An insight into Archaeoacoustics

Nick Green, sector manager for audio engineering and theatre arts at Perth College UHI, recently attended the Third International Archaeoacoustics Conference in Portugal. Nick provides an insight into the emerging discipline of archaeoacoustics and discusses his experience at the event.

The field of Archaeoacoustics

Archaeoacoustics is a multidisciplinary practice requiring the knowledge of anthropologists and archaeologists, architects, acousticians, audio engineers and sound designers, historians and musicologists. As a sound designer and audio engineer, I came to archaeoacoustics through acoustic ecology (the study of the relationship between human beings and their environment, mediated through sound) and through conversations with archaeologists.

Anthropologist Dr Ezra Zubrow states in ‘Archaeoacosutics; The Archaeology of Sound’: “Indeed, many of its practitioners do not even realize that it is a field, albeit a very immature field. Nor do they think of themselves as archaeoacousticians. Rather they consider themselves to be sound engineers, architects, musical historians, ethnomusicologits and practicing musicians to name a few.”

My research is primarily concerned with the recording, analysis and archiving of impulse responses recorded in heritage and archaeological sites. Generally this requires man made or naturally occurring spaces used by our ancestors, such as caves.

Field recording in Court Cave Wemyss Bay
Nick Green recording in Court Cave at Wemyss Bay

An impulse response is the introduction of a relatively short broadband sound such as a controlled explosion. They can be generated successfully by bursting a balloon, firing a starter’s pistol or amplifying a short burst of random noise (white noise) through a loudspeaker system and recording the results.

Author of ‘Digital Signal Processing: An Introduction’ Tae Hong Park describes an impulse response as “agitating a system”. In this case the agitation is the introduction of the impulse, the short broadband sound; the system is the acoustic space, a room, a hall, a cave or even within the standing stones of an ancient Neolithic stone circle.

Once the recorded files are digitally processed and edited, they can be played back in a digital audio workstation and used to recreate the reverberation characteristics of the space in which they were recorded.

The field of achcaeoacoustics spawned from considerations around how and why our ancestors may have used spaces for their reverberant and resonant qualities. Sound designers and musicologists may imagine the soundscape of our ancestors and create compositions inspired by these spaces and places.

Excavation at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

A current and very exciting archaeological dig taking place at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, is further expanding the number of Neolithic sites on the island archipelago. The site has given up evidence that it may have been a ritualistic site which was sometimes used for the mass slaughter and feasting on of large numbers of cattle. To a sound designer this paints an audio image that would be worthy of composition. There are so many potential angles to archaeoacoustics; it is the acoustic analysis of archaeology. Archaeoacoustics can give a ‘voice’ or soundtrack to our past.

To quote Kate Douglas of the New Scientist Magazine: “How do you listen to the past? Obviously there are no recordings from ancient times, so you need to think laterally. Luckily, the nascent field of archaeoacoustics is not short of creative thinkers… Not just that, they can create an acoustic fingerprint of a cave using a “sine sweep” – effectively recording the response of the space to a series of scans emitting a rainbow of all audible frequencies.”

The Third International Archaeoacoustics Conference

Nick Green at Tomar, Portugal

Having recently returned from the Third International Archaeoacoustics conference and paper presentation in Tomar, Portugal, I believe the field of archaeoacoustics is in rude health, but never so more scrutinised by its practitioners from within. Having begun so enthusiastically, it has now reached a stage of critical self-reflection, with many of its practitioners questioning the direction and way forward for this relatively new field of research. Indeed, the next logical progression would seem to be the formation of an International Society – the International Society for Archaeoacoustic Research?

I have decided as a field impulse response recordist that a study of field recording methodologies and techniques in archaeoacoustic research need to be explored further. There are enough researchers in the field across the globe engaged in audio field recording in heritage sites to justify a study to discover a mean approach which may lead to a standardised methodology. However, with exponential advances in digital technology, this needs approached with caution although risks and experimentation need to be made room for and encouraged. However digital technologies can help bring our archaeology and our imaginations alive, to paraphrase Dragos Gheorhiu; ‘digital and virtual reality technologies are the new shamanism – it can transport us’.

Nick Green with Prof Chris Scarre

The conference itself was a truly amazing experience. It included field trips and presentations by in the field archaeologists, museum curators and academics. We were also treated to a surprise visit by Professor Chris Scarre, co-editor of the first archaeoacoustics conference proceedings at Cambridge University in 2003, who coined the term ‘archaeoacoustics’. There was art inspired by culture, heritage and sound design and performances both impromptu and organised.

The programme of speakers featured long established researchers in the field and many new and younger researchers. The youngest presenter was Keith Harvey (22), a first class Honours graduate of Perth College UHI. I was delighted to see how encouraging the established voices in archaeoacoustics were and nurturing in their advice and help towards Keith and others. It bodes well for the future.

Archaeoacoustics in Scotland

The Scots were well represented at the event with myself, Keith Harvey and PhD archaeologist Michelle Walker all representing the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Keith spoke about his project which examined the acoustic properties from most of the cathedrals on mainland UK – an extensive undertaking. Michelle presented her PhD study on audio phenomena in Sculptors Cave on the Moray Firth. The cave was used by our Bronze Age and Pictish ancestors, with Bronze Age people using it as a burial site.

