PhD Opportunity 'Drystane Dyking: Understanding Cultural Significance and Developing Skills in Scottish Island Communities'

Applications are invited for a fully funded collaborative PhD studentship at the Institute for Northern Studies, UHI in collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland (HES)

Using an ethnological approach, exploring the cultural significance of drystone construction in Shetland and Orkney. Framing traditional crafts as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), it explores how skills training can be provided to promote sustainable development in rural contexts. The research examines how UNESCO’s 2018 inscription of drystone walling as ICH impacts on its international perception. The PhD assesses how islanders can be better supported to create opportunities in drystone walling for creativity, training, and tourism.

The researcher will use ethnological/anthropological approaches to understand the ecosystem of drystone craft in the present day – its uptake, support, and significance within Scotland’s historic environment. Areas of interest include Garth’s Croft, Bressay, or the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival. Understanding significance and vulnerability will be core concerns of this element of the research. The researcher will draw upon methodologies used by HES to support community participation and decision-making – notably the principles of the recently-trialled Climate Vulnerability Index and a social value toolkit created by another collaborative PhD – and apply these in a novel setting. The PhD is concerned with the following research questions regarding traditional skills as culture?

  • Which communities are concerned with this tradition?
  • What changes have there been in the way this knowledge is transmitted?
  • What social functions/ cultural meanings does it have and for whom?
  • How has the UNESCO “branding” impacted on the perception of its value?
  • What training is on offer and how can this be improved?
  • What tourist/creative/summer school opportunities can be linked with developing dry-stone skills?
  • What examples are there of best practice from elsewhere?

Following the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the meaning, nature and value of ICH has been debated across a range of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, folklore, ethnology, museum and heritage studies. Although there are numerous publications on crafts as ICH, many such publications focus on crafts in China rather than in Europe. While not using the ICH terminology, academia in Scotland has an established tradition of this research context. Specific research has been conducted by on dry-stone dyking in the UK by Farrar (2006) and Paterson (2015). Both studies predate the UNESCO branding of the craft as on the Representative List of ICH. The academic originality of this PhD lies in the framing of this skill as culture in the wider ICH context, as well as its focus on process rather than output.

Having conducted a literature review (to include UNESCO documents and international legislation with a bearing on crafts), the student will be encouraged to enrol on a dry-stone walling course such as those offered by Shetland Amenity Trust, engaging in participant observation. Fieldwork will involve photographs, maps, field drawings, and interviews with professional and amateur dry-stone wallers. The student will contact crofters, lairds, rural enterprise organisations, regional and government bodies, such as the West of Scotland Dry Stone Walling Association or the Shetland Museum and Archives, and liaise with artists, photographers and other creatives who feature stone walls in their outputs. The student will be encouraged to identify one or two international case-studies for comparative fieldwork. While interviews may be conducted via Zoom, we anticipate that the student will conduct one field trip to an international field site.

Academic presentations and publications from the PhD will contribute to the growing academic sub-field of ICH and will contribute to academic considerations of traditional craft as culture. This PhD builds on Mapping ICH in Scotland (2021), a collaborative report profiling ICH in Scotland and feed directly into national-level conversations on how ICH can be safeguarded better and help shape delivery of the Skills Investment Plan (SIP) for the historic environment sector. The PhD findings will contribute significantly to improving support for traditional skills practitioners in Scotland. While the UK remains outside the framework of the UNESCO’s 2003 Convention, this research will make a key contribution to knowledge and help direct government support, at both Scottish and UK levels, of efforts by NDPBs to safeguard heritage.

The project supports HES in better integrating consideration of ICH into its support for tangible culture. Support for traditional skills currently occurs mainly in vocational settings, complimented by the work of industry bodies (such as the Construction Industry Training Board) and HES. The SIP for the historic environment sector attempts to place such training provision within a more strategic context, and to match supply of skills with current and likely future demand. However, traditional skills are only one element of the SIP and – in line with the focus of national strategy to date – ICH has not been a prominent concern of this collective activity.

Working with HES staff at the Engine Shed in Stirling, and with the HES Survey and Recording Team in Edinburgh, the student will have opportunities to shape HES’s outreach, learning and education activities. They will have opportunities to plan/run an exhibition based on their research which may include photographs and artwork. They will have opportunities to update or add new records to the national record of the historic environment. The research will gain further impact through helping HES to shape community engagement as well as national-level conversations around how public bodies in Scotland can best work together to promote and safeguard ICH in Scotland. By better understanding the cultural dimensions of traditional skills in Scotland we will be able to deliver against the National Performance Framework, which interprets and makes the UN SDGs, especially the outcomes around culture and communities, relevant to Scotland. Thus recognising traditional skills and materials as cultural expressions will ensure their wider appreciation as central to a sustainable, low carbon future for construction and maintenance.

Applicants should submit a CV plus a (maximum) 2-page letter outlining why they are interested in this project. Please submit to  by 5pm BST, Wednesday 18th May 2022.

Interviews are scheduled for Tuesday 24th May 2022 by videoconference.

Funding Notes

Funded through the AHRC/CDA scheme
- Annual tuition fees – Home (UK) rate. Candidates who do not qualify for Home (UK) fees may need to meet the difference between Home (UK) and International fee rates annually - this will be discussed at interview
- Annual stipend c. £16,000 per annum (full-time)
- Annual fieldwork travel bursary of £1,000 from HES
- Option of part-time study, with a minimum of 50% of full-time effort
Applicants would normally have:
- First/upper second-class hons degree in a relevant discipline
- Postgraduate Masters in a relevant discipline and/or equivalent, relevant professional experience
- Fluency in a language other than English desirable