Show Your Stripes

News last week from my football club, to coincide with ‘Show Your Stripes’ Day, that it was launching a ‘progressive partnership’ with the University of Reading to improve its sustainability practices was welcome. What I didn’t know was that my hometown – in addition to giving football the greatest team the world has ever seen (well, the greatest team the Championship has ever seen, indisputably) – has also given the world climate stripes: the barcode-style heat map which demonstrates an easy-to-read visualisation of how the world, or your part of it, is getting hotter is an initiative of the University of Reading’s Ed Hawkins, a Professor in its well-established Meteorology Department. I was aware of climate stripes, of course, and there is a website which makes it relatively easy to show your stripes, but the hometown connection motivated me to dig a little bit deeper and see what I could do to show my own, very local, stripes (Ed – hoops, surely?)

The weather station for the Met Office – until 2003 also headquartered in the Royal(s) County – which is most local to me is South Uist Range. Located about 3km as the corncrake flies across open ground to the south-east of Ardivachar, what weather the Range station records is pretty much what we get. This station has, however, only been in use since July 1996, so its data – while building a dataset which will be comprehensive in the future – is of limited use in modelling the climate stripes for where I stay.

The other Met Office station for the Western Isles is Stornoway with a location which – at least in current terms – is adjacent to the airport. While the Met Office currently calls this location ‘Stornoway Airport’, I’ve no reason to assume it’s ever been located anywhere else than here at this point. Such a location is not untypical of many stations globally – they tend to be located on flat, open ground – and has led many climate change denialists to assume that recordings of termperature rises are associated with rapidly increased numbers of aircraft movements – that such locations thus give rise to false readings. We can, for evident reasons, probably discount such a theory at Stornoway Airport, though.

The station at Stornoway is one of the five oldest in use in the UK, dating back to 1873 and, indeed, the other four read as something like a tribute to the diversity of the UK, being Armagh and Oxford (both 1853), Southampton (1855) and Durham (1880). How such a spread came to be is rather heart-warming in its inclusiveness of the nations and regions of the UK. A graphic showing the climate stripes for these is readily available, with Sheffield substituting for Southampton, but the historic data for each of the Met Office’s ‘historic stations’ (37 in all) is easily found, so I thought I’d come up with my own, singular, version for Stornoway. Here, in a style which observes Hawkins’s commitment to ‘No words. No numbers. No graphs’, it is:

NB This is my own version, using a slightly different colour regime drawn from MS Excel, and is subject to data entry errors.

By way of explanation, the chart shows the mean annual temperature for Stornoway, from 1874 at the left-hand edge to 2021 at the right. Each column on the chart compares the mean temperature for that year with the mean for the twentieth century as a whole (1900-1999): annual temperatures significantly cooler than the C20 mean are shown in dark blue; those significantly warmer in dark red (with other shades indicating annual temperatures which are either cooler or warmer but with lesser significance). The annual means are an arithmetical average of the means for each month, themselves composed of the mean daily maximum temperatures in that month. There are other ways to approach the data – the station also records mean minimum temperatures and it would be possible to construct a figure for monthly mean temperature that way ((max+min)/2) but the outcome is, broadly, the same: Stornoway is clearly getting hotter.

We can see this from the red to the right of the chart; and we can also see it from the progression from the darker blues substantially to the left (the early part of the period), bearing in mind that we are comparing each annual mean to the mean for the C20 as a whole. Thus, the early years at the left (from 1874-1899) are largely cooler than the C20 mean while the later years to the right (2000-2021) are substantially warmer. Indeed, the mean maximum temperature for C20 is 11 degrees Centigrade; for the 26 years of the C19, the mean was 10.6 degrees; while for the 21 years of C21, the mean was 11.6. So, Stornoway has got hotter in the last 150 years by around 1 degree Centigrade – that’s pretty much in line with the average experience globally.

Obviously, annual temperatures fluctuate (as the following charts indicate, the year-to-year changes are volatile, which is why it is the trend that is most important, not what is happening in individual years (this cool summer included!). The pinker colours more or less in the centre of the climate stripes chart were in the later years of the Second World War and in the immediate period subsequently. We have indeed had temperatures that are ‘warmer’ in the past, too, but the years of the twenty-first century have been hotter for what is, in the context of this chart, an unprecedentedly sustained period. We might also record that the weather plunged into the cold in 1979.

I also had a look at the average ‘winter’ temperatures and the average ‘summer’ temperatures on the same basis (‘winter’ being defined as, within each calendar year, the six months from January-March and October-December inclusive while ‘summer’ is April-September inclusive. There are, of course, other ways to approach the data). While both summer and winter temperatures are rising, according to the annual means of the mean monthly maximum temperatures at Stornoway, it is the winter temperatures that are rising more quickly: the summers are getting comparatively warmer, but by less than the degree to which winters are becoming comparatively milder. The following charts compare the deviation for each season in each year from the C20 mean for that season (in Stornoway, 13.7C in ‘summer’; and 8.3C in ‘winter’); trendline added by Excel to demonstrate the comparative difference):

I suspected as much – rising annual rainfall (a measure of climate change also recorded by the Met Office stations), much of which falls in the winter months, speaks to rising winter temperatures. While there are still outliers – the 2010 winter was cooler than the C20 winter average by 0.76 degrees Centigrade – winter snows are, it seems, increasingly less and less likely; and, while the Caribbean may occasionally visit the Hebrides, this is going to be more evident from the photos than the reality for some time. Nevertheless, we are getting warmer.

