless other hidden treasures waiting to be uncovered are being threatened by climate change. After surviving millennia with little ecological change, Orkney has started eroding twice as fast since 1970. The surrounding oceans are rising and washing away the archaeological sites, and rain patterns have changed which have led to increased rainfall dissolving protective earth around artefacts.
“Heritage is falling into the sea. It’s a very dramatic and obvious sign of sea level rise and increased storminess.” - Prof. Jane Downes, director of the Archaeology Institute at the University of Highlands and Islands, NY Times
With no solution to global warming in sight, droves of archaeologists, researchers, students and history experts have been flocking to Orkney in the warmer months (let’s not forget it’s Scotland guys) to uncover, catalogue and document the sites along the coastline before they disappear. After visiting the site himself and seeing it first hand, NY Times reporter Jim Dwyer says: “At many spots, the only plausible kind of preservation is documentation — done swiftly.” It’s not only a devastating loss to Scotland as a country, but also to travellers everywhere who enjoy stepping back into the past and seeing how our ancestors lived.
For anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change (seriously though are there any of those people left anymore?), the writing is literally on the wall. In 1983 an artist drew sketches of an uncovered Neolithic tomb on Sanday Island of the Orkney’s, last year the team went back with new technology to discover its secrets only to find that tomb had shrunk dramatically. 1.5 metres were lost to cliff erosion, and the remaining 12 metres were sliding in quickly too. Everyone is doing what they can to stop the elements seizing the sites, building sea walls and covering what they can in thick plastic, but you can’t fight the oceans sadly and much still disappears every year.
“Sea level in Orkney has been rising over thousands of years, and so coastal flooding and beach erosion is nothing new. What is of concern is that the extent and pace of erosion since the 1970s has increased.” - Jim Hansom, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Glasgow and principal investigator for Dynamic Coast, NY Times
The loss is huge. On Orkney there aren’t just sites from the Stone Age, but also the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Picts, the Vikings, Norse rule and Scottish landlord rule. New wonders are always being uncovered. A Viking cemetery was found a body inside a boat could be traced back to a place of birth north of the Artic Circle! There’s no telling what has already been lost. According to data from Dynamic Coast, Orkney beaches have narrowed an average of 16 inches per year since 1970, compared to an annual average loss of eight inches between 1890 and 1970. 16 INCHES PER YEAR!
It’s bad news, but not all bad news, the rising water and increased rainfall have uncovered hidden gems to researchers that may have remained under the earth for another few hundred years. A Neolithic house older than the oldest ones at Skara Brae was found by chance after someone saw an upright stone that hadn’t been there before. The challenge of course is discovering and preserving all the artefacts before nature does away with it. That takes time and money, two things in short supply on Orkney.