Carving at Maeshowe, Orkney

Our presentations inspired many of the delegates we spoke to express an interest for the next international archaeoacoustics conference to be held in Scotland. We certainly have a wealth of sites to explore. Professor Jane Downes from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has suggested the conference could be hosted in Orkney where visits to the archaeological sites of Brodgar, Maes Howe, Skara Brae and the Tomb of the Eagles could be arranged.

As part of my own work, I have conducted recordings at Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven, St. Andrews Castle and the Sacristy of Arbroath Abbey, a space well known for its impressive reverb.

On the topic of reservation, it’s interesting to note that the longest reverb time ever recorded (as evidenced by Guinness World Records) happens to be at a de-commissioned WWII fuel dump built into the side of a Scottish mountain in the Highlands. This does not mean it is the longest reverb time, it’s just that Trevor Cox of Salford University happened to record it using a starter’s pistol firing as the impulse response. It is a staggering one minute and twelve seconds in length, the average living room is less than a second! The previous world record was also measured in a space in Scotland at Hamilton Mausoleum.

It’s great to see the field of archaeoacoustics continuing to develop and that Scotland, with a range of acoustically interesting sites and an ever growing number of practitioners, can consider itself to be an important part of this evolving discipline.

Nick Green, Sector Manager for Audio Engineering and Theatre Arts, Perth College UHI, University of the Highlands and Islands



Troubled waters? Could pink salmon pose a risk to Scotland’s native salmon?

Following the discovery of non-native humpback salmon in the River Ness and in other rivers on Scotland’s east coast, Professor Eric Verspoor, Director of the Rivers and Loch Institute, explains how the species came to Scotland and highlights implications for Scotland’s native salmon populations.

The River Ness

The “humpback” salmon being caught in some of Scotland’s east coast rivers in the last few days are probably what are more commonly known as pink salmon and scientifically referred to as Oncorhynchus gorbuscha. They are most likely strayers from naturalised populations in the Russian Kola Peninsula and White Sea regions to the north of Scotland. These populations established from the stocking of millions of eggs from Pacific Ocean rivers in eastern Russia in the mid-1950s. They may also come from rivers in adjacent northern Norway where small populations have become established by natural straying. The species is native to rivers on both sides of the Pacific Ocean in temperate and sub-arctic areas and has also been found to stray into adjacent parts of the arctic. The species has also been introduced into the Great Lakes of North America where a number of self-sustaining populations have been established and now flourish. However, that they are pink salmon needs to be confirmed and this is something we are currently looking at using DNA analysis.


If it is confirmed, this suggests that the species, like some other salmonid species (e.g. brown and rainbow trout) has the ability to adapt successfully to new environments when transplanted outside its native range and to expand to adjacent areas. It clearly has a solid foothold in the Kola-White Sea region of Russia where it has historically sustained a small local fishery. Thus the presence of multiple individuals in Scottish rivers gives rise to the concern that these strayers may eventually be able to establish self-sustaining populations in Scotland as well.

What the implications might be for the native Atlantic salmon is far from clear as the two species are not naturally found together, but exotic species seldom establish themselves without some impact on local species and biodiversity. It might be argued by some that another salmon species might be desirable in Scotland’s rivers. However, the potential for negative impacts on native species and the fact that they are the least desirable of the Pacific salmon from an angling and commercial fishery perspective suggests there are unlikely to be any positives from their doing so.

The fact that they are running up Scottish rivers is worrying as that suggests a spawning intention – the species normally spawns from July to October across its native range. Furthermore, the numbers of pink salmon caught in UK rivers appears to be on the increase over the last decade. What would be interesting to know is whether the fish caught encompass males and females, and whether they are reproductively mature or not. It is a situation which should be closely monitored in respect of the threat it poses to Scotland’s native salmon, given the latter’s great socio-economic value and biological uniqueness.

Professor Eric Verspoor

Director of the Rivers and Lochs Institute at Inverness College UHI

University of the Highlands and Islands


Scotland’s Salmon Festival 2017 takes place from Tuesday 29 August to Saturday 2 September. Organised by Inverness College UHI with support from a range of partner organisations, the event includes lectures, workshops, casting tournaments and a family fair. For more information visit

Unheard Voices, Unseen Communities: Perspectives on Polish ethnicity in Scotland

The ‘Unheard Voices, Unseen Communities: Perspectives on Polish Ethnicity in Scotland’ workshop was held in Inverness on Friday 23 June 2017. Organised by the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for History, the event brought together politicians, academics, social workers and community activists to discuss issues affecting Polish communities in Scotland. Dr David Worthington, Head of the Centre for History, reflects on the workshop: 

Dr David Worthington

When a participant in an academic event describes having had an “amazing time” and it having been “one of the most interesting days in my life”, it highlights the potential of our universities to have a positive influence on the world beyond the walls of the offices or lecture rooms where we spend much of our working lives.

The ‘Unheard Voices, Unseen Communities: Perspectives on Polish Ethnicity in Scotland’ workshop took place one year to the day after the UK referendum on Brexit. It aimed to encourage frank, critical, open discussion about the impact of that vote on Poles and other EU citizens here, as well as broader reflection on the past, present and future of ‘Polishness’ across Scotland. It sought to position these debates, for the first time, within the Highlands and Islands.