As always, the essential question regards what is to be done. From an archaeological point of view, rising rainfall presents a particular problem both as regards ongoing digs and as regards the protection of particular established sites of interest. Temperatures becoming warmer also speaks to rises in sea levels which threatens coastal communities and sites of interest. There is only a limited range of effective measures which can be taken within such a field, however. The wider challenge to us all remains how we, as nations, address the rising temperatures that we all face. There are plenty of measures which can be taken about which much is already known, at societal level through decarbonisation, investment in renewable energy and building greater resilience in which biodiversity will flourish; through to individual decisions around transport and diet. Inevitably, there is a wide range of seriousness, a range of comparative priorities and plenty of lip service involved from those at governmental level charged with making policy which reflects these issues.

I’ll let this post bed in for a few days and then I’ll be changing the header picture to show my stripes, as above. It may not actually do anything in itself, but keeping the fundamental importance of the issue in mind, by quite literally nailing my colours to the mast, can never be a bad thing.

Ardivachar’s mystery mound

Our Understanding and Recording Coastal Archaeology sessions are now finished, but there was an optional assessment which students could submit; and, of course, I treated it as an integral part of participating. A full .pdf is elsewhere on the blog, but here is a short post both advertising that and providing a blog-length summary of the report (in terms of the word count, this is actually on target whereas the assignment turned out to be twice the required length – funny, that!).

My assignment seeks to bring together what we know about the mound situated at Ardivachar Point (Rubha Àird na Mhachrach) and also includes some basic recommendations about the management of the site in terms not only of the course themes but also with a view to a wider assessment of its value as a community and archaeological resource.

The mound

Nothing is known concretely about the mound: indeed, it has only been ‘known’, in an archaeological context, since 2005 when it was added to the record as a result of the Coastal Zone Assessment Survey carried out subsequent to the violent and tragic storm of that January.

The mound measures c. 9.1m x c. 3.6m and appears to have a rather definite heart, or diamond, shape in terms of how the grass falls at the edges and which may represent the limits of the displacement of ground when the mound was constructed.

Photo 1: the mound’s heart shape

The mound is located on the headland at Ardivachar and is around 11 metres from the edge of the rock platform facing a small reef a short way offshore. The site is not a physically obvious one to an untrained eye but there are a couple of interesting features around the site which add to its potential interest.

Firstly, there is a line of stones set into the grass some 15m to the north-east which may form part of a boundary wall (or which, alternatively, may be part of a structure which is nothing to do with the site – for example, boundary walls which pre-date the sub-division of the land into crofts).

Secondly, there are a number of grassy tussocks located c. 11m to the north-west, visible in Photo 1, which may indicate setting points for the sun around midsummer or which may act as some other orientation markers for the site (or which, alternatively, may be just tussocks of grass). Assuming that both of these are deliberate and part of the site increases its footprint quite sizably from the pure dimensions of the mound itself.

Thirdly, there is the issue of what the mound was used for or what it represents. Without more detailed archaeological examination, this is almost completely unclear although we can suppose that the thin topsoil does indicate that there is unlikely to be great depth to whatever may exist below the ground. However, there is an interesting story told locally about it which adds quite considerably to the tale that the site tells.

Erosion

Moore and Wilson’s assessment that the mound is not an eroding site – it is still graded yellow on SCAPE’s sites-at-risk register – remains a fair one: there is no evidence that the mound itself is under imminent threat from coastal erosion except in the very long-term. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the site is free from forces of erosion: in particular, there is the issue of excessive amounts of rainfall amidst the rising number of extreme weather events posing an increasing challenge to a site whose features are low in profile.

However, erosion is threatening the additional features mentioned above: the potential boundary wall; and the potential orientation markers. Were either indeed to be part of the story told at the site, their loss is much more imminent and likely to lead to a loss in its archaeological value. These issues are explored in the series of photographs below.

Boundary wall

The following two photographs look at the potential boundary wall which, if true, might have protected the mound and also served the function of setting it apart in some way. Photo 2 shows the length of the visible stones in a line which runs north-east from this angle – about 6.5m in length; Photo 3 shows the scale of erosion (note the fallen stones as well as the slippage of grass). There is, however, no evidence of a similar wall to the west.

Orientation markers

The largest of these is centre-left in Photo 4, with three others stretching beyond it in a small arc extending towards the deeper area of erosion further back in the photo. It may be that it is the wind that has sculpted these markers to look as they do and that there is no actual function. The mound itself is to the centre right of the picture and can be found between the second and the fourth fence posts leading to the right from the strainer. Arrows point, to the left, to the orientation marker; and, upwards right, to the mound.

Photo 3: proximity of markers and mound to eroding coastal edge

In addition to the erosion around the markers, note also the rough drainage run-off and its close proximity to the site. That drainage channel runs broadly north-south and connects with others in the area, suggesting that drainage may have been put in place deliberately to skirt the mound. This, in turn, would indicate a community awareness that there is something of value here which ought not to be damaged.

Towards a meaning

If the grassy tussocks are indeed markers for orientation purposes, the most obvious explanation is that these mark the setting of the sun around midsummer, which unofficial guesstimates suggest is certainly a feasible one.

