A decade of research at the University of the Highlands and Islands

As the University of the Highlands and Islands celebrates its tenth birthday, we look back at ten key research projects our staff and students have been involved in over the years. From Neolithic textiles to marine microplastics, we hope this small selection of studies highlights the breadth and significance of research across our university partnership.

Bere barley

In autumn 2014, Bruichladdich Distillery and Isle of Arran Distillers each released a new single malt whisky made from bere, an ancient type of Scottish barley. The return of bere to whisky production was largely made possible by the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI which has been working with the crop, Orkney growers and commercial collaborators since 2002. Three more vintages of bere whisky have been released by Bruichladdich since 2014.

Dr Peter Martin, Director of the Agronomy Institute, explained: “We wanted to demonstrate that old crops can still be very valuable to today’s companies. The development of new markets for such crops allows farmers to earn an income from growing them and helps to ensure their on-farm survival. This is important for conserving them as a genetic and heritage resource and allows them to continue to adapt to changing conditions.”

Scottish land reform

Historic land issues have been one of the Centre for History’s key research areas since the centre was established by Professor Jim Hunter in 2005. The team’s research has shown that, from the late 18th century, land inequality has been one of the main causes of rural poverty and deprivation in the Scottish Highlands, leading to socially unjust emigration.

The work has been used to inform contemporary public policy debate on land reform and community buyout schemes. This has had an impact on levels of community ownership, on statutory oversight by the Scottish Land Commission and on extending community ‘right to buy’ to the whole of Scotland.

The research has fed directly into the Scottish-wide sense of land-access injustices and, as reported by the Land Reform Review Group, has helped shape the Scottish Government’s realisation that addressing land inequalities is “fundamental to the wellbeing, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country.”

The Phoenix

The Phoenix is the first ever large-scale aircraft powered by variable-buoyancy propulsion. Professor of Engineering, Andrew Rae, who is based at Perth College UHI Campus, led the design of the autonomous vehicle. He explained:

“The Phoenix spends half its time as a heavier-than-air aeroplane, the other as a lighter-than-air balloon. The repeated transition between these states provides the sole source of propulsion. This system allows the Phoenix to be completely self-sufficient.

“Vehicles based on this technology could be used as pseudo satellites and would provide a much cheaper option for telecommunication activities. Current equivalent aeroplanes are very complex and expensive. By contrast, Phoenix is almost expendable and so provides previously unavailable options.”

The prototype was flown successfully during indoor trials in 2019. The Phoenix team is exploring collaborations to take the technology to the next phase of development. The project was part-funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation Agency, through the Aerospace Technology Institute.

Linguistic fragility

Researchers from the university’s Language Sciences Institute and Soillse, a multi-institutional research collaboration, launched a new book in 2020. ‘The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A comprehensive sociolinguistic survey of Scottish Gaelic’ is the most comprehensive social survey on the state of Gaelic communities ever conducted.

The book presents research about Gaelic communities in the Western Isles, the Isle of Skye and Tiree. The authors’ main findings show that the language is in crisis and that, within remaining vernacular communities of Scotland, the social use and transmission of Gaelic is at the point of collapse.

The research has led to increased national awareness of linguistic, social and economic fragility in traditional Gaelic areas and to calls for new support and interventions.

Peatland research

Dr Roxane Andersen from the Environmental Research Institute at North Highland College UHI is a leading peatland researcher. In 2020 she was awarded a £986,000 Leverhulme Trust leadership award to undertake a new research programme into the peatlands of northern Scotland.

Dr Andersen will use the funding to develop a team of nine researchers who will explore how climate change could affect blanket bogs and to assess the effectiveness of restoration efforts. The team will use cutting-edge technologies and techniques, including satellite remote sensing, to investigate how we can protect and restore blanket bog areas.

Peatlands are renowned for their ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to promote biodiversity and to provide high quality water.

Water innovation

University of the Highlands and Islands researchers received £245,919 from the Scottish Government’s Hydro Nation scholars programme in 2020 to undertake two new projects to help improve the quality of water being released into the environment.