Researchers, community activists and politicians (including two MSPs and the Polish Consul-General to Scotland, Dariusz Adler) presented on the already-visible effects of the 2016 referendum, on historical convergences and divergences between Scotland and Poland, and on other pertinent, pressing themes and issues such as language and mental health.

Photo courtesy of Marcin Kufka

Several of the thirty-three speakers and non-speaking attendees provided insightful critical evaluations of the event. Maree Todd MSP, co-convenor of the Cross Party Group on Poland at the Scottish Parliament, who presented in Panel One, wrote:

“It was quite an emotional day – particularly when we were hearing from people whose families had fought with the UK in the second world war and stayed here afterwards. They have faced many challenges over the decades – not least being separated from family by the iron curtain – and now face uncertain times again because of Brexit. There was plenty for me to empathise with.

“As a typical Highlander, my family has plenty of stories of migration and feeling worried about using Gaelic outside the home! It was particularly lovely to be able to go along to an event like this at a University in the Highlands – a University which might never have come into existence without EU membership.”

Krystyna Szumelukowa, a former town planner with considerable experience of working on projects related to the UK’s links with Poland, “took great encouragement from the positive actions being taken to confront the challenges facing the Polish community in Scotland.” Jenny Robertson, author and poet, considered that “at this time of huge indecision” the workshop “brought both realism and encouragement.” For Antony Kozłowski, a leading figure in the Polish community in Scotland, it was “an uplifting and inspiring event.”

Other topics discussed at the one-day conference included the portrayal of Poles in TV dramas, suicide and use of English among Poles in Scotland, while one afternoon panel focused on current research and potential heritage possibilities relating to Scots who migrated to Poland in earlier centuries.

On balance, most agreed that there is scope to build on this foundation, to bring the same group together again, to seek to do something much larger, and/or to look at other cases in addition to the Polish one with the aim of influencing public and curatorial policy. One speaker considered it a “credit to the University of the Highlands and Islands to be at the forefront of debate and research” on the themes in question. With Brexit already having a psychological impact on Scotland’s EU migrant communities, the macro-political situation looks likely to frame and influence this future activity.

I am very grateful to our society, identity, landscape and knowledge and our humanities and arts research clusters for providing financial support for what was an important and timely event.

Dr David Worthington

Gillean Chullaig – Tachartasan cullaig tradiseanta an Uibhist

Tha Oifigear Gàidhlig Oilthigh na Gàidhealtachd agus nan Eilean, DJ Mac an t-Saoir, a toirt tuairisgeul air na bha e òg agus a gabhail pàirt ann tachartas traidiseanta Chullaig ann an Uibhist a Deas.  

“Tha cuimhne agam fhathast am t-uisge a cur na sùilean asam agus a ghaoth fhuar a fàgail mu chluasan goirt. Ge-ta cha robh sin a cur dragh orm. Carson? Uill se seo oidhche Chullaig no oidhche Challain agus bha ballaich a bhaile gu traidiseanta a dol bho taigh gu taigh air an oidhche sònraichte seo. Dè a tha air cùlaibh seo? Tha gu leòr a gràdh gu tàinig seo bho na Lochlannaich a bha co dhiù sna h-eileanan siar sna linntean a dh`fhalbh. Bha mise coma co dhiù agus mi air mu dhòigh.

dj-macintyreSeo rud a tha air a bhi tachairt an Uibhist agus gu leòr àiteachan eile tro na linntean. Bha atharraichean ann bho sgìre gu sgìre. Air oidhche Chullaig s e na ballaich a mhàin a bha dol a mach sna bailtean. Bitheadh cead aca a dhol a mach còmhla ris na ballaich nas motha bho aois 5 bliadhna, bha na ballaich a bu shìne suas gu 17 a dh`aois.

Bha na ballaich a tachairt aig aon cheann do bhaile agus a dol bho taigh gu taigh. Bhitheadh ceas cluasag no poca aig gach fear agus bha sin gu lìonadh le rudan bho taigh gu taigh. Na bha na balaich a dol bho taigh gu taigh bha iad ag èibheach,” Air Chullaig agus air Challaig Hooray”. Chluinneadh muinntir a bhaile seo co dhiù air oidhche ciùin.

As dèidh a dhol suas gu doras taighe bha aig balach duan na callain a ghabhail. Aig deireadh na duan bha na Gillean Cullaig a faighneachd airson feuchadh a dhol a bhroinn a taighe. Bha cleachdadh ann an uairsin a bhi cur coinneal laiste mun cuairt a h-uile daoine a bha fuireach sa taigh agus bha aca a chhoinneal laiste a chur mun cuairt a cinn tri tursan. S e am balach a bu shinne a bha cur na coinneal mun cuairt. Bha eagal air daoine na bha iad leis a seo gu tigeadh a chhoinneal as oir bha iad a creidsinn gu bitheadh bliadhna droch-fhortan aca. Bitheadh fir nas sinne le fella-dha agus a feuchainn a chhoinneal a chur as!

Whisky tasting by the fire

Nuair a bha a chhoinneal air a dhol mun cuairt bha bean an taighe an uairsin a dol mun cuairt agus a cur lofa, siùcar, measan, briosgaidean agus suiteas sna pocanan. Uairean bheireadh iad seachad feòil mairt no iasg. Gu math tric bha fear an taighe a toirt seachad airgead agus fir nas sinne san dachaidh cuideachd a toirt seachad not no dha. Bha seann bhodaich a tabhann drama bheag do na balaich bu mhotha ach bha sinn a diùltadh sin!