However, more likely is a story about the mound related to me locally by a crofter who, as a small boy (around seventy years ago), was told that it was a memorial to a woman drowned offshore when looking for shellfish while her husband, posted as lookout on account of riptides, deliberately looked the other way as he had fallen in love with another. He further said that the story had been commemorated in song. The South Uist version of the song A Bhean Eudach (The Jealous Woman) is set in Ardivachar and commemorates the drowning of a woman at sea off the Point while collecting dulse. This appears to be the song being referred to – and, in the Gàidhlig, pretty haunting it is, too. Here, the story departs a little from the tale as related to me in that the woman had been drowned by the actions of a servant girl who had fallen in love with her husband.

Folklore is thus making an interesting contribution here towards interpreting and understanding the site. Perhaps it was folklore that informed, with suitable embellishments, a technicolour warning to a small boy not to go into the sea there; or perhaps folklore, in having the song set at Ardivachar, was borrowing from an existing story inspired either by the mound and/or by a real-life tragedy.

Either way, what looks like the heart shape to the mound provides a thoughtful comment on its inspiration.

Conclusions

It is impossible to be definite about the conclusions since we do not know what the mound is, what it was for or anything about its chronology. This can only be known by some sort of further assessment and the use of low-cost, low-intrusive assessment techniques such as laser scanning, photogrammetry and auguring.

Knowing a little more about the site would spark a consideration of the possibility of a range of well-designed remedial actions which should aim to incorporate the community at the heart of the response.

1. the site needs to be better protected against livestock (the well-observed may have spotted that that is indeed a cowpat in Photo 1!) – though animal grazing is also responsible for keeping the grass low and the shape identifiable.

2. existing drainage systems need to be monitored to ensure that water run-off does not damage the site, or that the ground does not become waterlogged as it is around the area of the rough drainage channel.

3. about the potential orientation markers and boundary wall, they are clearly subject to erosion, chiefly from wind and rain washing out the undersoil on the exposed face, although in stormy weather the sea is also likely to present a direct threat. It would appear that little can be done about either of these other than, in the short-terrm, continued monitoring and recording.

Finally, better publicity of the existence of the mound may bring forward more stories and more accounts as to its origins. Working with Uist Community Archaeology Group would seem to be important first steps. Further research also needs to be done not least to assess the alignment of the site. It is also worth making the point that the loss of a mound which has a strong link to a well-known Gàidhlig folk song would represent real loss and that action, at some level, is both warranted and required.

The Loch of Intermittent Appearance

As Storm Eunice rages across Wales and south and south-west England, people have been checking on us, which is very kind – but, up and out here, we’re absolutely fine: it’s us that should be checking on friends and family in the south. Winds are currently gusting to the high 10s (that’s well below normal!); and, while Sunday doesn’t look too grand for a day out, with winds gusting to the high 50s, that’s not even the highest winds this month – the Range got a gust of 70 on 10 February.

It has been very wet, though. The Range was the wettest place in the UK last Friday (although not particularly excessive) and high, prolonged and quite intense rains continued in the days that followed, leading to the re-emergence for a few days this week of what I’ve dubbed the Loch of Intermittent Appearance. This is a low-lying area of ground adjacent to a drainage channel which has an exit under the road and out to the sea. When that fills, either because the exit has been blocked by seaweed or else because of the simple volume of rain on the land, the area floods. There was no seaweed at the exit when I checked, but this was the photo at the peak on Wednesday (at least, in daylight hours), taken from our decking:

You can see the water running across the road and draining across the grass, bypassing the exit under the road – the sea is just off-left. The road was, as they say, passable with care. And the farm gate doesn’t currently seem to be generally usable – at least, not without the use of your wellies. The drainage channel is between the gate and the fence line running down from the top right – here it is in close up last Sunday morning, taken from just left of the gate in the above picture:

The water has now gone – the land is, normally, quite well-draining – though it does remain a little swampy.

But, inspired also by my archaeology course – for which my assignment was handed in (finally!) yesterday (and will be posted here in due course) – prompted me to check the flood maps. After all, if the road is going to get cut-off, it might be a good idea to get that boat patched up and recommissioned.

Dynamic Coast produces a range of maps on the issue of coastal erosion (and as such has been invaluable during the course). For the whole of the Scottish coast it has produced detailed mapping of the impact of rising sea levels under a high and a low emissions future, demonstrating where the high water line is expected to be under both scenarios at the turn of each new decade up until 2021. We’re fine up here on the headland – we’re surrounded by a rocky platform built from Lewisian gneiss, which is both dense and heavy and less permeable to erosion – but the softer, sandier areas either side of the headland are much more vulnerable. The bad news is that the road is indeed going to get cut-off – even under a low emissions future, in which sea levels off the headland rise by 0.37m by 2100 – though not at the Loch of Intermittent Appearance, but where it comes close to the shore of Mol Mòr at Kilaulay (Cill Amhlaidh). Under a high emissions future, with sea levels rising by 1.03m by 210, not only the road is under threat but the seafront properties of our neighbours across the bay are also gone:

Loch of Intermittent Appearance marked on the high emissions map in black, with the drainage channel just to the left.

Some of the impact of this on people’s lives, homes and livelihoods might be addressed by some sort of remedial action, though of course the better thing to do is to address rising emissions properly and cohesively not only to ensure but to deliver a low emissions future.

