Four transformative years for Scotland’s Coastal Heritage

Joanna Hambly, The SCAPE Trust, tells us about Scotland’s Coastal Heritage At Risk Project and the role of volunteers in surveying Scotland’s coastal archaeological heritage.

Between 2012 and 2016, the SCAPE Trust recruited, trained and supported volunteers to carry out a national survey of coastal archaeological heritage threatened by erosion. The survey formed part of the wider Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project (SCHARP), funded and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, the University of St Andrews and Local Authorities across Scotland. The project has been transformative to SCAPE as an organisation; to how we share and manage information about Scotland’s coastal heritage; and to our capacity to monitor, update and investigate eroding coastal heritage sites. The results provide up-to-date information within the 35% of the coastline subject to the surveys, which will help inform local and national priorities for action at the most vulnerable and important coastal heritage sites.

SCHARP builds upon data collected through an analysis of Coastal Zone Assessment Surveys (CZAS) commissioned by Historic Environment Scotland between 1996 and 2010. SCHARP was developed to address the need to review and update site condition data of important coastal heritage sites threatened by coastal processes in order to better understand what currently was most at risk and where. Our aim was to put volunteers at the heart of this process by recruiting, training and supporting volunteers in coastal communities to carry out site visits and surveys in their local areas. The primary focus was to identify the highest priority sites currently at risk in order to provide a firm evidence base for practical action.

The outstanding contribution of over 1000 volunteers in the project as a whole, 500 of whom took part in the surveys, enabled us to more than meet the project goals. Volunteers submitted 1041 updated surveys of CZAS sites and visited 88% of the 322 highest priority sites identified in the previous desk-based analysis of CZAS data. This observational data was moderated by SCAPE officers and used to review the status of every site submitted.

“We’ve come to recognise things and there is definitely this sixth sense you develop about spotting things in the landscape – suddenly you get this feeling at the back of your neck when you’re looking at something that shouldn’t be there. We’re becoming better at the recording is what I’m saying.” feedback from volunteer in the Western Isles.

As a result of the review 145 sites were assigned a highest priority score. Two thirds of these retained their priority status from the original CZAS analysis and one third came from new sites or sites that had not been identified previously as a priority. The proportion of highest priority sites in each region remained similar when compared to the original CZAS analysis. The coastlines of the Northern and Western Isles are most vulnerable to erosion and contain two thirds of all high priority sites.

Much of the reduction in the absolute number of highest priority sites can be explained by the SCHARP survey and analysis methodology, which assessed the relative condition and vulnerability of each site on a national scale, introducing parity when considering priority across the whole of Scotland. A second factor may be attributed to a general, possibly short-term, trend of stabilisation of sand dune and machair coastlines compared to conditions when some of the original CZAS surveys were completed. Changes in land management, the timing of the surveys and meteorological trends may account for this. This demonstrates the potential of regular monitoring of eroding coastal heritage sites to describe wider trends of coastal change.

We have learned a great deal from SCHARP and have built relationships with our network of volunteers that will stand us, and Scotland’s capacity to continue monitoring coastal heritage, in good stead for the future.

“Excellent team and a really good idea to get community involvement where amateurs can feel that they can make a real contribution” feedback following training event in North Uist.

New knowledge has been created and shared. The surveys have produced empirical information for use in the management of threatened coastal heritage and have highlighted a valuable resource with significant research and learning potential.

SCHARP has also demonstrated that large-scale volunteer input is compatible with high quality information and research outcomes. It provides a model of volunteer involvement in the monitoring of heritage assets which could be effectively applied to any national heritage resource.

I suggest that our professional organisations can and should develop just a few long-term collaborative strategies for integrating archaeological knowledge of human history. Two examples of tactics show how archaeology and climate change concerns intersect at community and global levels. The first is SCAPE where archaeologists have reached beyond traditional heritage management to empower local communities to document, excavate and conserve coastal archaeological sites …..The key here is archaeological empowerment of local communities as not only first responders but also true knowledge producers.” Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, Opening address of the World Archaeology Congress, Kyoto, October 2016.