Churchill Barrier No. 4
Significance: the construction of the Churchill Barriers started in 1940 and led to a fundamental change in the pattern of tidal flow around Scapa Flow. A range of coastal landforms have been created subsequently which illustrate the fundamental control of coastal configuration on the transport and deposition of sand. In consequence, the Barriers have been described recently by Michelle Robinson of Southampton University as "a large-scale, open-air, marine laboratory."

Churchill Barriers

The Churchill Barriers were constructed between 1940 and 1945 to protect the British Naval Fleet, based in Scapa Flow (Cormack and Cormack, 1992). The barriers comprise 4 solid-fill causeways which link Mainland Orkney to four smaller islands. The barriers have radically altered the sediment movement, affected the current and wave regime of Scapa Flow (Murray et al., 1999) and cut off tidal flow with the North Sea.

Location map of The Churchill Barriers

Churchill Barriers, Orkney © Alan Moar

Churchill Barrier No 4

Churchill Barrier No 4 links the former islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay. Sand which accumulates on the narrow strip west of the barrier is blown over the causeway under the prevailing winds to add to an expanding dune system. During easterly gales waves will refract around either Burray Ness or Grim Ness and then approach the barrier from the east as a curved series of wave crests.

Detailed stratigraphical, geomorphological and surveying work was undertaken in 2007 to investigate the geomorphological and coastal processes that have led to the development of a large sand dune system at Churchill Barrier 4. Photographs show sand has been accumulating along the eastern side of Barrier 4 since approximately 1961 (Figure 2) and a dune-field now occupying 1km2 has developed.

Geomorphological map of Churchill Barrier 4.

The closures of the Sounds between Scapa Flow and the North Sea have provided a sheltered environment allowing northward longshore drift to transport sediment along the eastern side of Churchill Barrier 4. Water Sound Bay is situated between two rocky headlands and has a shallow gradient beach which is topped by an exposed dry sandy beach approximately 15m wide. Extensive sand bars situated offshore of the barrier are a possible source of sediment for dune formation (Glennie, 1990). In addition, sand accumulates on a narrow strip to the west of the Barrier 4 which is blown over the causeway under the prevailing winds, adding to the expanding dune system.

Sand accumulation in 1961 at Churchill Barrier 4 (courtesy of C.Peace).

The main region of accumulation is in the backshore where the sand has reached road level (5.6m OD). This area comprises of a series of vegetated dunes with an average altitude of 7.3m OD. Large parts of the dunefield have been partly or fully stabilised by vegetation, primarily consisting of marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) and lyme grass (Leymus arenarius) with patches of oyster plant (Mertensia maritima) and frosted orache (Atriplex sabulosa). The degree of vegetation cover and thus stabilisation decreases towards the water line. In the south eastern corner of the dunefield, sand has been mined since 1997, with a total of 55,000 tonnes removed (Aurora Environmental Ltd. 2003). Although the mined area is replanted to aid sand stabilisation, mining practices have created a man made blowout in the dunefield, which resembles a trough blowout, with an elongated shape, steep slopes and a deep depression (Gutiérrez-Elorza et al., 2005). The upper slopes of the blowout are less vegetated which has resulted in sediment being removed and the erosional walls becoming over-steepened, leading to some slumping within the deflation basin. The airflow within the basin then re-mobilises the sediment in a downwind direction (Hesp, 2002). This dunefield has now cut off Churchill Barrier 4 from direct marine influence. The northward longshore drift is also clearly evident on the eastern side of Churchill Barrier 3, where a small vegetated sand dune system is developing. During low tide the offshore sand banks at Barrier 3 extend northward to Barrier 2, where a small area of beach has established.


Aurora Environmental Ltd. 2003. Update of the environmental assessment for sand ex-traction and management scheme at the fourth Churchill Barrier.

Cormack, A. and Cormack, A. 1992 Bolsters, Blocks, Barriers: The Story of the Building of the Churchill Barriers. The Orkney View, Kirkwall, Orkney. pp.84.

Glennie, J. 1990. Potential for the Churchill Barriers, Orkney, for hydro-electric development. M.Sc MRDP dissertation (unpublished), Heriot-Watt University.

Gutiérrez-Elorza, M., Desir, G., Gutiérrez-Santolalla, F. and Marín, C. 2005. Origin and evolution of pla-yas and blowouts in the semiarid zone of Tierra de Pinares (Duero Basin, Spain). Geomorphology, 72, 177-192.

Hesp, P. 2002. Foredunes and blowouts: initiation, geomorphology and dynamics. Geomorphology, 48 (1-3), 245-268.

Murray, E., Dalkin, M.J., Fortune, F. and Begg, K. 1999 Marine Nature Conservation Review Sector 2. Orkney: area summaries. Peterborough Joint Nature Conservation Committee (Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. MNCR Series). In Ove Arup & Partners Scotland. 2000 Causeway Re-view, Environmental Review of Causeways. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned report F99AA403.

Robinson, M. 2008. The Churchill Barriers, of Orkney: a large-scale, open-air marine laboratory. Quaternary Newsletter No.116. pp61-68

Key Geomorphological Sites

  • Significance: a coastline noted for its Devonian geology and coastal geomorphology

  • Significance: this bay lies adjacent to Skara Brae and provides evidence of the interaction between coastal processes and human disturbance between 6600 and 4400 radiocarbon years ago. The settlement first re-emerged from the dunes after a storm in 1850.

  • Significance: this site provides evidence for changing ice-flow conditions during the last ice sheet glaciation

  • Significance: the construction of the Churchill Barriers started in 1940 and led to a fundamental change in the pattern of tidal flow around Scapa Flow. A range of coastal landforms have been created subsequently which illustrate the fundamental control of coastal configuration on the transport and deposition of sand.

  • Significance: Rackwick lies at the southern end of two major glacial breaches on Hoy. Its well-developed moraines indicate that at the close of the last glaciation two lobes of ice retreated northwards at a time when the Pentland Firth was probably still occupied by ice.

  • Significance: The Old Man is the tallest sea stack in Britain, 137 m high

  • Significance: a superb corrie formed at an unusually low elevation that was last occupied by a small glacier only 11,000 years ago

  • Significance: Ward Hill provides examples of a range of active and fossil periglacial landforms. As the highest point on Orkney it also provides evidence of the thickness of the last ice sheet

  • Significance: the site of a former small corrie glacier on Hoy

  • Significance: the site of a small corrie glacier during the Loch Lomond Stadial

  • Significance: a raised beach deposit at 6-12 m asl buried by till

  • Significance: a possible Scandinavian erratic on Orkney.

  • Significance: a peat deposit with willow boles formed 6500 years ago and now lying below sea level

  • Significance: the Kilns of Brin-Novan is an excellent example of an interconnected series of caves, arches and blow-holes which illustrate the sequential development of these features.

  • Significance: this coastal section provides perhaps the best available exposure of the shelly till which is characteristic of the eastern part of Orkney

  • Significance: exceptional cliff scenery and dramatic cliff-top storm deposits