OFFICIALS looking after Scotland's most precious buildings and sites have been forced to scale back conservation work and actions to protect against the climate emergency because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Historic Environment Scotland, which manages world-famous sites including Edinburgh Castle, Skara Brae and Melrose Abbey, has been forced to revert its attention to ensuring buildings are safe – despite having drawn up a climate change strategy.

But the organisation has a host of climate actions that will be restarted once the pandemic allows work to be unpaused – including increasing the number of electric vehicle charging points at its sites and working in collaboration with the United Nations on projects placing cultural heritage as an import part of tackling the climate emergency.

Ewan Hyslop, Historic Environment Scotland’s lead climate change official, stressed that the organisation has been investigating how its buildings, monuments and sites are at risk from climate change for the last 10 years.

He said: “There’s been a lot of realisation and it’s become much more in our focus in terms of climate change.

“Just this year, things like the canal bursting its banks causing problems to public transport, one of the worst harvests and weather causing problems on rail and roads have been quite a wake-up call for everyone.”

Dr Hyslop warned that many of Scotland’s most historic buildings and sites are on the front line in the battle against the climate emergency.

“By its very nature, a lot of the historic environment and some of the monuments are in coastal locations – they can be vulnerable”, he said.

“Castles were not designed not to have roofs. For us, it’s all about getting ahead of the game and changing and evolving how we work.

“We have certainly seen in the last few decades, some quite dramatic changes in Scotland’s climate.”

In 2018, Historic Environment Scotland drew up risk assessments for all of its properties – looking at several criteria including ground stability, decay to buildings and erosion.

READ MORE: Heritage on the Edge: why Edinburgh Castle is in danger of crumbling

The study found that 28 had "very high levels of risk in one or more of the six hazards investigated".

Dr Hyslop said: “A global rise in sea levels means that eventually, coastal sites are particularly challenging.

“We can change the things we can change but not change the things that are precious and protect the key historic or significant elements of a site that we regard as sacrosanct. There’s always something we can do to improve energy efficiency or improve protection against weather impacts.”

He added: “We cannot stop sea level rise and we have coastal problems at certain sites but no sites are at imminent threat of loss.

“If we are going to lose things, and we are going to lose things, how can we make the best out of that situation? It’s about being pro-active and not being on the back foot by climate change and try to adapt.”

The Herald: Skara Brae in OrkneySkara Brae in Orkney

Historic Environment Scotland’s chief executive, Alex Paterson, has warned that “the change in the climate is accelerating the decay of many historic properties”, stressing that “ever more of our time goes into trying to mitigate that”.

But the coronavirus crisis has put the progress at risk, as Historic Environment Scotland battles with a £53 million deficit.

Dr Hyslop said: “We, like many others, have had to effectively lockdown and close our sites. We moved our normal conservation work onto basic core maintenance.

“Our normal maintenance primarily has been severely disrupted because of Covid. Our funding has been severely curtailed. Our conservation has been scaled back to basic priority needs such as health and safety issues and top priority sites.”

He added: “As a public body, we are working with government in transitioning to a low carbon economy.

“We are working with Transport Scotland on electric vehicle charging points to help improve that charging network. We had to pause that project but we will resume that when we can.”

But the organisation’s action plan to kickstart a recovery from the pandemic makes clear that “a key focus” will be a response to the climate emergency and “maximising carbon savings during any closure period”.

READ MORE: Historic Environment Scotland facing £53m funding gap amid warning over independent sector

Historic Environment Scotland’s long-term strategy for fighting back against the climate emergency has helped them reduce costs during the lockdown when purse strings have been tightened.

The organisation has reduced carbon emissions by 37 per cent across all its sites – and was able to recoup costs for improving energy efficiency at Edinburgh Castle within just five years with utility bills plummeting.

The lockdown has also changed the way the public has been able to interact with Scotland’s historic sites.

With Historic Environment Scotland unable to man all of its properties, a monument monitor tool has allowed visitors to interact with the heritage assets.

Meanwhile, laser scanning and 3D modelling of historic sites, used to monitor the structure of buildings, has also been a hit with visitors forced to physically stay away from historic monuments.

The Herald: 3D model on Edinburgh Castle produced by laser technology (Picture: HES)3D model on Edinburgh Castle produced by laser technology (Picture: HES)

Dr Hyslop said the technology allows officials to “periodically laser scan sites with millimetre-scale accuracy” and create interactive models that have proven popular with the public.

At Skara Brae in Orkney, Historic Environment Scotland has reinforced dunes to help protect the historic site from coastal erosion. But the organisation has also worked with UNESCO, which manages world heritage sites, to pilot a climate vulnerability index – while a climate and heritage network, established in Edinburgh, now has 200 members across the globe.

Dr Hyslop said the organisation is now planning a second meeting to tie in with the COP26 conference in Glasgow and is “engaging with the UN on various work streams”.

He added: “Communities are very attached to their heritage and it gives them a sense of resilience and longevity.

“If you understand your past, it helps you make sense of an uncertain future with climate change.”