SCOTLAND’S most ancient and treasured historical attractions are coming under increasing threat from the effects of global warming.
Wetter winters and warmer summers are causing some of our most iconic buildings and monuments to turn green – but not in a good way.
Stonework is disintegrating, timber is decaying and coastlines are being washed away, while plants and weeds are beginning to sprout from all sorts of unlikely places.
Now a new team of experts has been brought in to help preserve and protect sites such as the 5,000-year-old Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae from being wiped off the map.
Geologist Ewan Hyslop, head of science and sustainability at the recently created government body Historic Environment Scotland (HES), points out that, unlike many countries, Scotland is already feeling the effects of global warming and has done for the last few decades.
He said: “It’s not just something that is coming in the future. It is actually happening here and it is happening now.
“Where Scotland sits on the globe, we are right in the firing line for climate change impacts.
“We have a maritime climate, we are right on the Atlantic coast, we are in the line of the jet stream, so we are very vulnerable.
“We have 20 per cent more rainfall now than in the 1960s. And in some parts, like the north and west, in the winter we are getting 70 per cent more. These are quite major changes over four or five decades.
“Rainfall is a big deal – water is the main engine of decay for stone. Wetting and drying is the problem.”
With around 450,000 traditionally constructed buildings, not to mention prehistoric standing stones and other ancient monuments to maintain, HES reckoned it needed another 5,000 skilled workers to do the job properly.
Hyslop said: “In terms of our sites collectively we are seeing an overall increase in water penetration.
“The other thing happening is the temperature is rising. Scotland now has a five-week longer growing season than it had in the 1960s, so we are getting a lot more biological growth.
“The upper parts of a lot of buildings, particularly ruinous structures like Caerlaverock Castle, near Dumfries, are turning green because they have got warmer temperatures and more water – the perfect growing conditions.
“Other monuments, particularly in coastal sites like Tantallon castle in East Lothian and Skara Brae in Orkney, are increasingly subject to storm events. Plus sea levels are rising all round the Scottish coast.
“I’m not saying they are under imminent threat but we are having to up our game to protect them.”
Work has just begun on an £8.9 million scheme to transform a disused engine shed near Stirling into a world-leading building conservation hub and education centre for HES.
Cutting it: stonemason in training
Megan Crawford, a 26-year-old with degrees in ancient history and archaeology, is one of 46 trainees learning traditional stonemasonry through a four-year Historic Scotland apprenticeship.
“In terms of the cutting and building side of the work, we don’t use grinders or buffing pads and things like that,” she said.
“It is all done by hand with chisels. It is really back to basics – the centuries-old technique of using a mallet to hit a chisel.
“These skills have been around since people began building.”
Crawford has worked at a wide range of sites, from the Antonine Wall to Blackness Castle and Linlithgow Palace.
“One of the first stones I cut went in at Newark Castle, near Port Glasgow,” she said.
“It was really nice to get some stones in because you can take your family and say, ‘Look, I built that – that’s mine.’ I also got picked to do all the letter-carving for the Mary Queen of Scots statue at Linlithgow Palace.
“That’s not something we get taught at college so I was really excited and nervous to get the chance to do it. But that’s what an apprenticeship is all about – me and the stone. And although the materials are really expensive and it would cost a lot if I made a mistake, I learned a lot on the job and really enjoyed it.
“It helps that I like being outdoors as this job is rarely dry and inside.
“I love working on old monuments and restoring them. It’s great to think you’re contributing to preserving Scotland’s historic past and giving a future to the buildings.”