Archaeologists survey Scotland’s forests under the sea

The Bay of Ireland near Stromness, Orkney, where a submerged forest has been found. PIC: Contributed.
The Bay of Ireland near Stromness, Orkney, where a submerged forest has been found. PIC: Contributed.
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Archaeologists are studying Scotland’s “woodlands under the waves” which were created thousands of years ago when dramatic rises in sea levels pushed vast stretches of forest underwater.

Recent work has been carried out at the Bay of Ireland near Stromness ,Orkney, with similar research underway at Benbecula and Berneray in the Outer Hebrides.

Dr Scott Timpany of the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said the small stumps and roots found at the Bay of Ireland were around 6,000 years old.

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The discoveries have helped to build a picture of life on the island from the early Mesolithic period when Orkney, then a single island populated by hunter gatherers, was broken up by rising sea levels into the archipelago we know today.

Dr Timpany said: “For these early Mesolithic communities, this landscape must have been a dynamic place. They would have been aware of the sea encroaching onto the land and the coastal area changing.

“A fair bit of the landscape would once have been woodland, so we have been thinking about how people would have navigated that landscape, which would have been wet, boggy ground, and how people adapted to the change in sea levels.”

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Separate research, also carried out at UHI, found that sea levels around Orkney have risen by about eight metres over the past 8,000 years.

The forest that was submerged in the Bay of Ireland, which now covers an area roughly 10 metres wide, included willow trees which were fairly unusual on an island where birch and hazel more commonly grew.

An oak timber measuring 3.5 metres long was also found in the underwater forest which once grew close to a freshwater pool, tests have shown.

Dated to around 4,400BC, the piece of oak is the first timber of this age to be dated in Scotland, said Dr Timpany.

There was now the “tantalizing” possibility that the piece of wood may have been a marker post to direct travellers arriving in the area, he added.

A similar discovery was made near Maerdy in Wales.

He said: “It is tantalizing to think that the oak timber at Bay of Ireland may have been used for a similar purpose.

“The oak would have been located in a prominent position marking the Loch of Stenness and a possible connecting stream at the Brig of Waithe that would have been suitable for the landing of maritime craft coming across from Graemsay and Hoy.”

Orkney’s woodlands were further ravaged over time.

A migration of people into Orkney during the Neolithic period led to woodlands being used in different ways, mainly for construction, Dr Timpany said.

Remains of only one ancient forest can be now be found on Orkney at Berriedale on Hoy.

Considered to be Britain’s most northerly woodland, it is a relic of the larger forest that grew there from around 8,000BC.

Dr Timpany’s research was done in collaboration with colleagues at the Universities of St Andrews, Dundee and St Trinity Davids and funded by The Carnegie Trust and Historic Environment Scotland.