However, climate change isn’t just manifesting itself in rising sea levels but also in higher amounts of rainfall and in more extreme weather events. The Historic Environment Scotland Action Plan for 2020-2025 speaks, in somewhat coded fashion, of:

Total rainfall recorded on extremely wet days has increased by c.17% in 2008–17 in comparison to 1961–90. In the west of Scotland, this figure is 36%. (p. 15)

There’s a bit to unpack there, so I went on to the website of the learned folks at the Royal Meteorological Society to dig out their State of the UK Climate 2020 document for a bit of backup. There’s a lot of data in there and quite a lot of it technical in one way or another – but it does have data on rainfall going back to 1862 and for each of the nations of the UK. 2020 was a poor year – especially for our cousins up on North Uist (see Figure 22; p. 21) – but of course it is not one isolated year which is the issue but the overall trend. Looking at the rainfall in each year expressed as a percentage of the 1981-2010 average clearly shows a rising trend. Scotland is the wettest place in the UK (natch) and where the amount of rainfall is rising quickest – 2011-2020 was 11% higher than the 1961-1990 average – but each of the nations are getting wetter:

Figure 25, State of the UK Climate 2020 (p. 26 of the .pdf version)

Furthermore, six of the ten wettest years in the UK series from 1862 have occurred since 1998 (2000, 2020, 2012, 1998, 2008 and 2014, with particular implications for winters with 2014, 2016 and 2020 all in the top five wettest winters (p. 26). Amidst the rain, winter storms and extreme events attracting red alert warnings – like Storm Eunice – are likely to become a lot more frequent.

Archaeology is concerned about rainfall (hence HES’s Action Plan): access paths, sites and buildings are all adversely affected when exposed to all that water and many properties will need specific action to preserve what we know and love. Let alone what we don’t yet know we love.

If all this rainfall keeps up, it looks as though the Loch of Intermittent Appearance will be making more appearances than usual. And might thus need to be renamed. With rising sea levels going on at the same time, that’s quite a pincer action on Ardivachar, and with major infrastructural repercussions, too. It’s not only the archaeological environment but a question of the state of what we’re also handing down to our successors as reminders and nudges about the way we lived our lives. And if we keep going on the way we are, there’ll not be a lot of keepsakes worthy of the name.

In the meantime, stay safe down there.

Book review: Surfacing

Kathleen Jamie needs few introductions. Since last year Scotland’s Makar, and now a freelance poet, writer and indeed editor, her non-fiction writing, which combines deep observations about nature and the environment with reflections on her own place in it, relates clarity and perceptiveness and also captures fundamental meaning within, and from, moments of time. Her writing ‘at the confluence of nature, travel and culture’ is powerful in its simplicity and Surfacing, her 2019 collection, made a happy – and entirely serendipitous – accompaniment to my own recent (and ongoing) archaeological studies.

The cover (mine is 2020’s paperback edition) features several archaeological artefacts alongside relics of the natural world and its publication leans on two archaeological digs on which Jamie spent some time – on a native Alaskan (Yup’ik) dig, inspired by a visit to the Aberdeen University museum (oh! the power of curators!); and also at the Neolithic/Bronze Age settlement at Links of Noltland, on Orkney (where one of the team, mentioned at several places in the book, was our own Dr. Emily Gal). It’s a well-chosen illustration which emphasises the impact of humans on the environment (and which, perhaps, is suggestive of that impact not being kind) and, at the same time, that nature has – at least up to now – been able to regard and deal with that impact within the circularity of the life cycle (the distinct lack of which, with its non-degradable plastics, is the signature mark of our own Anthropocene) and with humans and nature in a degree of harmony.

The title is also clever, repeating Jamie’s predilection for single-word titles and, at the same time, strongly suggesting a theme of growing consciousness and the coming to light of things – both artefacts and knowledge – that were once lost.

Comparatively lengthy accounts of her time at the digs are book-ended with shorter (more typically Jamie-like) feature writing (blog posts, even) reflecting on climate change, our own lack of care for the environment and others (increasing as technology advances), family and ageing, and listening to nature’s voice. There is also an extended account of time spent in China (close to Tibet) during a tumultuous time in the mid-1990s, written as a promise to herself, and in part exorcism of a dream, made during a recent cancer diagnosis. But it is the digs that take centre stage, in terms both of the content and the theme of the work, and both feature different aspects of climate change: global warming (a lack of snow and compacted ice in Alaska); and coastal erosion (a result of rising sea levels and increasing rain on Orkney). More prosaically, both also illustrate the uncertainties arising from the short-term, piecemeal funding common to archaeological digs; as well as their seasonal nature, with daylight, and the weather, having an impact on what can be done and what can be realised in terms of bringing things to light.

The Links of Noltland dig features Jamie at her best; but I think the Alaskan section works rather less well. Here she is curiously detached and her observations, while conveying insight, seem as a result a little more forced and certainly occur a little less naturally. Frequently, she is factual rather than poetic; prosaic rather than elevated. The reasons why can only be speculative and are likely to be several: language and culture are surely among them (politically, the Chinese section, the third piece of extended writing in the book and appearing at the opposite end to the Alaskan, provides some particularly interesting contrasts and its selection here in this volume might provide a contribution in this area). The same is also true of archaeological dig experience, perhaps gained for the first time in Alaska. At Links of Noltland, such barriers are not present (or not as present) and Jamie features much more on the dig itself – accurately conveying, as a novice, some of the techniques involved in constructing and cleaning a site, for example. The result is a much more cohesive piece of writing which allows Jamie’s observational ability to come fully to the fore and to present the material exploring and combining her themes in a way which is more rounded and which emphasises the links she wants to make between humans and nature. In Alaska, these are known, but less clear and differently perceived; while the issues raised appear more contended not least since they are also tied up with identity and a shared understanding which is native and not Jamie’s own.