Na bha na Gillean Cullaig a fàgail, chuireadh am balach a bu shinne beannachadh air teaghlach a taighe airson deagh bhliadhna ùr.

Bha a dol bho taigh gu taigh a ciallachadh gu robh na pocanan gu math làn agus na ruigeadh sinn a taigh mu dheireadh sann a sin a bha sinn a riarachadh na bha againn sna pocanan. Bha na balaich air fad a faighinn riarachadh co-ionnan. Cha robh e gu diofar dè an aois a bha thu. Chuireadh a neach-aoigheachd partaidh air dòigh agus bha seo a dol suas gu meadhan oidhche ach bha aig na Gillean a bhi as an dachaidh fhèin ron uair sin.

Air an rathad dhachaidh cha robh an dìle bhàite no fuachd a cur dragh sam bith orm agus mu phoca làn, mu bhrù làn agus airgead na phòcaid.”

Ceanglaichean ri seachadas nan Lochlannach

Orkney September 2015 photoshoot

Bha an t-Oll Ragnhild Ljosland, òraidiche aig an Ionad airson Rannsachadh Lochlannach an Arcaibh, ag ràdh gu robh ceangal ann eadar na Gillean Cullaig agus an cultar Lochlannach. Mhìnich i:

‘Na bha mi òg ann an Nirribhidh sna h-ochdadan, tha cuimhne agam a bhith gam sgeadachadh fhìn airson “gå julebukk” (go Yule-goating).

‘An àm a bhith ri julebukk bha agad ri aodann-fuadain a chur ort agus dol gu dorsan dhaoine airson an Nollaig a ruagadh a-mach aig àm na Bliadhna Ùire. Bhitheadh agad ri seinn agus poca agad airson cèiceannan agus suiteas. An gàirdeachas às dèidh poca làn rudan matha fhaighinn!

‘Ma thig sinn air ais na linntean, bhiodh daoine ann an Nirribhidh a’ dol mun cuairt nan tuathanasan sa pharaiste agus iad sgeadaichte airson agus nach aithnicheadh duine sam bith iad. Bhiodh iad sgeadaichte ann an dòigh a bha eagalach agus a bha a’ riochdachadh beathaichean fantasach, mar cheann boc-gobhair air maide. Bhiodh biadh agus deoch air an tairgsinn do na gìsearan aig gach tuathanas.

uphelly‘Tha na cur-seachadan seo anabarrach aosta, a’ dol air ais gu creideamhan ro-Chrìosdail. A rèir beul-aithris bha bithean os-nàdarra na bu bheothaile aig an àm seo sa bhliadhna. Rud as inntinneach, tha cur-seachadan coltach ri seo air sgeul ann an Innis Tile, Eileanan Faro, Sealtainn agus Arcaibh. Mar eisimpleir ann an Sealtainn bidh gìsearan a’ siubhal mun cuairt agus biadh agus deoch air an tairgsinn dhaibh aig àm Up Helly Aa san Fhaoilleach.’

The Hogmanay Boys – Hogmanay traditions in the Uists

University of the Highlands and Islands Gaelic Officer, DJ MacIntyre, describes taking part in a Hogmanay tradition as a child on the island of South Uist.

“I remember to this day the feeling of freezing rain blinding me and the extreme cold wind causing my ears to hurt. However, that did not bother me at this time. What was the occasion? Well, this was Hogmanay and the boys of the township were carrying out the traditional ritual of going from house to house on this special evening. What is the tradition behind it? It is widely thought that some of these island traditions came from the Vikings who were settlers in the Western Isles in particular, during past times. To be honest, that did not matter to me. I was out and about having fun.

This traditional event which happened in the Uists throughout the centuries, was also practised in many other places, but with differences in format depending on where you lived.

On these nights it was the young males that went round the township with permission given to boys as young as 5 to go out with the big boys. The upper age limit was normally 17.

dj-macintyreMy township was North Boisdale and I would say there were about 25 houses to visit and a few not so friendly dogs to dodge! The start time was 7pm and all the boys would meet up at one end of the township and begin to visit each house on route. Each person had a pillow case or bag that would be filled with goodies received from householders. As you walked between each house the boys would shout in Gaelic “Hogmanay and New Year Hooray”. This alerted the folk, especially on a clear calm night, that the Hogmanay boys were on their way.

Outside each house one person would recite the Hogmanay poem and at the end of the poem ask the man of the house for permission to enter. Once inside the house a candle would be lit by the senior/eldest boy in the group and then the candle would be passed round all family members starting with the householder. There was superstition involved with this as it was thought that when the candle was being circled above each individual’s head, if the candle was to go out it meant that individual would have a year of bad luck. Of course jokers within the family would try and blow the candle out when this was taking place!

Whisky tasting by the fireOnce every member of the family had been passed the candle, the mother of the house would bring out the gifts. Loafs of bread, sugar, fruit, biscuits and of course sweets. Sometimes folk would offer meat or fish. The man of the house would give money as would older males in the family. Older men in the township would offer a dram to the senior boys, which would of course be refused.

On leaving each house the oldest boy in the group would wish luck on the family for the coming year.

