CILLE BHREA CHAPEL
Cille Bhrea at Lemlair, on the north shore of the Cromarty Firth was chosen on the grounds that it provided an excellent example of coastal erosion directly effecting a medieval archaeological monument. Recent excavations at the site were focused on removing skeletal material from an eroding cliff, exposed as the shoreline continues to recede.
Cille Bhrea was reputedly founded in 1198. The church was first excavated in 1966 and the unpublished results revealed a rectangular building with walls less than 1 metre in height; a stone font; a possible communion table and grave slabs. Numerous burials were also recorded. After 1966, a revetment wall was built at the base of the cliff in an attempt to slow down the rate of erosion, but this was subsequently lost. The site was afforded Scheduled Monument Protection in 1979. Further work was undertaken by Highland Regional archaeologist Robert Gourlay in 1983. His sketch of the site denotes that 15m in length of the 6m high cliff was actively eroding, with six burials exposed in the cliff section. Based on the findings of the Damage Assessment Report undertaken by Wordsworth in 1997, which noted the exposure of human skeletal remains in the cliff section and scattered on the foreshore, further remedial work was undertaken in 1998, which aimed to place coconut fibre matting on the upper part of the cliff scarp to encourage vegetation growth and help to stabilise the section.
The results of the excavation recovered valuable information on the density and nature of the burials within the graveyard and chapel. In particular the presence of deep, complex archaeological deposits beneath the chapel suggest an extended use of the site. The archaeological deposits were found to be shallow within the exposed cliff section (circa 0.9m) resting on unconsolidated marine sands and gravel.
Assessment of the site and its environs show that the stretch of coastline is affected by predominantly south-easterly winds and high spring tide surges. The site is therefore affected most adversely when these factors occur simultaneously, leading to erosion in what would be considered a relatively sheltered location. Prior to the recent excavation, the unconsolidated nature of the exposed cliff was estimated to be retreating at about 1m every 10 years. The archaeological and remedial work aims to reduce the loss of skeletal material from the cliff section for the next 20 years. However, unless the cliff is better protected by effective measures to reduce wave-hammer action and cliff under-cutting, are carried out, erosion will continue to affect the site. The case study demonstrates that the soft character of the underlying geology is a causative factor in coastal erosion at this site. It can be concluded that erosion has been active over a long period of time and since the remedial works were implemented skeletal remains have been found eroding out of the cliff section and lying on the beach below the site.