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Let’s Talk About Erosion

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

Esther Renwick

November 2020

Sea levels around the world are rising more rapidly than ever before. Rising sea levels and increasingly regular and violent storm events mean that coastal archaeology is at ever increasing risk. Almost a fifth of Scotland’s coastline is actively eroding, threatening property and infrastructure worth £400m and over 12,000 known archaeological sites.

Stenness Fishing Station (c) E Renwick 2019

In 1996 Historic Environment Scotland (HES) commissioned a series of Coastal Zone Assessment Surveys to understand the full extent and condition of the coastal archaeology around Scotland. The surveys recorded archaeology, geology, geomorphology and erosion. In 2000, as a result of these surveys, the SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) Trust was set up at the University of St Andrews. SCAPE set out to improve the accuracy and efficiency of the coastal survey process and at the same time began to manage a series of Shorewatch community projects across Scotland, enabling local communities to become involved in locating, recording and monitoring their coastal archaeology. The surveys undertaken by Shorewatch volunteers made it increasingly clear that the amount of threatened archaeology far outstripped the available resources, as the coast is shifting and changing so rapidly. A series of community excavations focussed on particularly threatened sites, including the Bronze Age Bressay Project on Shetland in 2008. This community project excavated and relocated the tank and cells of a burnt mound eroding onto the beach at Cruester, Bressay. The interior of the burnt mound was reconstructed beside the Bressay Heritage Centre, where it is available to visit.

The excavated burnt mound before it was relocated (c)The SCAPE Trust 2008.

By this time it was becoming increasingly obvious that some form of prioritisation was needed to identify the sites most at risk. Between 2005 and 2010 SCAPE worked through the Coastal Zone Assessment Surveys prioritising sites on the basis of both archaeological value and threat level. Their work revealed almost 1,000 high priority sites, leading to the creation of SCHARP (Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project). The ShoreUpdate app and interactive Sites at Risk map were launched in 2012. The work of community volunteers beside the SCAPE team allowed this list to be reprioritised again down to a list of 145 most threatened sites in Scotland. ShoreDIG (2012-2016) allowed the community to highlight their choice of high priority sites for projects. This included the site in Channerwick, Shetland, which was excavated with local volunteers from Archaeology Shetland in 2015, revealing a previously unknown broch site, including a spectacular broch well.

The Channerwick excavation (c) Archaeology Shetland 2015

The broch well at Channerwick after excavation (c) Archaeology Shetland 2015

So how does this all relate to Moder Dy? Having been involved in both the Bronze Age Bressay Project and the Channerwick excavation, I had become very interested in the impacts of coastal erosion in Shetland and was involved in ongoing coastal monitoring. During his PhD research Marc had become concerned about the threatened state of the small boat archaeology around Shetland’s coast. We recognised that while much of this relatively recent and widespread archaeology, such as boat noosts, piers and net sheds, was low priority in the face of the wider threat, they offered an unusual opportunity. A rare chance to record sites while some of their stories remain in living memory. In 2018 we joined forces and Moder Dy was born – uniting our experience in archaeology, social history and ethnography to record these sites alongside their stories.

Marc recording the GPS coordinates of a large boat noost in Whiteness Voe (c) E Renwick 2020

The concept of noosts probably arrived in Shetland with the Early Norse/Viking settlers. The earliest known noost on Shetland lies at Underhoull in Unst and has been dated to the Norse/Medieval period, possibly as early as the 13th century. Noosts have been constructed in much the same way ever since and the erosion of those built within living memory gives a good indicator of how rapidly Shetland’s coastline is changing. While coastal erosion is impacted by local geology, geomorphology and tidal patterns, the impact on archaeology is largely dictated by past settlement patterns. 78% of SCAPE’s high priority sites are in the Highlands and Islands, largely due to settlement in the fertile coastal areas. While the cliffs of Shetland make it more resilient than the softer, lower lying coastlines of Orkney and the Western Isles, it is still impacted by significant erosion. Noosts are particularly vulnerable due to their location and can often be seen actively eroding onto the beach, or into the sea.

Eddie's noost(s) at Sundibanks (c) V Velupillai 2020

The remains of Gronataing Fishing Station at Waas (Walls) (c) M Chivers 2020

When lockdown hit the UK in March, Moder Dy had already obtained a small grant from the Society for Post Medieval Archaeology and were in the last stages of approval for a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to run the Burra Noost Project. This project was designed to combine a systematic archaeological survey of the noosts of Burra with oral history and archive research to collect their stories; working with the community to bring these sites back to life. In March the award process was suspended due to the pandemic and the nature of the hands-on community project meant our plans had to be put on hold.

In the meantime we were very conscious that these sites and stories are still rapidly vanishing, so we switched focus to find a method to continue our research. Thus, Caain da Noosts was born, a lockdown project that allowed the community to help record noosts while staying well within government guidance. Submitting photographs, grid references and stories, folk from all across Shetland have enabled us to record over 100 noosts this year. We actively update the results onto an interactive map; once the project has finished at the end of the year we will be sharing our information with local and national databases, including of course SCAPE, the Shetland Amenity Trust and Shetland Museum & Archives. Thanks to the help of the community we have gathered sites and stories almost from end to end of Shetland, in a time when this seemed impossible.

The way forward is still slightly unclear in these strange times, but rest assured we’ll continue to research and record Shetland’s small boat heritage. While there is no grant funding available we are turning to our own resources to keep Moder Dy moving forward - please check out our website, if you need expertise in boat building and restoration or heritage consultancy then do get in touch. We also still have a stock of merchandise in the Moder Dy shop from photo prints to face coverings and, of course, we always appreciate donations!

Happy noost hunting! (c) M Chivers 2020

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