After being to each house the pillowcases would be full and heavy and it was at the last house that the fun began. The pillowcases would be emptied and the goods shared out evenly. It did not matter how old you were the boys all got their share. The hosting house would also provide a small party that would finish before midnight so all the boys were home before the bells.

On the way home the blinding rain or freezing conditions did not bother me as I now had a pillowcase full of goodies, a full belly, and money in my pocket. A great start to the New Year!”

Links with Norse tradition

Orkney September 2015 photoshootDr Ragnhild Ljosland, a lecturer at Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney, confirms the Hogmanay Boys tradition has connections to Norse culture. She explains:

“As a child in Norway in the 1980s, I remember dressing up to “gå julebukk” (go Yule-goating). Julebukk involves putting on a mask and going to people’s doors to chase Christmas out around New Year. You sing and carry a sack to collect cakes and sweeties – ah, the joy of ending up with a huge sack of goodies!

“If we go a couple of hundred years further back in time, Norwegian people used to walk in a group around the farms in the parish, dressed up so that nobody would recognise them. These costumes could be rather frightening and represent fantastical animals, such as an effigy of a billygoat’s head on a stick. The guisers would be offered food and drink at each farm.

uphelly“These customs are extremely old, going back to pre-Christian beliefs. Folk belief had it that supernatural beings were extra active at this time of year. Interestingly, similar traditions are also found in Iceland, the Faroes, Shetland and Orkney. In Shetland today, for example, guisers travel around and are offered food and drink at Up Helly Aa in January.”

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” – Experiences of an engineering intern in New York

BSc (Hons) Architectural Technology graduate Rory Macfarlane from Dundee travelled to New York to take up an internship as an engineering assistant with Turner Construction in February. Here, he provides an update on his progress and experiences:

My project is in full swing and has been for a couple of years, it is called the NYU Langone Kimmel Pavilion Project and it’s part of New York University’s massive hospital network in New York. It’s a very complex and technologically advanced hospital with all the latest state-of-the-art steel frame construction, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems and will be one of, if not, the best hospitals for operations once complete and with a specialist paediatrics unit.

Kimmel Langone! Cutain wall installation underway

The hospital is going to be the sort of place where presidents, film stars, diplomats and their children go for treatment. Mock-ups of the patient rooms and reception area are being built on the floor of another building a few blocks away they have been renting for the last three to four years. The total cost for the project is expected to reach approx. $ 800 million!!

Very interesting, but also crazy, how time-consuming the process with unions, design issues and delays etc is. I am basically working as a change order engineer dealing with sorting out whether or not changes requested by the design team, subcontractors or Turner can be facilitated, coordinated and, most of all, who’s going to pay for the change. I then put together packages with letters, drawing backup with mark-ups, subs proposals and other info to request the money whether it be in the GMP or outside and request these funds from NYU.

Inspecting patient headwalls

I am learning a lot about how to actually get these types of buildings built and that alone is worth the trip. It’s very interesting a lot of the time and Turner also encourages you to take up training courses. I will be taking a course in Building Information Modelling training up to Level 5/6 as it is being used on my project and they are expanding into the design and build side of construction so it is an area an employee can get into. I am also learning about LEAN for four days as there is a big push within the company to streamline and reduce waste in all facets of the construction phases.

On the roof with the Empire State building in the background

My degree was an excellent opportunity for me to enter the field of architecture and pursue my dream career. From the offset the course engaged me and the rest of the students in my year in a fast paced and well-structured learning curve with excellent lecturers and tutors. Their goal is to prepare you with all the tools and all the passion necessary to fulfil your potential in the construction industry.

The unique opportunity to come and work in New York has been a dream come true and one that I could only have achieved with the help of both my lecturers at my local campus, Inverness College UHI, and the university itself. I doubt there is any other Scottish university that offers this chance of a lifetime. The classes, projects and technical facilities available are all geared towards you hitting the ground running in your new job and the training I received allowed me to come to work in the most highly pressurised construction environment on the planet and be well prepared for the job. As the say in New York, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”!

For more information about our Architectural Technology BSc (Hons), visit

Rory and fellow intern Ewen at New York Tartan Day Parade

Elite Athlete Fund Report CELTMAN! 2016


Sam Black, a BSc (Hons) marine science student at SAMS UHI in Oban, received support from the university’s Elite Athlete Fund to compete in this year’s CELTMAN! The extreme triathlon is held in Wester Ross in June and involves a 3.8k swim, a 202k cycle and a 42k run. Here, Sam describes what it’s like to take part in the gruelling challenge.

SamSam with his support runner Joakim

I’m very happy to report that, in a time of 15 hours, 19 minutes and 58 seconds, I crossed the Celtman finish line after a fairly strong race. Additionally, my arrival at the second run transition with 45 minutes to spare enabled me to run the high mountain route, earning me a Celtman finisher blue t-shirt and a pair of rather sore legs. Easier said than done right? Well, here’s a little look into what it involved…

The day before the race

10pm: After a long journey and some delays my parents arrived in Torridon with 90% of my race gear. Almost immediately a whirlwind of packing, preparing and practice ensued which continued until around 1am. My mind raced as I lay in bed with around 7 different alarms set for 2.15am.

Race day

With at most an hour of sleep under my belt the alarm rang and I began shovelling porridge and toast into my mouth. My father, girlfriend, support runner and I left the cottage at 3.15am and headed for Shieldaig through a thick fog. Upon arrival I registered, set up my gear and jumped on one of the buses taking athletes to the start line.

