Scotland’s Changing Climate and Heritage Talk by David Harkin Re-visited

National Climate Week 2021 

Slide by David Harkin showing the 7 elements of the historic environment


By Gwen Sinclair

Today marks the beginning of National Climate Week –  an annual event, which started in 2016 to help raise awareness of the global climate emergency.

In Scotland Climate Action Week takes place just 6 weeks ahead of the world’s biggest international summit on climate change which will be held in Glasgow from 31st October to 12th November 2021. Known as COP26,  this is thought to be one of the world’s best chances to date to address climate change issues as heads of state, climate experts and negotiators are set to agree coordinated action to tackle the global climate emergency.

We were guided through the details of this very subject from the point of view of what effects we can expect to see on our ancient buildings, landmarks and so far unexplored archeology if climate change progresses when we had the pleasure of welcoming David Harkin, Historic Environment Scotland’s Climate Change Scientist as the speaker for our latest online monthly talk series on 12th August. 

David’s talk entitled ‘Scotland’s Changing Climate and Heritage’ began by pointing out that we are already experiencing climate change – with the 10 warmest years on record all having occurred since 1997 – with the average temperature in the last decade being 0.69ºC warmer than the previous 30 year average. There has also been a marked increase in rainfall over the past decade — often now becoming heavier rainfall events, where the past 10 years have been 9% wetter, with winters being a worrying 19% wetter!

Scotland’s weather comes from a variety of geographical sources such as Polar Maritime air Mass and Arctic Maritime Air Mass from the Arctic Sea – which brings us wet, cold air, as well as snow in winter;  Tropical Maritime Air Mass from the Atlantic Ocean brings us warm, moist air which forms clouds and rainfall, as well as Tropical Continental Air Mass from North Africa which brings us hot dry weather in summer.   As far as temperatures go, David explored data which shows that Dundonald is slightly warmer than both the Scotland and UK average, although variations arise due to its proximity to the coast, its natural arrangement of physical features — such as Castle Hill itself – and to some extent urban development.  Interestingly too, we found out that there are 44 days of air frost on average here  — which is fewer than the UK and Scottish average.

Slide by David Harkin

Climate change projections are showing us that our future climate is changing already and David illustrated how this is being caused by an increase in greenhouse gases due to Co2 emissions – with predictions showing that if we continue as we are producing high emissions, there will be a marked rise in temperatures, heavier and prolonged rainfall, as well as increased winds and storms. This would result in physical damage to our historic buildings and monuments, as well as historical data yet to be uncovered.

Slide by David Harkin


For Castles, this is a problem since we often find them placed by the sea for strategic defence, and are now at risk since our coastline is facing increased risk of erosion.  However even ancient dwellings like Dundonald Castle, although placed a good bit away from the sea, and instead built on what was a highly effective strategic vantage point, David imparted are still at risk due to increased rainfall.  As was the case in July 2019 when freak hail, thunder and lightening and heavy rainfall caused water to build up inside the ground floor –  as ex-RAF Air Traffic Controller, now Dundonald Castle Tour Guide, David Taylor explained:

“So I remember it was just a normal summer afternoon. I was giving a tour for two families in the castle when it suddenly got very dark, and torrential rain started falling. The rain soon turned to a mixture of rain and hail, but I wasn’t too concerned because weather of that intensity doesn’t usually last too long (as a bit of background, hail is caused by the same meteorological conditions as thunderstorms. Unstable atmospheric conditions cause cumulonimbus clouds which rise up into the troposphere resulting in, among other things, strong updrafts. Frozen water attaches itself to tiny particles in the air and increase in size as they are blown up and down by the wind until eventually become too big to remain aloft and come down as hail. These conditions are rarely anything other than local, so I wasn’t too concerned, deciding we could wait a few minutes before we would leave. (There you go a bit of air traffic control weather background for you. I’ll throw that in for no extra charge). 

But the rain/hail didnae stop! I’ve never seen the like in all my years! Water was entering the castle in small amounts via the windows, but I wasn’t worried at that time. My main concern was the front door. Gravel from the courtyard had blocked the drain and was flowing into the castle. I tried to brush it away with a broom, but it wasn’t having any of it.  

Still the rain came and it was as dark as the grave. Eventually the entrance to the castle was under inches of water and most of the floor was covered too. I considered drawing lots to see who we would eat first in case we were trapped overnight 😏”. 

Another concern for Dundonald Castle is that it was de-roofed in the 16th century in order to use it and other parts the castle to build nearby Auchans House. This means that the top floor, which was once thought to have been King Robert II’s private chambers, might well become damaged due to prolonged saturation, making it vulnerable to greening as well as the effects of increased occurrences of wet/drying out which may cause damage to the historic fabric of the building. 

Upper Hall of Dundonald Castle

We can monitor the effects of climate change on historic buildings, David Harkin went on to explain by using two scales that are put to place – The Micro Scale – which measures literally the drip-drip effect of increased saturation and the drying out of soil due to hotter temperatures making the ground alter its stability. The Macro Scale – which measures a mixture of impacts such as big landscape changes, wild fires, big floods and threats created by storms. 

Regular monitoring using both of these scales are conducted on our historic sites for example on loosened soil and rock – which these ancient buildings and monuments depend on for stability, as is any rise in water tables beneath the surface which could affect foundations.  Conversely, periods of drought require monitoring too, since this can also leave foundations insecure.

