Meet the team hunting those who would steal Scotland’s history

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Authorities are stepping up the pressure on heritage crime, writes Alison Campsie.

From vandalised castles to stolen bits of ancient burial cairn, investigations into allegations of heritage crime in Scotland are on the rise.

Dun Torcuill: Iron Age broch on loch in North Uist where a case of illegal excavation is being investigated. Picture: Contributed

Dun Torcuill: Iron Age broch on loch in North Uist where a case of illegal excavation is being investigated. Picture: Contributed

But also increasing is the force being applied to catch those responsible for damaging protected heritage sites both for the benefit of the nation and for those drawn to visit here for its long and rich history.

In 2019, around 100 cases of heritage crime were under investigation by Historic Environment Scotland (HES)and police. In the five years before, there were a total of 40 cases.

With a new focus on crimes against heritage sites, it is hoped that an increase in prosecutions will follow.

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Ongoing cases

Key cases under investigation include the theft of a medieval bell on  uninhabited St Finan’s Isle in Loch Shiel, Lochaber, which was taken in a boat raid in late June or early July.

Meanwhile, officers are still dealing with a case of deliberate damage to an ancient burial cairn at Carn Glas, Achvraid, which was created in the fourth millenium BC for Neolithic funerary rituals.

And then, in November, an unauthorised excavation was reported at Dun Torcuill – a broch on an uninhabited island on a loch on North Uist, with the structure considered one of the best preserved examples of its type across both Uists and Benbecula.

Inspector Alan Dron is the chair of the Scottish Heritage Crime Group, which was set up in April to crack down on offences against Scotland’s oldest and most important buildings and landmarks.

With 8,000 scheduled monuments to protect, 47,000 listed buildings and 47 protected shipwrecks under his watch, the task is a considerable one.

On the hunt

Inspector Dron said: “In one week, I could be at castles, standing stones and burial cairns all in different locations, from Perth to Glasgow to Lochinver to Lairg, Elgin and Bettyhill.

Heritage crime comes under the remit of rural crime in Scotland, which was the first country in the UK to come up with a rural crime strategy. It was then also the first to make heritage crime a priority.

The officer added: “We had to do this as heritage has such as unique importance to Scotland and we have such a rich collection of unique and importance sites to protect. We do take this incredibly seriously.”

HES and Treasure Trove, which manages finds of artefacts of historic value, are among those who sit on the heritage crime group, which shares information and investigatory updates about offences.

Interestingly, officers from HES spent a week at the Scottish Police College at Tulliallan in Kincardine earlier this year to learn how to conduct robust investigations into alleged offences.

HES has the legal power to make reports direct to the Crown Office, with prosecutors now taking forward two of its cases of alleged significant and deliberate destruction of standing stones and an ancient burial ground, the officer said.

He added: “We believe this work with Historic Environment Scotland will lead to more prosecutions. The fact that the fiscal has decided to act on these two reports speaks volumes.”

Inspector Dron said that, since the heritage crime group was set up, reports to the fiscal have become “more factual and evidential”.

He added: “It is about building that understanding that heritage crime might not just be about monetary value but really what is can do to Scotland’s reputation.”

The officer pointed to the 2016 case of two Scapa Flow shipwreck divers who were each fined £18,000 for removing artefacts from scuttled battleships and cruisers of the German Grand Fleet

The case against Gordon Meek, 67, of Glasgow and Robert Infant, of New Jersey, in the US, illustrated the potential penalties of offences committed under the 1979 Ancient Monuments Act, Inspector Dron said.

One of the key issues was about educating both Scots and natives and visitors about the importance of a particular place or landmark.

‘Increase in heritage crime’

“Some people just genuinely don’t understand, but on the other hand, there has been a ‘genuine and dramatic increase’ in the reporting of heritage crime,” he added.

Other recent cases have included graffiti and etchings at standing stones at Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran.

At the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, graffiti etched on one of the stones at the Unesco World Heritage Site have also been found.

Meanwhile, fly tippers are often drawn to estates and scheduled monuments given the sites are often accessible, unmanned and in remote locations.

Illegal metal detecting, such as that alleged at the Antonine Wall, the Roman Empire’s most northerly frontier which runs through the Central Belt, had also come to the attention of the heritage crime desk, as well as moped and motorcyclists using the landmark’s mounds and dips for practice.

Theft of cultural artefacts are more rare, Inspector Dron said, with some objects heading into private collections and others being lined up for a sale on the black market.

Last June, a 17th century claymore was stolen from Canna House museum on the Isle of Canna, with the piece never recovered.

“The item has never turned up and my feeling is that it is likely it was stolen for someone’s own collection,” the officer added.

He compared this to the 2013 theft of the  Leonard da Vinci painting the Madonna and the Yardwinder, worth an estimated £50 million, which was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries, with the heist still the largest value art theft in the UK

The case ended in a number of not proven and not guilty convictions plus a civil case relating to the extortion of reward money.

Inspector Dron said that the key difficulty in investigating heritage crime was often that offences occurred in remote locations with a lag between the crime and a report being made about it.

The medieval hand bell stolen from St Finan’s Isle at Lochiel was taken sometime in June and early July, with a public appeal not made until the end of that month.

It hit headlines around the world but so far the case remains unsolved.

A bolt cutter was required to remove the bell from a heavy, hand-forged bronze chain, with officials from HES sailing to the island to look for evidence of the crime along with officers from Police Scotland.

The officer said: “The bell was on an island, they had to get to that, they had to get a boat, it had to be planned.

“We are still making serious inquiries about the hows, the wheres, the whys and the whens of this crime. Where did they get the boat from? Where did they sail from?

“One of the issues is, in Scotland, with the number of tourists, people can be moving about in different vehicles, in different camper vans, at all times of the day. “

“Someone knew the bell was there and deliberately set out to take it. This bell has a great cultural and significant significance. Whether it is going to surface again, we just don’t know.”

Fighting back

To help combat heritage crime in remote locations, members of the public and tourists are helping to document the effects of vandalism at 20 isolated historic sites.

They are to act as the “eyes and ears” of changes at the landmarks and are being asked to upload images of castles, standing stones and ancient burial grounds for the Monument Monitor project.

Experts can then use the pictures to spot changes at the landmarks, which include Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries, the Pictish Maiden Stone in Aberdeenshire and Clava Cairns ancient burial site near Inverness, which has become a popular draw for fans of the Outlander books and television series.

Inspector Dron highlighted said that Scotland’s heritage was the second biggest reason that visitors came with history and culture tourism worth £4.2 billion to the economy.

“That really illustrates the importance of why we need to take heritage seriously. It also creates something along the lines of 60,000 full-time jobs. We really have to make sure that what we have is protected.”

Simon Stronach, deputy head of casework at Historic Environment Scotland, added: “Heritage crime can damage property and harm Scotland’s rich culture. Our heritage helps define who we are and gives our towns, cities and countryside their unique identities.

“Historic artefacts and buildings cannot be replaced and their loss can impact not only our enjoyment and appreciation of the past but that of future generations. If we can deter and reduce heritage crime we will preserve more of the character and culture of Scotland and the pleasure that gives people who live and visit here.”