Tensions where high as we disembarked the bus at the start line. For the next 30 minutes we waited impatiently in a field by the start line as the midge began to swarm, urged on by a group of drummers and a piper who played a foreboding tune.

The swim

Following this we headed to the shore as the race organiser shouted, “5 minutes until the start!” Unlike the majority of others, I stayed on dry land until we had one minute left, where then I made a quick dash out to the start line. Shortly after I heard somebody shout from behind “bloody hell go C’MON, the airhorn’s burst”. The message quickly swept through the ranks and before I knew it I was swimming for my life through shoals of jellyfish and neoprene clad feet. After a few kicks in the face I made my way into the clear and swam into a nice rhythm; stroke, stroke, stroke, gasp, repeat. We were racing!

“I’m getting pretty cold now, I must be near half way”, I said to myself. Sadly, after checking my watch, I found that I’d been swimming for 11 minutes. I battled on, but with around 500m to go I couldn’t keep my fingers together and my pace dropped. As one of the very few who made the mistake of swimming in bare hands and feet, arriving on the rocky, barnacle covered shore was a tricky business. Now completely disorientated, I was thrown up the shore by a marshal where I found my feet on the Shieldaig slipway.

SwimPhoto by Steve Carter (

The cycle

My support runner (Joakim, who could have been Postman Pat for all I knew) pushed me towards my bike and helped me get changed. After 2 small sausage rolls, some hot water and a kit change I felt human enough to grab my bike and head off to start my 202 km cycle.

As my father was on kayak safety duty, I rode the first 70km of the cycle unsupported. I blasted through the first 50km incredibly fast, averaging around 33 km/h, purely because I was freezin’!

The next 150km seemed to pass quickly thanks to my fantastic support team, the incredible weather, jaw-dropping scenery and a quick toilet stop that even Paula Radcliffe would have been proud of.

Yum-yums, mars bars, flap jacks and energy gels kept my spirits high as I pushed through a light headwind toward transition 2. I couldn’t wait to give my wee bony bum a rest and stretch the legs out!


The run

Riding slightly ahead of the main group I was, unlike many others, lucky to get through transition 2 (Bike to Run) fairly unscathed in around 6 minutes. With 2.5 hours to cover the 18 km to transition 2A, Joakim and I were pretty confident we would make the 11 hour cut off, enabling us to run the high mountain route. The continued roastin’ weather coupled with the brutal nature of the bike to run transition made the first 12 km pretty tough.

With gritted teeth I arrived at T2A with 45 minutes to spare: “Congratulations, you’re going up the mountain!” said someone at the sidelines. “Yay for me”, I replied as we began our approach towards Ben Eighe which towered above us.

The first 300m of ascent gave me a new found appreciation for the accuracy and appropriateness of the word ‘hamstring’. However at the 500m mark my legs woke up, allowing me to almost double my pace. After being piped up onto the ridge by yet another bagpiper Joakim and I snapped a few pictures and set off down the scree. I was able to shut off my brain as we began our descent over the blocky, sharp rock and before I knew it we were applying some emergency blister patches on the summit of the second Munro.

By this point we were quite unaware that the hardest part was yet to come: 4km of treacherous descent and 5km of mind numbing stepping stone trail, all before 9km on unforgiving asphalt. My stomach packed in after 6km and was only saved by a pact Joakim and I made over a mars bar – “The first one to be sick loses”.

Upon reaching the road we ditched our bags, drank the rest of our water and ran off the go get our free finisher beer. By this point we were both pretty tired, however we pushed through. With 3km to go we were rewarded with a gorgeous view down Loch Torridon. I could have cried….in fact I probably was crying, who knows! The last 1km followed the shoreline by Torridon village before doubling back and finishing up at the village hall. As we rounded the corner I saw my Dad, who informed me that everyone was at the finish.


The finish line

Joakim and I crossed the line with a time just shy of 15 hours and 20 minutes. It was pretty moving to have so many friends and family members at the finish. It was as much their race as it was mine and I cannot thank them all enough for their support.

And that was that. Joakim and I continued to eat from the moment we stopped until when our heads hit the pillow that night. Surprisingly my legs felt pretty good and the only injuries I appeared to have sustained were a result of insufficient application of anti-chafing cream. And with that, I’ll leave it there.

Well, almost! I’d like to say a huge thank you to the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Elite Athlete Support Fund for their financial support. Ultimately, I would not have been able to compete in the race had I not received the funding from the support fund. It was incredibly comforting to be supported by my home university institution and I hope through my blog, various newspaper reports and the CELTMAN! video itself I have inspired both students within and outside the university to do something similar.

FinishJoakim (blue t-shirt) and Sam (vest top) with friends and family at the finishing line



Towards an “Internet of Food”: Food Ontologies for the Internet of Things

For many people January is a time to set healthy eating goals after the excesses of the festive period. Knowing which foods to opt for and which to avoid or working out how much you should eat can be a complicated process.

Professor Boulos, an expert in digital health at the University of the Highlands and Islands, is part of a group of researchers which have suggested there is potential to develop powerful and comprehensive systems which can help users make healthy choices tailored to their personal circumstances.


A new breed of “automated food scanner” apps, devices and methods is emerging which aim at identifying the exact nature of food and drinks in our diet.

