Climate Change and Uist: Ceòlas symposium 2019

26th July 2019

South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist may be the first Scottish communities to suffer from the affects of climate change and rising sea-levels. That was the stark message of Prof Stewart Angus’ second talk at the 2019 Ceòlas community symposium, which took place between the 21st and 23rd of July, titled ‘Eadar an Làn, an Lige agus an Locha’.

A series of lectures and guided walks examined Uist’s relationship with water, from the elaborate canal system possibly dating to the 18th century to the inland fisheries and the threat of storm surges to the low-lying machair on the west.

According to the research of Prof Stewart Angus, Policy & Advice Manager with SNH, the communities most vulnerable to the affects of climate change in Scotland are Uist, Tiree, Islay and Sanday in Orkney. Uist’s situation on the rim of the North Atlantic, along with its soft coastline, low-lying plains and lochs, leaves it exposed to powerful storms. Currently shielded by forests of kelp, which help to sap the strength of the Atlantic rollers, it is thought that storm surges and further sea-level rise will render this natural defence more ineffective as the wave action rises above the kelp’s reach.

South Uist has been drained through a canal system, known as the ‘lìgidhean’, for many generations. The under-researched system is highly complex, spanning the length of the island and into Benbecula, and oral tradition tells us that sections were built in the 18th century by Dutch engineers. Due to sea-level rise, amongst other factors, the drains’ effectiveness is reduced as there is less time at low tide to expel water. A powerful storm, accompanied by a surge and large rainfall, will cause major flooding and result in considerable damage to coastal areas.

In some areas, the machair dunes which provide a regenerative buffer for the low-lying inland croft land are growing precariously thin at certain areas. The machair at Cille Pheadair is in danger of inundation by the sea if the dunes breach on the west side during a storm. Much of the inland machair lies below the high-water spring tide and large areas of croft-land may be reclaimed by the ocean. It is thought that this could happen within the next century.

In addition to these grave predictions, more light-hearted topics were explored during the symposium, including poaching, gutting fish, smoking mussels and the high regard held of women within the Gaelic world. Two walks looked at the ‘ligeadh’ at Loch Druidibeag and the route which the salmon take on their way to their spawning areas later in the year.

Eric Twelves smoking mussels

The symposium was opened with a mass in Ardkenneth Church and concluded with a service in Howmore Church. The piping recital, showcasing the high skill of local pipers, was headlined by Dr Angus MacDonald, who always has an insightful approach to playing for a Gaelic audience. A highlight was his performance of a tune called ‘Finlay MacKenzie’ in the old Uist style of dance-piping. The final cèilidh, hosted by Mòrag MacDonald, the presenter of the popular ‘A’ Mire ri Mòir’ programme on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, was an excellent evening of Uist musicians.

Dr Angus MacDonald giving a great performance of Gaelic music

Ceòlas would like to thank those who attended the talks and concerts, those who gave demonstrations or talks, and our funders, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, Creative Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Murchadh MacRury pointing out the start of Rathad a’ Bhradain