The lack of cohesiveness to the first part of the work perhaps renders this a lesser achievement than her earlier work – but then, such a criticism is also a misstatement of the role of non-fiction writers who change with time and age, learning and understanding, and growth and development. Just as Sightlines was ten years ago now, and Findings a further seven, Surfacing is a product of who Jamie is now and we should cherish her: her ability to synthesise different aspects of the human existence and improve our understanding of our world as a result represents a talent of hugely important significance. I have Antlers of Water – her first edited collection concerning ‘our relationship with the more-than-human world’ on my shelf: this was originally going to be a joint review until archaeology took over. It’s greatly anticipated.

Just going about their business…

This week’s archaeology lecture was a very interesting session on the preserving qualities of sand, with specific reference to Links of Noltland, up on Westray, Orkney. This is an important late Neolithic/Bronze Age site (which means 3000 BCE-2500 BCE) – even the name juggles both Scots, Norse and English – and, like a lot of Orkney’s heritage, is both buried in sand and vulnerable to coastal erosion. Excavating the site, and preserving it for future use, represents a challenge in which available resources are confronted with the remorseless impact of time.

Consequently it provides an excellent illustration of the coastal archaeology course on which I’m enrolled; and has important resonance for the Western Isles given that a large number of the sites of archaeological interest – over 13,000 of them – on these islands are coastal (or, at least, they are now…) and a large number of those are buried in the sand beneath our feet.

My lecture notes need a little more time for reflection as the content was complex but the week also featured a good class discussion (online, of course) inspired by two items of source material which looked at what prehistoric civilisations can tell us about dealing with coastal erosion. The first was a 2009 article by Jim Leary in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology looking at the flooding of the North Sea lowlands; the second a contemporary piece by Robert Barnett and Sophie Ward in The Conversation looking at how rising sea levels affected what is now the Scilly Isles, in the south-west corner of the UK.

There is little evidence as to what happened to the peoples who once inhabited the vast area of the North Sea lowlands – Doggerland – which once connected the UK and continental Europe (why didn’t they write anything down?!) and so essentially we are only surmising about what became of them; but there is a little more evidence from Scilly, where rising sea levels were associated not with a decline in human activity, as might be expected, but in a flourishing of it. The key point is of course that coastal change, erosion and rising sea levels affect people in different ways depending on precise location – the spark for Barnett and Ward’s conclusion that it is local communities that have to drive response plans. Scilly may well have flourished whereas Doggerland – hit by immensely rising sea levels (of about 1.25 cm/year; or 30+cm per generation) – had already become a series of low-lying islands even before the ‘Storegga Slide’ swept much of the rest of the land away.

The question which occupied much of the class discussion – and which is also well addressed by Leary, although the simple lack of evidence leads him to go a little anthropological in the middle – was why people stay in low-lying areas affected by inundations and rising sea levels. It’s evidently a recurring question. Many people – in many communities around the world and including up on Baile Sear, which has been the focus of all our field trips so far – are also facing similar questions. Aside of the very different, and the changing nature of, the barriers to mobility, human beings across thousands of years are likely to have had fairly similar answers to tidal inundations and to the essential question, posed restrospectively, of ‘why didn’t they leave?’: family; community; and residence. All provide ties to the land (and/or the sea), even in hunter-gatherer societies; and all provide very valid justifications for not moving, in spite of all the evidence surrounding them.

Mulling over these questions later that evening while watching a bit of TV – it does sometimes happen in this household – I was struck by something really rather profound said by one of the characters in The Missing, a programme made by the BBC (of course) and whose second series was filmed in 2016. Both series were well received and well-watched, it appears, although it is an open question as to whether such a series – set in Europe, featuring characters speaking languages that are not their own and, where they are speaking their own language, the dialogue is not always sub-titled into English – would be commissioned in these Brexter’d Isles today. Anyway, Julien Baptiste, a retired (and ill) detective, is travelling in 2014 in northern Iraq/Iraqi Kurdistan to find evidence in support of a promise made to a parent of a murdered teenager and he has procured Stefan Andersson, a journalist, as travelling companion. Reaching the city of Azwya, which has been the subject of recent intense fighting between Isil forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, they first encounter utter desolation – not a soul in sight and every building stripped back to the bare bricks by shells and gunfire, roofless and only frames where windows and doors used to be, concrete acting as road blocks and rubble everywhere. Later, they sit down watching some young lads playing football, while some semblance of normal life returns behind them. People had, it seems, been in hiding from the fighting.

Baptiste: ‘Remarkable, is it not? In front of all this, people still go about their business.’

Andersson: ‘This is the only way of taking control of your life, I suppose. Feeling like your future is in your own hands for a change.’ (The Missing, Series II, programme 2 ‘The Turtle and the Stick’ @ 42.05)

It struck me immediately that this is likely to be a time-honoured response to disaster, whether in Azwya in the middle of the Iraq War; or on Doggerland or on Scilly thousands of years ago. Faced with problems that are external in nature and environmental, which wreak their own havoc and which exist beyond your own control and your own plans, your choices are limited – of course, you organise to fight back, however you can and by whatever means. But, ultimately, you stay because that remains your decision and, when everything else is being taken away, that decision – perverse as it might sometimes appear – is the only thing that remains your own and within your own control.