Methods include: barcode scanning, weighing with portable electronic scales, vision-based measurement of volume/weight/portion size by smartphone camera photos, remote food and drink recognition by crowdsourced volunteers or dieticians using smartphone photos of meals sent over the Internet and/or Near Infrared spectroscopy (using a handheld sensor/scanner communicating wirelessly with a specialised smartphone app).

However, these methods are of limited value if we cannot further reason with the identified food and drink items in the context of a user’s health conditions and preferences.

Many of these methods connect to lookup databases to match and identify a scanned food or drink item and report the results back to the user. Such databases are based on ontologies – formal namings of sets of concepts within a domain. In smart e-health systems, food ontologies offer efficient and flexible means to capture knowledge about dietary concepts.

My research partners and I reviewed a number of existing food ontologies that can, with appropriate modifications and additions and along with other relevant non-food ontologies, supplement these databases in an attempt to progress from the mere automated identification of food and drinks to an application which can reason with identified items to better assist users in making healthy choices tailored to their circumstances.

Existing ontologies

The ontologies reviewed included:

  • FoodWiki – a food consumption mobile e-health system which aims to help patients to avoid unhealthy ingredients that could worsen their health condition
  • FOODS: A Food-Oriented Ontology-Driven System – Diabetes Edition – a food menu recommender system for people with diabetes
  • Open Food Facts – a global food database based on contributions from individuals around the world which allows users to learn about food nutritional information and compare products from around the world.

Although none of the reviewed ontologies is fully comprehensive in scope and coverage (some are meant for very specific uses), they are good examples to learn from and might also form a basis to be expanded for future developments towards a universal comprehensive “smart diet assessment and recommendation” engine/application for consumers and patients with various diet-sensitive conditions worldwide.

Existing ontologies and their applications hint at the potential of the “powerful and smarter semantic reasoning with food data” that can be achieved if such ontologies are combined with other relevant non-food ontologies.

Delivering an “Internet of Food”

This kind of advanced application and reasoning requires a detailed knowledge of (or ontologies about):

  1. Individual user’s characteristics and health status/medical history
  2. The best, current clinical evidence about nutrition/dietetics and disease conditions
  3. Knowledge about different foods and drinks, local cuisine characteristics/cooking habits, commercial food/drink product offerings, etc. Variation by country and region should also be taken into consideration, given that people frequently travel these days for short or prolonged periods for work or leisure.

These complementary types of knowledge and the corresponding ontologies are key to delivering a smart “Internet of Food” which, much like the wider concept of the “Internet of Things”, would employ devices with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity to create opportunities for more direct integration between the physical world and computer-based systems to improve efficiency and accuracy. Such an Internet of food could provide context and user-specific diet insights and “intelligent” recommendations based on individual’s health needs, circumstances and profiles at any given time.

For example, if gluten is identified as part of the composition of a scanned food item (from a food ontology) and we know the user who is about to ingest that food suffers from coeliac disease (from user’s health profile/medical history instance of a user model ontology) and we know that eating foods containing gluten can trigger a range of symptoms in people with celiac disease (from best current clinical evidence in a disease ontology), we can warn the user to avoid eating that food item.

Such an application could also help to advise users about any essential ingredients lacking in their diet or about their intake of substances with cumulative toxicity so they can stay within recommended limits. People with diabetes could benefit from a closer look at the carbohydrates profile of their diet and those with hypertension and cardiovascular disease might appreciate automated checks on the amounts of salt and saturated fats in their meals.


There is a growing demand for healthcare services to help people make informed choices about their wellbeing, including the foods and drinks they consume. Improper eating can contribute to or precipitate diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, some types of cancer and some types of allergies.

To enable lay users and healthcare professionals to gain access to relevant medical knowledge about food products in e-health systems that integrate different technologies and data sources, semantic frameworks containing machine-readable annotations (ontology) about food and other relevant domains (e.g., clinical medicine, individual user profiles) are critical for the successful delivery of such smart e-health systems.

The ultimate goal is to progress beyond the mere identification of the details of what is on the user’s plate to answering the key question about “how good or healthy is the food given the user’s individual health condition, personal needs and preferences” and making recommendations for specific, personalised dietary improvements.

– – –

This post has been developed from the paper “Towards an “Internet of Food”: Food Ontologies for the Internet of Things” which was published in Volume 7, Issue 4 of the Future Internet journal. The paper was written by:

  • Professor Maged N. Kamel Boulos – The Alexander Graham Bell Centre for Digital Health, University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland
  • Abdulslam Yassine – Distributed and Collaborative Virtual Environments Research (DISCOVER) Lab, University of Ottawa, Canada
  • Shervin Shirmohammadi – College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, Istanbul Şehir University, Turkey
  • Chakkrit Snae Namahoot – Faculty of Science, Naresuan University, Thailand


  • Michael Brückner – Faculty of Education, Naresuan University, Thailand


2015 Solar Eclipse

By Dr Eddie Graham,  meteorologist, researcher and lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands

A solar eclipse is when the moon moves in front of the Sun, blocking sunlight from reaching parts of the Earth’s surface. However, due to variations in their orbits and because the moon is much smaller in size than the Sun, total solar eclipses are much rarer than total lunar (moon) eclipses. They are also much less common over high latitudes (such as in Scotland), hence the very unique occasion of tomorrow’s eclipse.

