The Lost Township of Broo: Climate Change or Human Agency in a Coastal Sand Disaster?

As part of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Research series, all are welcome to join this seminar led by Gerry Bigelow. Through the history of the township of Broo in Shetland, which was overwhelmed by sand, the seminar looks as the causes, processes and consequences of geocatastrophe.

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Excavations of 17th century buildings at Broo Site II, Dunrossness, Shetland. Photo by Gerry Bigelow
Excavations of 17th century buildings at Broo Site II, Dunrossness, Shetland. Photo by Gerry Bigelow

In 1774 the Reverend George Low described a formerly prosperous township in southernmost Shetland as "an Arabian desert in miniature, here the clouds of sand flying as far as the eye can reach, there the crowds of travellers, scarce to be seen for the drifting sand, riding to church." 1 Sand from Quendale Beach had blown far inland by that time, overwhelming four farms and completely destroying the economic value of a township once owned by a governor of Shetland.


The Shetland Islands Climate and Settlement Project (SICSP) has been investigating the causes, processes and consequences of this geocatastrophe for over a decade. The coasts of Scotland and other parts of Europe offer many examples of archaeological sites and later monuments that have experienced comparable episodes of sand movements. Climate change has been proposed as a cause of these sometimes catastrophic events, but other factors may have played key roles as well.


This talk will discuss findings from the Broo research that contribute to understanding this multi-regional environmental and historical phenomenon. In addition, the presentation will outline some of the challenges and opportunities that are involved in archaeologies of extreme events and buried landscapes. The SICSP has been funded by the Division of Polar Programs, US National Science Foundation, Bates College, and the University of Southern Maine.


Gerry Bigelow is Associate Professor in History, Bates College, Maine, and Visiting Reader with UHI Archaeology Institute.

1 George Low 1879 (1774) A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland. Inverness: Melven Press, 185 .


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