Right there, under our feet

It’s been an interesting week for archaeology what with Milly, a 13-year-old, discovering a horde of Bronze Age axes in Royston (on her third metal-detecting trip, natch); and publicity arriving for a very well-kept secret find, in a farmer’s field in Rutland, of a Roman villa complex with a mosaic depicting Homer’s The Iliad. Both go to prove the old adage that you never know what’s under your feet – and that probably every grass-covered hillock in otherwise broadly flat ground is likely to be of potential archaeological interest.

We do have Bronze Age – up to c. 800BCE – finds out here on Uist although Iron Age ones, i.e. from the era immediately following the Bronze Age, are more common. The Romans, of course, never made it this far in their conquest of these isles – to them, the western isles were ‘here be dragons’ even if they weren’t quite ultima Thule – so there’ll be no villa complexes or mosaics out here and, probably, neither any evidence of underfloor heating (although certainly people of that time knew how to heat stones for a variety of purposes).

This week’s course featured a terrific lecture from Dr. Emily Gal, of UHI, reflecting on the relationship between archaeology and the paleoenvironment: how climate change influences what we now find on archaeological digs and how humans somewhere way back up the line responded to climate change; and how to interpret meaning into the evidence we find in the ground (via plant matter, insects and ‘remains’ of all types imaginable). It was quite mind-blowing to discover that the western isles are literally sinking, as a result of geological factors, whereas much of mainland Scotland is still rising: the ice sheet was much thinner here, but up to one kilometre deep on the mainland. The consequence is that, whereas there is still a kind of ‘trampoline effect’ on the mainland, with the earth’s crust rebounding upwards after the release following its suppression by the weight of all that ice, there is little or no effect here and, in fact, the key is movement in the other direction caused by the dense weight of the gneiss which forms the bedrock of these islands. This is not to say that sea levels are not rising on the coasts of the mainland too – they are, especially on the east coast, and at a rate of knots.

The outcome of the sinking of the western isles is nothing particular to worry about – the rate here is about one metre per millennium – but, on top of human-influenced climate change, it does raise the question about what evidence we can find for how people previously interacted with the changing climate: how they tried to respond to it and the mobility issues that inevitably arise when things get a bit too hot for survival, and human growth, right here.

The follow-on issue is one of how Uist would have looked in times gone by. Probably, it was about twice the width it now is, extending the latterday coast out into the Atlantic by as much as 14km. The Monach Islands (that’s the little tilde on the map to the right, lying out to sea between Benbecula and North Uist), and now uninhabited, was still connected to North Uist by a land bridge as recently as the 16th century. Furthermore, the ‘long island’ probably therefore was indeed one long island, stretching from what is now the Butt of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais) and reaching down probably to Barra and, perhaps, even further south. Certainly South Uist was joined to Benbecula with the bay between the north-west tip of South Uist – where we now live – and Benbecula being actually previously constituted of one freshwater, inland, lake before being swamped by the sea. There is evidence of a wood existing on the edge of that expanse of water, now constituting a submerged forest on the current southern shore of Benbecula and, apparently, there is some similar evidence here, too, as well as on the small island of Gualan slightly further east to us though that needs to await the next spring tide (and good weather!) for an exploration (and, perhaps, a photograph should I be able to find anything). That’s next weekend, by the way. (Weather not guaranteed.)

The lecture was succeeded the following day by some field work on Baile Sear – just about visible on the map above as the island between Benbecula and North Uist and close to the shore of the latter – where the class was engaged in some photography and some ‘cleaning’ (gentle scraping; no gouging) of sections of the exposed midden (tip site), largely to expose the different colours signifying how the midden was composed. Here’s a couple of small (unofficial) photos showing ‘my’ section: check the band of red (peat ash) against the lighter colours of the windblown sand above; and, lower down, a protruding bit from a darker section of soil which, after a bit of more cleaning, revealed itself as a shard of pottery, with a pleasingly curved shape and, at the top, a clear rim. Elsewhere in the midden there are animal bones and a few scattered shells although not as many of the latter as elsewhere in the locality.

I’ve tramped over these dunes above this site a few times and, while the exposure of the midden is not new – it dates back now a few years when a hurricane lead, amidst human tragedy, to a 50m section of dune being lost in one night – I’ve never known what was there, underneath. Or, to be fair, and to my shame, given it too much more than a passing thought. But that small shard, readily exposed to my fingertips, is at least 1600 years old and there may – just may – be a lot more of interest underneath the machair. People lived here, died here and are, perhaps, buried here – in what was not an isolated manner of existence but as part of a sizable, probably noisy, jostling community and, judging by the size of the midden, a successful one at that. Perhaps that piece of pottery was an ordinary household item broken in the course of every day living – or perhaps it was used to lug a load of shellfish to a celebration of some kind. Perhaps it might even have been broken as a part of that celebration. Now, that evidence of existence lies on the coast and is exposed not only to the mighty Atlantic and the winds – but back then? Quite some way inland, perhaps even sheltered from the wind in some way, with people making their existence not just from the sea but from the land all around them.

All is really speculation – we just don’t know, at least at this stage – but, after all, what is speculation other than the product of evidence, and an informed ability to interpret, set alongside a free running imagination?

