Skara Brae is one of Scotland’s most significant and famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites and it has been under constant threat of damage due to coastal erosion for decades. Fortunately, a seawall protects the base of this archaeological site from the erosive power of waves and storm events.

General description

The 5000 year old settlement of Skara Brae is one of the four monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also quite possibly one of Scotland’s most at-risk historic sites due to coastal erosion. Ironically, Skara Brae was only discovered as a result of coastal erosion from major storm events since the 1800’s.

The risk of coastal erosion to Skara Brae was addressed in the early days of its heritage management. The first seawall was constructed in the late 1920’s, and has been refortified several times since then. Like all seawalls, this 4-meter high wall serves as a protective barrier that is able to absorb the brunt of wave action and thereby shield vulnerable infrastructure, or in this case archaeological structures, from eroding.

Historic Environment Scotland, the public body responsible for managing Scotland’s heritage sites, has been over the years maintaining the integrity of the wall, with the support of other organizations. There has also been extensive monitoring of the entire bay area to determine the rate and location of erosion so that additional fortification can be made. Skara Brae is a cherished piece of Scotland’s history and therefore has much public support for protection from coastal erosion.

Innovative aspects

Considering the early adoption of a seawall protection measure for Skara Brae, Scottish authorities have been quite proactive in ensuring the long term reduction of coastal erosion at this heritage site. With the first wall erected in the late 1920’s, this measure was a relatively pioneering tactic for heritage conservation. Today, Historic Environment Scotland has also employed the latest technologies of 3D and 4D digital surveying to monitor the state of erosion along the coast and measure the ongoing effectiveness of the sea wall.

Key lessons learnt

When it comes to vulnerable heritages sites along eroding coastlines, time is of the essence. While powerful storms throughout history revealed the existence of Skara Brae to the world, these same storm events and constant wave action threaten the longevity of the site as a place for future generations to enjoy. The prompt action of Scottish authorities to construct a seawall to protect the archaeological site decades ago has since been proven to have been a wise decision. Knowing what we know about the possibility of more hidden archaeological sites in the area, it is important to continue the monitoring efforts to not only assess the stability of Skara Brae, but also the impacts of the seawall as an element of the natural environment. The Bay of Skaill is a dynamic and ever changing system, and it is possible that the seawall might increase erosion from intensified wave action on the unprotected sand dunes on either side of Skara Brea.

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