THE sea has shaped Scotland’s coastline and given her people an abundance of food, wealth and play. But it is also rapidly erasing the nation’s history.
Coastal erosion - made worse by global warming - threatens to destroy an estimated 12,000 of Scotland’s 35,000 sites of archaeological importance, some of them in months and years rather than decades and centuries.
Experts say that 500 of the sites are of national and even international importance and they are in a race against time to salvage what artefacts they can before the seas claim them forever.
The warning follows research by experts at St Andrews University and Historic Scotland, who said last night that the country had turned a blind eye to an impending cultural disaster.
Tom Dawson, a research fellow at the environmental history department at St Andrews University, said the problem was unfolding before his eyes. In St Monans, Fife, in the past two months, the waves have partially claimed an 18th-century stone building where salt was once made from sea water.
Dawson, who is speaking at a conference on the problem on Tuesday, said the issue was being ignored because no one had legal responsibility for the sites.
The conference has been organised by the Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE) Trust, which was formed by archaeologists across Scotland in 2001.
Only 30% of Scotland’s 7,500-mile coastline has been surveyed for historic sites - many of which are below ground - and the conference in St Andrews will hear calls from archaeologists for urgent government funding for further surveys
to identify the most important sites and carry out emergency excavation before they are lost forever.
Global warming has caused rising sea levels and more ferocious storms with bigger waves. As well as eroding land on visible sites, high winds are blowing off topsoil and sands which expose undiscovered sites which are then quickly washed away, said Dawson.
"With every winter storm, more damage is done to some sites. It gets to a point where it is not worth doing anything to the site because there is not much left to salvage," he said. "Once erosion starts it is pretty quick and you can lose [a site] to erosion in five years easily."
He warned that among the most important sites which are in danger of disappearing are famous Pictish carvings at caves in East Wemyss, medieval Dunbar Castle in East Lothian, an Iron Age settlement called Cnoc Sornain on Benbecula in the Western Isles, pre-historic sites in Sands of Forvie in Aberdeenshire and a prehistoric burial site at Sanday, Orkney.
"At Wemyss, the foreshore is washing away and there are minimal coastal defences. At least a few skeletons have been washed away in the past few years, and one cave which had drawings has already collapsed," he said.
At Sandwich Bay on Unst, Shetland, one Viking house was flooded by the sea while another is touched by the ocean at high tide. Also a house on the site from the Iron Age (500BC to 500AD) is falling into the sea.
Dawson added: "Everyone closes their eyes to erosion. Because this is natural erosion no one has any responsibility to do this work. Historic Scotland has no legal responsibility - though perhaps it has moral responsibility.
"There are not enough resources set aside for this. It is a problem people are prepared to turn a blind eye to it because people rarely notice these sites as they are covered over. Then there is a storm and they are gone."
The erosion problem is particularly bad in Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and Caithness because in these areas the sea is rising at its quickest.
Dawson and Patrick Ashmore, the principal inspector of ancient monuments at Historic Scotland, say preservation is not an option because it is too expensive except for the most internationally important sites such as the neolithic site of Skara Brae in Orkney, which is protected by sea walls.
Skara Brae, a World Heritage Site which was inhabited between 3200BC and 2200BC, was uncovered in 1850 during a fierce storm with high tides which stripped away the grass covering.
Scottish Natural Heritage is currently funding research to look at changes to some Scottish beaches to minimise the impact of the sea.
An Executive spokeswoman said: "Matters relating to the protection of archaeological sites are for Historic Scotland to address. We would expect the trust to make formal representation to Historic Scotland on their concerns.
"On Thursday the deputy minister for environment and rural development announced that 89m has been made available for flood and coastal protection. It is a matter for local authorities working with other agencies, such as Historic Scotland, to prepare plans for defence schemes."