Archaeology and coastal erosion in Uist

Have just enrolled on this 10-week course starting in a week’s time; and I’m really looking forward to some pre-course field work taking place tomorrow up on Baile Sear – an island off the west coast of North Uist which experiences a pace of erosion which is almost visible. I haven’t been up there for around five years now and I’m interested (and rather full of foreboding) to see the amount of change that has taken place in that time. I’m hoping that the course will give me a greater understanding of climate change and its role in shaping the islands on which I live; and the lives and the opportunities of all of us who stay here.

The pre-course field work is based on a drone study of the archaeological remains eroding from the coast, which is being led by Ellie Graham, a PhD student from Aberdeen.

Just hoping that the rain, which is in the Met Office forecast for tomorrow morning, alongside some rather changeable weather, holds off – making judgments and recording observations through wet glass(es) can be a bit of a challenge…

The course is likely to be quite intensive while holding down the (freelance) day job, so blog activity might be a bit more rare over the next period. Will be trying to post some materials and some thoughts up here as the weeks go by, though. This is my first time in a learning environment for quite some time and, on this side of the learning room as opposed to the other, for quite a bit longer. There were archaeologists in my last employment and I really wish I’d come across a few more of them while I was there.

Anyway – wish me luck!

News flash: calm weather in Uist

Uist fishing boats in rare dialogue about the wind direction

We don’t usually have to wonder too much about the wind direction – the Dark Island turbine and the fishing boats, when in the bay, give us all that without us even having to step outside. Consequently it’s a rare day when the wind is so still that the boats point in different directions (even if the above photo, taken yesterday afternoon, was taken just about an hour after low tide with the boats being still somewhat stuck in the sand). Today, again, there’s barely a breath of wind.

To tell the truth, the weather has been extremely poor in June, with cold grey skies, plenty of rain and strong winds for much of the month until its last few days: a clutch of tourists arrived at our door on Wednesday last week, in search of a neighbour’s B&B, clad in shorts and light summer jackets; a few hours later they were spotted on the way back from the beach in heavier coats, long trousers and holding to each other for warmth. Our fisher folk have indeed rarely ventured out – not so much the weather in June itself as the lingering effects of our long, cold winter on the size of the shellfish, typically lobsters, that they usually catch: shellfish are simply too small to warrant the effort, and the dangers, of going out and bringing them ashore.

I alluded to this below in the late return of the corncrakes, given the lack of cover provided by the nettles and yellow flag iris – one male was still calling yesterday afternoon, somewhat forlornly, although most females will be on a second brood by now so there’s little for the males to make much of a song about. There is now, at least, plenty of cover for them on the land: June’s rains have seen the nettles and the iris spring to life and it’s likely that their nests – the second ones – will have remained well hidden. Worse effects seem to be on the birds which can be predated upon and whose nests are more in the open: there is so little seafood to go around that the gulls – not so much the ravens this year, which are remarkable absent from our headland – have turned to the bird populations instead, and with catastrophic effects: a pair of shelduck popped up one day last week with a brood of 8-10 ducklings but I caught sight of a pair, probably the parents, on Saturday evening, just drifting on the tide, distanced but sorrowfully together, and entirely duckling-less, before taking off together toward the setting sun. There is no eider nursery that I’ve seen: parent birds, now moulting and looking in pretty poor condition, but entirely duckling-free. And a lapwing nest on a neighbouring croft was taken by gulls over two days last week: on the first day the parents were mostly successful in driving the gulls off but a determined one returned to polish off what was likely to be a solitary remaining chick the following day. Again, the parents – after making a quick, but vain, attempt at defence, swooping fast from the air at the gull(s) on the ground – flew high up, parted and then away separately into the skies.

The fishing season will pick up, even if the autumn gales ensure that it finishes more or less at the same time as usual, leaving (probably) a much truncated season behind; but it is too late for those breeding birds whose clutches are solitary and whose breeding window, in many cases, is brief enough. Despite the effects of our own activity, nature is largely balanced and self-regulating: a poor season one year is still likely to be followed by a good one the next. In the long-term, however, a repetition of long cold winters as a result of climate change will spell trouble: as resistant to long-term change as we humans can be, we tend nevertheless to greater adaptability in the short-term in the face of the havoc we are causing. There will be other jobs on the crofts, with crofters tending each to have three or four jobs anyway. But, while the survival urge will prompt its own changes in response among wildlife populations, unless they are also able to do so in the same short time frame, devastation will be the result. This tension between long-term and short-term adaptability, between humans and wildlife, lies at the crux of the problems being wrought by climate change.

NewMusicMondays – 28 September 2020

David Mitchell spoke, in interviews surrounding the launch of Utopia Avenue, of how a novel has no loudspeaker; and of just how hard it was to write lyrics for non-existent songs that ‘Utopia Avenue’ might actually sing in which he was, as my review noted, only partially successful. For those wondering just how a band made up of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards might actually have sounded, at least in acoustic session and without Jasper’s frenetic fret work, Chris Small has an idea:

Small is a singer-songwriter from Perth, and a multi-instrumentalist specialising (not here) on the trombone. ‘Money Can’t Buy’ is a bluesy groove about love and loss and is a live lockdown track recorded in his backyard and part of an EP whose songs are being released in a regular series over the next few weeks. Chris, also a regular member of Perth Americana band Red Pine Timber Company, comments that the song ‘tries to encapsulate the raw power found on a lot of those late 60’s r’n’b/rock songs, where distortion was really starting to become the backbone of popular music’ – thus, fits very much within the ‘Utopia Avenue’ vein and era.

