He travelled the length and breadth of Scotland’s northernmost islands, fascinated by Orkney and Shetland’s history, landscape and wildlife, meticulously recording what he found and saw in his journal.

But even Rev. George Low was taken aback as he gazed upon the vast stretch of shifting sand that had crept over a mile inland from a Shetland beach, smothering farms and engulfing livelihoods.

The once small but prosperous township of Broo at the southern tip of mainland Shetland, he wrote, was now “an Arabian desert in miniature, here the clouds of sand flying as far as the eye can reach.”

It was 1774 – many years after sand had drifted so far inland from Quendale Beach that it had swamped the four farms and caused its desperate occupants to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

Yet still it continued to swirl, shrouding passing travellers so Rev. Low noted that they could barely be seen.

The farms and homes that made up the township of Broo, 2 kilometres from the beach, were eventually committed to rest beneath two metres of sand and soil. Unseen for generations, eventually even its name was largely forgotten with just grassy mounds left to hint that something might have been there long ago.

Now, however, the settlement that’s been described as ‘Shetland’s Pompeii’ is gradually giving up some of its secrets, and could even guide researchers to a new understanding of the impact climate and human and animal behaviour can have on fragile landscapes.

Later this month, an online seminar led by the US-based academic leading a major excavation of the Broo site,  Gerry Bigelow, will reflect on the township’s demise beneath tons of sand, and examine the causes, processes and consequences of such a geo catastrophe.

Among the theories to be explored is that an influx of rabbits, introduced to the island 100 years earlier, could have burrowed into the fragile sand dunes causing enough disruption to trigger a vast movement of sand.

That, along with wild storms battering the coastline during the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age, and the possibility of farm animals grazing on its fringes, may have combined to put the once thriving population of Broo in peril.

Although families  at Broo – unlike Pompeii, of course – would have had time to prepare for the loss of their homes and livelihoods, the scale of the shifting sands and the damage they inflicted was, says Bigelow, a disaster of its time.

“This was a very valuable property and sufficiently attractive for the man who was essentially governor of Shetland to buy it in the mid-1500s. It was valuable then and remained valuable until the sand started to encroach on the township from the beach.

“We don’t have historical records detailed enough to tell us who lived there but having four farmsteads full of people displaced would have had an impact on other parts of Shetland as they moved to join extended families.”

Sands engulfed the township at a period when the Shetland Islands were under economic stress due to changes in the herring trade with Holland, while shifting sands had also affected the Pool of Virkie on the east of the mainland which had been used as an anchorage for boats.

“We focus a lot on coastal erosion of shoreline, the place where tides rise and fall but this is a kind of geological process that affects areas far inland,” adds Mr Bigelow, Associate Professor in History, Bates College, Maine, and Visiting Reader with UHI Archaeology Institute.

“The farm we are excavating is covered with 2metres of sand but is 2km from the beach and there is a lot of sand behind it that was blown inland.

“It was a very large disaster, economically for humans and for nature.”

Excavation work at Broo has slowly revealed almost intact farm buildings with walls as much as two metres high, deserted as families packed their belongings and fled the encroaching sand. Relics left behind have shed light on the kinds of lives 17th century Shetland farm families led.

“We have found artefacts made from bone, metal, lots of glass, and imported pottery that gives an idea of what people were consuming, their economic activities and a sense of the world they were connected to.

“We have a good idea of what the end of the story was like,” he adds. “We know when the township was abandoned, and we know a lot about one of the farms. It looks like it either belonged to the landowners or they moved there after a farm closer to the sea was overwhelmed by sand.

“It gives us a view of how they were living, how they were responding to the loss of their lands but we do not know that much at this stage about the beginning of the process and origins of it.”

Geologists and climate change scientists are also examining the site in the hope of discovering what caused what’s thought to be a decade long sandstorm. Details of their findings will be discussed at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research seminar, The Lost Township of Broo.

“We have a way to go to understand whether big storms generated by climatic cooling episodes in  Little Ice Age were the source of these mass sand movements, or if the picture is more complex,” he adds. “It’s very likely that human use of the coastlines could have contributed potentially through using them for farming activities.

“There’s no question rabbits introduced to Shetland in the 1500s could make areas more vulnerable through burrowing but also grazing.”

A further two years of excavation work is expected. Broo could then become a heritage tourism site, offering visitors a chance to explore 17th century farm in the recovered buildings.

Meanwhile, unravelling the sand covered secrets of Broo could become a tool in understanding future implications of climate change.

“We are looking at what would have been a response to a cooling rather than warming climate, but learning more about how storms affect coastlines will be important into the future.

“As sea levels rise, these geological catastrophes could happen again.”

The Lost Township of Broo seminar is held on Friday, October 30. Details available from www.uhi.ac.uk