Taking Action to Save Scotland’s Historic Sites

Coastal erosion, the effects of climate change and  rising visitor numbers have all combined to put many of Orkney’s historic visitor sites under threat of considerable damage.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

An additional  £10,000 is being spent by Historic Environment Scotland (HES)  to try and improve conditions at the World Heritage Site, The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney.

The Neolithic Ring of Brodgar is older than Stonehenge and has suffered in recent years not just with heavy rainfall but with the  surge in tourism that Orkney is experiencing.


A report for Orkney Islands Council to look into issues surrounding the huge growth in the tourism sector locally stated:

  • that in 2016 there were around 124,000 volume visitors to Orkney. The vast majority were cruise passengers around 91,000 of whom are estimated to have gone ashore; almost all are day visitors.
  • that there were 129,500 non-volume visitors in 2016 (excluding yachts). The vast majority of these tourists stay overnight on Orkney for one or more nights.

Figures for 2017 will be higher.

The report went on to say:

“there is no empirical evidence of capacity pressures adversely impacting on either the physical fabric of visitor sites or the quality of visitor experience at them. In terms of physical fabric, none of the operators participating in the study identified any capacity issues that are not already being addressed through ongoing site management.”

HES began a programme of improvements to the Ring of Brodgar in 2016, which are now nearing completion, with replacement of some areas of turf and the temporary restriction of the inner circle path.

The restrictions on access to the inner path began on  22nd November 2017. Signage and fencing directs visitors to the outer pathway, which affords a clear view across the site.

From Spring 2018, restrictions on the inner circle will be lifted and a new management plan implemented. This will see alternating routes round the circle introduced to allow parts of the pathways to rest and the addition of temporary raised walkways over the access causeways, where footfall is concentrated.

Skara Brae, Orkney

The World Heritage site of Skara Bare a unique example of a Neolithic village in northern Europe is the 4th highest earning site for HES. Between April and September of 2017 104,224 visitors paid to visit the site.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae was uncovered in 1850 when a huge storm ripped away part of the sand dunes where it had lain buried for thousands of years. The village was in an exceptional state of preservation giving archaeologists an incredible opportunity to study everyday life in the development of farming in Neolithic Orkney. As parts of the village continued to be damaged by the sea a wall was put in and later reinforced to protect it from further erosion. The sea has many times managed to over top the wall since its construction.

HES Climate Change Report 2018

The most extensive in depth research has been carried out on all sites in the care of HES. You can view and download the report here: Climate-Change-Report-2018

According to the report over the last 50 years “ annual precipitation levels have increased by over 20% in Scotland and ” it is now 1°C warmer”.

Many reading this whilst a blizzard rages outside may be sceptical at these figures but anyone who gardens, farms, fishes, works or spends time out doors will have been aware of changes happening to our landscape and wildlife.

The report states:” the growing season has been extended by over a month and sea levels continue to rise at over 3mm a year.”

Scotland’s coastline is 21,234 km long

Broch of Borwick

The ‘Dynamic Coast: Scotland’s National Coastal Change Assessment’ (NCCA) tool uses more than 2,000 maps and one million data points to make its predictions. It identifies past erosion and growth rates, and projects the data forward to show the potential change to Scotland’s coastline. It has found that since the coastline was last  surveyed :

  • 4,434 km is soft / erodible
  • 2,297 km (84%) was found to be representative
  • 427 km (16%) needed revision
  • 120 km updated using OS supplied DSMs
  • 307 km needs to be updated in the future

The HES research found that:

“out of the 352 ‘sites’ investigated, 89% are exposed to high, or very high levels of risk “

Due to the work being done by HES already ,as at the Ring of Brodgar, the number of sites at very high risk was reduced to 53%.

There are 28 sites at very high risk in one, or more, of the six identified hazards investigated. These include in Orkney:  Brough of Birsay, Hackness Battery and Martello Tower, Quoyness Chambered Cairn and Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn.

Brough of  Birsay

The full list of 28  at very high risk are:

  1. Biggar Gasworks 
  2. Bonawe Iron Furnace
  3. Brough of Birsay
  4. Cambuskenneth Abbey
  5. Castle Sween
  6.  Dundonald Castle 
  7. Eileach-an-Naoimh 
  8. Elcho Castle 
  9. Fort George 
  10. Hackness Battery & Martello Tower 
  11. Inchcolm Abbey 
  12. Inchcolm Island 
  13. Innerpeffray Chapel 
  14. Kisimul Castle 
  15. Mavisbank Policies 
  16. Ness of Burgi 
  17. Newark Castle 
  18. Quoyness Chambered Cairn 
  19. Seton Collegiate Church 
  20. Spynie Palace 
  21. St. Blane’s Church 
  22. St. Serf’s Church, Dunning
  23.  Stanley Mills 
  24. Tealing Dovecot 
  25. Torphichen Preceptory 
  26. Tullibardine Chapel 
  27. Whithorn Priory Crosses (& Museum) 
  28. Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn 

The ongoing and proposed work to protect all the sites in HES care is based on assessments of current risks. Future projections would suggest that across Scotland there would be considerable regional differences. For instance with rainfall:

“the North West coast of Scotland and the Northern Isles are expected to see a lower reduction in summer rainfall, in comparison to the rest of the country. In contrast to this, these same areas are expected to see a larger increase in rain falling during the winter months”

And with temperature:

” in both the summer and winter analysis, Southern Scotland will, broadly speaking, see higher increases in temperature in comparison to Northern Scotland”

HES will now use the results of this research as:

” a first step in assessing environmental and climate change risks to our Properties in Care”.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

Wideford Cairn

Wideford Cairn, Orkney (B Bell)


1 reply »

  1. It’s very hard to know what should be/could be done. The weather is the weather, and change, happens. I hope that these places can be conserved, without limiting public access too much. Hard to know…………..
    Meanwhile – here’s a prime example fo what’s happening…………..


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