You can download ‘Money Can’t Buy’ – and the rest of the EP – via Chris’s bandcamp.

I’ve seen Chris at the Twa Tams in Perth with Red Pine Timber Company on a couple of occasions as part of Perth’s Southern Fried music festival which, before taking a break in 2019 and, indeed, 2020 had brought a range of terrific Americana artists to Perth since starting up in 2008. My second track this week is also one from a regular at Southern Fried, appearing in both 2014 and 2018 – the unclassifiable Steve Earle.

I’ve linked to a lot of artists’ bandcamps in this series of posts, but this is not to forget the contribution of independent record stores in keeping us sane in these times, such as 101 Collector’s Records in Farnham. Record Store Day 2 took place this weekend before a third drop next month, but Earle’s ‘Times Like This’ was released specifically for the first (major) RSD drop this year – and my copy came from a very early morning queue outside 101 (thank you, Tracy!). ‘Times Like This’ is a protest song with the singer seeking inspiration from the dynamics of liberation events in the past to revive sagging spirits in these times; but I’m going here with the ‘B’ side: ‘The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground’, a foot-stomping, driving howl of a song with Earle’s banjo providing a banshee scream of hellish protest:

The title is not a description of the climate change impact of burning fossil fuels, nor a reflection on the Polish government’s eventual, and problematic, agreement with the Polish coal unions to phase out production by 2049 (!). Taken from Earle’s current album Ghosts of West Virginia, released in June, it is a tribute to the coal miners of that state and inspired by the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 workers. The album is essentially the soundtrack to Coal Country, a play written about the disaster and featuring Earle, himself a West Virginian, and explores the historical role of coal in mining communities seeking to generate an understanding of the ‘texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days’ as a means of generating communication and dialogue with miners.

Thus the album fits in very well with the work of Pete Seeger, touched on earlier in this series, as well as with Dick Gaughan, whose 1984 album True and Bold, issued via the STUC to raise funds for striking miners, was probably my first contact with trade unions (yes – I still have my copy). Sadly, Gaughan remains unwell following a stroke in 2016. Must dig out my tapes from those Andy Kershaw sessions – I can recall one cracking session from Gaughan in particular (the 1991 one, I think) though I live in hope that someone at the BBC will, one day, do it for me.

Change your mindset – not your handset

Here’s my winter 2019 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a sector of Prospect, which organises managers and professionals right across the UK. This was my fourth column for the union and, as always, the full column is available only to members – you can join right here and indeed so you should.

In it, I look at the sustainability of mobile handsets within the context of the industry’s two-year, contract-based replacement cycle and the environmental arguments behind why this should be extended. Note that I have slightly updated this with a couple more links.

The frequency with which we replace our mobile handsets – what the industry calls ‘handset replacement cycles’ – continues to lengthen.

Evidence suggests that consumers are seeing value in keeping their devices beyond the two-year timeframe which the industry has seen as standard in recent years.

Forecaster Gartner recently predicted that worldwide sales of smartphones will drop by 3.2% in 2019 – apparently the largest decline in shipments ever experienced.

If this is true, it will come as news to Huawei, which shipped 200 million smartphones in 2019 some 64 days earlier than it did in 2018.

And Apple has just increased production of its new iPhone 11 models by up to 8m units (about 10%). However, the company’s initial conservatism over production levels means that the increase takes it ahead of 2018 production levels by a much smaller amount.

5G to the rescue

5G is expected to rescue manufacturers in 2020 and will bring a return to growth in the market. This is one reason why the industry is continuing to talk up 5G technology as ‘transformational’.

But it does seem that 5G will facilitate some genuine breakthroughs, including:

  • much faster access speeds
  • extremely low levels of latency – the delay between sending and receiving information; this will encourage the development of connected self-driving cars
  • extremely low power consumption
  • greater connectivity, which will be required if the internet of things – the ability of your fridge to engage with your grocer of choice – is to take off.

Low power consumption, albeit within an energy market that will still grow as a result of new uses, has to be a good thing.

But, returning to mobile handsets, the question is ‘How often do we need to replace our handsets?’

Climate cost of short lifespan products

The European Environmental Bureau – a network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe – recently released a report on the climate impact of short-lifespan consumer products, including smartphones, and drew attention to the benefits of making such products more durable.

The study said that the average lifespan of a smartphone, whose production has the largest climate impact of all the consumer products studied, is just three years. Extending this to four years would save more than 2 million tonnes of emissions (CO2eq).

EEB argues that the study is ‘further proof’ that Europe’s climate obligations cannot be met without addressing our production and consumption patterns, which are based on the disposability mindset of the wider consumer electronics industry.

EEB says smartphones need to have longer lifespans and be more easily repaired when they break in order to minimise the climate impact of the production of new handsets.

The study concludes that it is hard to assess if manufacturers build obsolescence into their products. But the number of consumers who are replacing, rather than repairing, defective products is growing.

Right to repair law won’t cover mobile handsets

A new EU law on ecodesign, seeking to facilitate a right to repair and part of a much broader approach to sustainability and the circular economy, will help here although unfortunately it does not extend to mobile handsets (Edit: though this may be changing both for mobile handsets as well as for other electronic devices).

So, the next time your two-year mobile phone contract comes up, ask yourself whether you really need a new handset or whether you can make do with the old one for a bit longer (and save yourself some money in the process).

Rebelling against the disposability of mobile handsets might be but a small act on behalf of the planet – but it is an act.