Tomorrow morning (Friday 20 March 2015), the moon will move in front the Sun from approximately 8:30am to 10:45am, covering more than 98% of its surface at its peak in Stornoway at 9:45am (it will reach a complete totality of 100% over the Faroe Isles and within 130 miles of the Butt of Lewis.)

During the eclipse, it is expected to become quite dark and eerie, with sharper shadows and diffuse light patterns and it is likely to feel cold. Birds and animals may react strangely to the event (Eddie welcomes the submission of any strange observations to him at or on Twitter @eddy_weather)

Unfortunately, the forecast is looking rather cloudy for tomorrow, with the greatest chance of viewing the eclipse being over eastern and south-eastern Scotland (or up in an aeroplane at 10,000ft or higher!)

Please note: Do not look directly at the sun. Use eclipse glasses.

Supertides in Scotland

By Dr Jason McIlvenny and Dr Philip Gillibrand, Environmental Research Institute, North Highland College UHI


The tides around the coast of the United Kingdom fluctuate between “spring” tides and “neap” tides according to the moon’s phase, full moons and new moons giving rise to the largest range tides, known as “spring” tides. That means that both the highest high tides and the lowest low tides (i.e. the largest range) occur at “springs”, while at neap tides the tidal range is smallest. The word “neap” is thought to have originated from the Middle English word ‘neep’ meaning small.  The word spring refers to the tide springing up and not the season of spring.

In simple terms, spring tides occur when the gravitational effects of the moon and the sun are aligned, giving the greatest net effect. At neap tides, the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon act in perpendicular directions, so the net effect is smaller.

There are other, more subtle, effects on the tides, due to slow variations in the relative orbits of the earth, moon and sun. For example, due to the tilt of the earth and orbital changes, there is an astronomical tidal cycle with an 18.6 year period (known as the ‘nodal period’). During 2015 we will reach the peak of this cycle. Therefore at springs, the large tidal range will be even larger with higher than normal high tides, leading to the so-called supertides. The largest tides will occur at the spring and autumnal equinoxes:

  • 20-21 February 2015
  • 29-30 September 2015

Tides at the equinoxes are generally the largest of the year, so this year will be the largest seen for a number of years.


The high astronomical tides will not cause coastal flooding alone around the Scottish coastline unless combined with the effects of storm conditions. Storm systems can cause an increase in water level known as a storm surge which can elevate the normal tidal height as much as 1.5 meters.

In contrast to this, the upcoming astronomical tides will increase the average spring tide height up to 30 cm around Scotland (most places however will be increased only 10 to 20 centimetres).  The difference in tides between locations depends on local conditions such as the shoreline topography and contour of the ocean floor.

At Scrabster, for example, an average spring tide consists of a high water of approximately just over 5 meters and a low water of approximately 0.5 m. The super tide in January increased this tidal ‘range’, with a high water level of 5.3 m and a low of 0.2 m. It might not sound much (increase of ~25 cm on normal tidal levels); however, if combined with a storm surge there is an increased risk of coastal flooding.

In Inverness the super-tide for January caused a predicted high tide of 5.0 m and a low tide of 0.7 m, whereas an average spring tide (for example, on 22 December 2014) the high water mark was 4.7m and the low tide was 0.9m).

Some tidal statistics from around Scotland are given in the table below:

Location Area HighestTide 2012 HighestTide 2013 HighestTide 2014 HighestTide 2015
mAOD Date mAOD Date
Millport South West 2.14 2.15 2.19 2 Feb 2014 2.15 23 Jan 2015
Ullapool North West 2.95 2.98 3.10 1 Feb 2014 3.01 22 Jan 2015
Wick Far North East 2.14 2.16 2.25 11 Sep 2014 2.29 30 Sep 2015
Moray Firth Moray Firth 2.60 2.60 2.74 11 Sep 2014 2.78 30 Sep 2015
Aberdeen North East 2.46 2.43 2.58 11 Sep 2014 2.63 30 Sep 2015
Leith Firth of Forth 3.14 3.11 3.3 11 Sep 2014 3.34 30 Sep 2015

Areas of low-lying topography are most at risk of flooding. Outside Scotland in French Guiana, for example, the super tides will cause a 6 cm increase in the average spring tide height, which will lead to a 90 m shoreline retreat ( So the threat posed by super-tides depends strongly on the nature of the local coastal area.

Storm surges

Storm surges occur due to the winds and low pressure associated with a large depression or storm. Low atmospheric pressure allows the local sea surface to rise, and strong winds can pile up water against a coastline. Combined, these two effects can elevate sea level by several meters (the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina in the Bay of Mexico in 2005 was about 9 m). Closer to home, in January 2005 a large storm (see figure) created a storm surge which elevated the normal level of the tides in the north coast of Scotland by 1.5 meters. The storm led to significant flooding in communities along the north coast of Scotland.


12 January 2005 storm



View over the river from Janet Street, Thurso, 12 Jan 2005



Scrabster Harbour office front door, 12 Jan 2005



Thurso Harbour 12 Jan 2005


For more information, contact:

Dr Jason McIlvenny, Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Environmental Research Institute, North Highland College UHI.

Dr Philip Gillibrand, Senior Research Fellow, Environmental Research Institute, North Highland College UHI.  Tel: 01847 889686