Sites of interest – a desk-based view

This week’s archaeology lecture was led by Tom Dawson and Jo Hambly, of the SCAPE Trust who introduced their work on coastal sites of interest around Scotland other than on the western isles, including on Shetland, Orkney, St. Andrews, Wemyss Caves, on the Fife coal coast, and Eyemouth; and also their app identifying sites of interest around Scotland. SCAPE – standing for Scottish Coastal Erosion and the Problem of Erosion although, like a lot of organisations, the acronym probably means more in terms of branding than the words which make it up – is based at St. Andrews and works with Historic Environment Scotland on issues arising from Scotland’s coastal heritage. As a result it takes a keen interest in issues connected with erosion, rising sea levels and climate change; and many of these projects can be picked up via the SCAPE website.

All of which of course means it has a lot to discuss when it comes to the western isles, not least around Baile Sear, where we are doing some fieldwork, and when it comes to the issue of the sinking of the land. While mainland Scotland is rebounding following the compression of the land during Ice Age, when Scotland was covered by glaciers up to a kilometre thick, there is no such ‘trampoline’ effect out here since the glaciers were not as thick; in contrast, the land is sinking – and it’s not under the weight of all those scheduled monuments either:

I spotted this map, which is focused on Harris and Lewis, our neighbours to the north, and which cuts off the bottom of South Uist completely, on the Twitter feed of Mark Rowe. Each dot represents a scheduled monument and the map – which is of uncertain origin, although it seems to have been compiled by the County Archaeologist for the Western Isles Historic Environment Record – shows a quite remarkable amount of known history (even if it’s of the ‘known unknown’ type). Mark Rowe writes the Outer Hebrides guidebook for Bradt Guides, and he notes that between the first and second editions of the guide, between 2017 and 2020, the number of identified sites across the western isles increased by 3.8%, to 13,348 (an increase in terms of number of nearly 500).

Part of this increase is likely to reflect an increase in interest in archaeology (read on…) – but it’s also likely to reflect the fact of coastal erosion – from wind and wave alike – which is making sites apparent where they were not before and which is, of course, also jeopardising them, too. There are slips and slides in sites of interest not only because of the natural sinking of the islands as a result of the sheer density of the gneiss supporting it but also because of tides and sea surges and of the action of the wind in shifting vast quantities of sand from one place to another, resulting in structures buried for centuries under deposits of topsoil and grass starting to become exposed but in danger of slipping out of our grasp in terms of comprehension as there simply isn’t enough time – or enough resource – to get to grips with what is there. This is very evident at Baile Sear – the rocks to the centre-right of the picture on the face of the dune, which I took on my last visit the weekend before last, seem to be structural and to have slipped down the fall line from further up: they’re not there by chance.

A phenomenal amount of work went into the development of SCAPE’s sites-at-risk app, both from the experts from SCAPE and from local expert archaeologists but, as importantly, from local communities who have knowledge – and sometimes folk memories – stemming from the practices and customs handed down from generation to generation in what was a largely static population (around, for instance, the sites of C19 and C20 middens no longer in use). But there are (at least) two problems: one is that coverage is likely to be patchy; and the second is that, where sites of interest and which are at risk have been recorded, that information quickly dates if it is not maintained while sites may be lost where a need for maintenance has not been spotted as a result of the site not being visited on a regular basis.

Which is where the community comes back in. Building on the interest which sees people turn up to archaeological events and digs out of curiosity, as well as out of a desire to contribute their own knowledge and awareness, information can be gleaned which means that apps stay relevant and useful – as long as the people using them know, at least in general, what they’re doing (and as long as the information submitted is moderated – which it is when it comes to SCAPE’s app).

There are, on the SCAPE map, around a dozen sites of interest within a half-hour walk of the front door of my bit of the north-west corner of South Uist (and including one right on my doorstep, which is likely to account for the large quantity of shells I dug up when digging the garden back when the days were a bit longer than they are now). There are likely to be more than these – including the remnants, on this side of what is now the bay, of the submerged forest on the southern shore of Benbecula that I noted in last week’s post. Some of these are mounds, some are middens, some are wheelhouse sites, some are where human remains have been discovered and some are where bodies have been buried in some rather interesting ways. None seem to be of a particularly high priority – or, at least, they were not when the app was first compiled. But now – who knows?

I had hoped to get out today to check out a few of these, test my own developing skillbase and make a contribution; but a morning spent getting boosted (yes: please do it, folks!) and an afternoon looking out at darkening skies and falling rain has meant a focus on some desk-based work instead making sure I kow what to do out there in the field. Maybe tomorrow is the time for action (to fuse my 1970s/1980s mod bands) – although #SaturdaysForThePast does have a bit less of a ring to it 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s