Other parts of our heritage are also under threat from the effects of climate change as David took us through some of the problems we face in other parts of the heritage sector. For example, in our ancient gardens, there are species of plants which are now at risk due to new pests arriving with the change in climate. Marine archaeology is being affected since oceans absorb a lot of the warmer air currents making the water more acidic, which wreaks havoc on any metal still to be recovered from beneath the waves. Our national collections such as internal fabrics, are being affected more by pests — literally eating into them as warmer climates allow for more breeding cycles in moth species.  Buried remains are impacted by drying out of ground and the effects of more and prolonged rainfall mean more rapid rates of decay to the objects before they have been properly examined.  Climate change causes coastal erosion and brings more salt water intrusion from storm surges causing decay on the very fabric of surface remains.  David outlined the problems facing The Links of Noltland Neolithic site on the Orkney Island of Westray where an emergency excavation team from HES has had to work quickly due to wind erosion which threatens this brilliantly preserved farming settlement dating from about 3300 BC to 800 BC. Finds have included 12 buildings and the ‘Westray Wifie’ figurine,  David had been part of the excavation team and was delighted to have personally uncovered this 5000 year old pin! (below).

Links of Noltland Site: Slide by David Harkin

Sadly, David reminded us  “We can’t protect everything.” – adding that decisions must be made for emergency planning. A fairly strong debate became part of the audience chat in response – where it was discussed that there is now more than ever, in light of the effects from climate change on Scottish heritage, a need for more archaeologists to be employed to cover as much ground as they can to ensure our heritage is properly explored before it is lost forever.   There was further discussion about how the private sector presently dominates Scotland’s archaeology, and members of the audience expressed the desire for more public and community archaeology programmes to become a core element of Scottish Government funding — with decent wages paid and onsite training opportunities to ensure the endurance of our ancient monuments and buildings for future generations..

Slide by David Harkin

In the Q+A which followed, David was asked what areas he was most concerned about: “There are about 300 properties in the care of HES and all face an uncertain future.”

Slide by David Harkin

David assured that these worrying facts are a catalyst for climate action  — where more people must take steps to attempt to reverse climate change to decline these rather dire predictions. He also advised that we must learn from the past — where we found that strategic positioning of castles was built to deal with the social and climatic issues facing the people from our past, and so we must follow their example:

It was known in the past that castles needed to be built on solid ground, away from flood plains, and this is something that must also do.  We must also use local stone for building our houses since it is more robust, even in a changing climate. We can all do our bit by saving on energy, reducing our own carbon footprint, or sadly many of our castles will not be here in 30-40 years time.”

A dire warning indeed. 

On a more positive note, David showed a slide which outlined the effects of investing in an energy efficiency strategy which has proved to be effective at Edinburgh Castle. This policy has provided not only a marked reduction in C02 emissions, but has saved money – and so it’s certainly worth the effort on both counts:

Slide by David Harkin

At Dundonald Castle we have a strong Green Policy and Mission Statement where we’re committed to continually improving and monitoring environmental performance to reduce our environmental impact — as an integral part of our business strategy — generally above and beyond legislatory requirements. We also encourage customers, suppliers and other stakeholders to do the same. We have achieved our Bronze Green Tourism Award – for which details can be found here:

Finally, many, many thanks to David Harkin for providing us with what was perhaps a stark reality check for us all – but indeed one that we need to know about in order to do all we can to offset future problems. Many thanks to our audience and to our Education Officer, Blythe Paterson for working behind the scenes to bring us such interesting topics and great speakers for our Monthly Online Talks Series.  Please note that this, and the other talks are available to watch again any time for Members of Friends of Dundonald Castle (SC031541) in the Members’ only section of the website. Being a Member also means that you will receive priority notification of all our events to ensure that you don’t miss out. For more details

Our next talk will be given by David C. Weinzcok – writer, presenter, speaker, and content creator for the popular This talk will take place online on Thursday 16th September at 7pm and will be a fascinating discussion on the view that the 15th century Scottish Crown became more centralised at the expense of the power of regional magnates. Ardrossan Castle and Crookston Castle will form case studies to further investigate this narrative which has dominated the works of castle studies’ scholars from the late 19th century to the present day, with the common thread being an acceptance of the general ‘decline’ of the ‘castle age’ in Scotland. For more information and tickets:

Find out more about David Harkin’s work within HES Conservation Directorate in his blog which describes more details of the impacts climate change will have on Scotland’s historic environment:

Find out more about the Links of Noltland archaeological investigation:

Find out more about HES adaptations for Scotland’s historic places to the impacts of climate change: published by HES 8th October 2019.

Find out more about Climate Action Week 2021


Images of Flooding at Dundonald Castle 2019 by David Taylor

Images of dry cracked soil from Ayrshire May 2020 by Gwen Sinclair 

Lightening image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Dundonald Castle upper Hall by Jason Robertson

Slides taken from Talk by David Harkin:

Climate Change predictions

Climate Heritage 7 key areas

Links of Noltland arial view

Energy Saving and cash saving Edinburgh Castle 

Climate Heritage Network Global Launch Quote 

List of HES Sites 

Dundonald Temperatures