The first project will tackle the issue of clearing pharmaceutical drugs from hospital wastewater. These chemicals are difficult to remove from water treatment works so researchers will investigate whether new filters made from nanomaterials which adsorb and breakdown the chemicals, together with exposure to specialised light, can eliminate them before they leave hospital water systems. The project, led by the university’s Institute for Health Research and Innovation and North Highland College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute, will involve innovations developed by PolyCat UK and collaboration with NHS Highland.

The second project will investigate the effectiveness of reedbeds which are used to clean wastewater from the distilling process. Researchers from the Environmental Research Institute and Inverness College UHI’s Rivers and Lochs Institute will use ‘environmental DNA’ techniques to measure the diversity of the ecosystem in reedbeds and link this to water quality at Scottish distilleries. The project, run in collaboration with the Malt Distillers Association of Scotland, the Scotch Whisky Association and the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, aims to develop a toolkit to maximise reedbed performance.

The university is part of the One Health Breakthrough Partnership which saw Caithness General become the first hospital to receive an Alliance for Water Stewardship award and which has now received Scottish Government funding to co-ordinate a national initiative.

Liver cancer treatment

An innovation developed by Professor Jun Wei, an expert in genetics, has shown promising results in the treatment of liver cancer. Professor Wei devised a kit for screening blood bank stock for samples with high levels of a cancer-fighting antibody. Plasma with high levels of the antibody can be infused into patients to kill liver cancer cells.

Trials in China, which has more than half of the world’s population of liver cancer patients, showed that people who received the new therapy survive, on average, one year longer than those who have received conventional treatment. This represents a significant increase in the life expectancy of these patients, with the average survival period increasing from 20 months to 32 months.

The university signed an agreement to licence the technology to Qingdao Hailanshen Biotechnology, the company which supported the clinical trials, in 2019.

Harmful algal blooms

Scotland’s aquaculture industry, including finfish and shellfish production, contributes approximately £620 million a year to the Scottish economy, supports over 12,000 jobs and generates employment in remote rural areas. Research by the Scottish Association for Marine Science UHI has minimised the serious risks to the economic sustainability of the aquaculture industry and the health of consumers posed by harmful algal blooms and their related biotoxins.

Understanding the development of harmful algal blooms allows rapid reporting and forecasting. This enables shellfish producers and the regulatory body (Food Standards Scotland) to suspend harvesting or undertake tests to verify the safety of the product when harmful algal blooms occur. Since 2014, this work and expertise has underpinned the supply of almost 15 million Scottish shellfish portions to UK and international consumers without a single reported poisoning case. The work has also informed harmful algal bloom regulatory monitoring guidance across all EU member states.

Archaeological discoveries

In June 2020, archaeologists from the university’s Archaeology Institute found evidence of a 5000-year-old Neolithic textile in Orkney. The impression of the woven cloth was discovered on a fragment of pottery found at Ness of Brodgar.

Organic material from prehistory does not often survive unless in very specific oxygen-free conditions so the study of Neolithic textiles relies on secondary evidence. There is only one other piece of evidence suggesting the use of woven textiles in Neolithic Scotland – another clay imprint discovered in Dumfries and Galloway in 1966.

The team has made many other significant finds, including evidence of a Viking drinking hall on Rousay and 8000-year-old hazel nut shells, thought to be the remains of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer’s snack on Skye.

Marine microplastics

In 2017, scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science UHI found that around half of marine creatures living at depths of more than 2000 metres in the North Atlantic could be eating microplastic material.

Researchers sampled deep-sea starfish and sea snails from the Rockall Trough and found microscopic traces of plastic in 48 per cent of those sampled. The levels of plastic ingestion were comparable to those found in species living in shallower coastal waters.

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5 millimetres in size and, when ingested by sea creatures, may be passed up the food chain.

Although scientists previously found traces of microplastics in the deep sea, this research was the first time microplastic ingestion in deep-sea invertebrates has been quantified.

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