AHRC/NTS Collaborative PhD studentship

Published: 17 April 2024

A cultural and natural history of Scotland’s peatlands

A cultural and natural history of Scotland’s peatlands

  • Start date: 01 October 2024
  • End date: 31 March 2028
  • Application Deadline: 13 May 2024
  • Interview date: scheduled with selected candidates for 24 May 2024

About the Project

This collaborative PhD project will be based at the University of Glasgow, working closely with the University of Stirling and National Trust for Scotland (NTS). The project will create an environmental and cultural history of Scotland’s upland peatlands (loosely defined), including a history of their exploitation, based on archaeological, historical and ‘deep time’ environmental data from peat deposits. It will use existing and archival information, combined with new archaeological and environmental analyses to synthesise, and contextualise the international importance of Scotland’s peatland heritage and its wider significance within NW European peatland archaeology. It will seek to practically and theoretically apply archaeological and historical ecological knowledge to improve the management and resilience of upland peatland systems, for the benefit of nature and culture in the face of climate and land use change.

Globally, peatlands are vitally important for ecosystem services: climate regulation (carbon sequestration, flood alleviation) provisioning (water) and supporting (nutrient cycling, pollination).  Peatlands also have a rich cultural history that contribute significantly to the UK's cultural ecosystem services. However, our peatlands and their services are intensely threatened due to climate and land use change. Scotland contains 60% of the UK’s upland peatland resource, storing >3bn tonnes of carbon and our peatlands are essential elements of some of our most iconic landscapes, imbued with symbolic meaning and legend, deeply connecting people with place, whilst also preserving an array of archaeological sites, artefacts, human remains. Landscapes were used for fuel, fowling, fishing, hunting, grazing, plants, and raw materials. Exploitation has been part of Scottish life from the prehistoric period onwards and remains an important traditional practice within Highland and Island communities. Historically, peatlands were considered either as useful resources or as ‘wastelands’, in need of reclamation. Peatlands also preserve a ‘deep-time’ record of their history, human activities, and land-use. Waterlogged conditions preserve pollen, plants, wood, insects and other remains, crucial for understanding trajectories of peatland development, ecosystem dynamics, resilience, environmental disturbance - revealing the mutual processes of exchange between people and environment.

Scotland’s peatlands are therefore hugely important historic landscapes, deeply transformed by humans. However, despite good peatland archaeological understanding across much of NW Europe, our knowledge of how Scotland’s uplands fit into this picture is relatively limited. Alongside this, these peatland records also offer important clues around their future resilience in the face of climate change.

The aims of this collaborative project are to integrate cross-disciplinary approaches to create a holistic understanding of Scotland’s peatland cultural and natural history to:

  • provide improved understanding, significance, protection and management of Scotland’s peatland archaeology;
  • establish the significance of Scotland’s ‘deep time’ peatland resource;
  • develop protocols for the management and resilience of Scotland’s peatland landscapes for positive benefit of nature and culture ecosystem services.

The geographic extent of the project and case studies to form the basis of practical elements of the project will be determined by the student in consultation with the supervisory team and especially the National Trust for Scotland.

Research questions include:

  1. What is the distribution, significance, and geographical-historical-cultural context of Scotland’s peatland heritage?
  2. What is the significance of Scotland’s ‘deep time’ peatland resource that can be gleaned from previous and new environmental research?
  3. How can archaeological-historical ecological knowledge be applied theoretically and practically and integrated into management, understanding, and resilience of our peatland systems, for the benefit of nature and culture?

About the Team

This 3.5 year fully funded doctoral studentship is a collaboration between University of Glasgow, University of Stirling and National Trust Scotland.

The project will be supervised by an interdisciplinary team of experts in archaeological science, peatland palaeoenvironments and environmental change (Nicki Whitehouse: Archaeology, University of Glasgow; Eileen Tisdall: Environmental Geography, Biological and Environmental Sciences University of Stirling) and historic landscapes (Derek Alexander, NTS).
Project Partner Dr Roy Van Beek (Wageningen) is an expert in transdisciplinary research in wetland heritage and will provide opportunity for an international placement and perspectives.

Where you’ll be based

The student will be registered at the University of Glasgow. Because this is a collaborative award, the successful candidate will be expected to spend time at both the Universities and National Trust for Scotland.

The University of Glasgow is ranked World Top 71th University for Arts and Humanities (QS World Rankings, 2024), and ranked 12th University in the UK and second in Scotland. Archaeology at University of Glasgow is ranked 43rd in the world (2024 QS World Rankings) and provides a positive, inclusive and nurturing research culture, which has been recognised in our strong REF 2021 (Research Excellence Framework) results with two-thirds of environment and impact being recognised as 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent'. Our staff’s diverse research interests are connected by a commitment to ‘engaged archaeology’, actively linking our study of the past to challenges today.  We pursue projects in digital archaeology, landscapes and environmental archaeology, studies of material culture, and archaeological science, and have a strong track record of engagement in work and about Scotland. A particular research strength is in Landscape Archaeology; we are well placed to provide training in Scottish peatlands from a multi-disciplinary perspective: we have specialist expertise and laboratory infrastructure, combined with archaeological knowledge in wetlands and land-use heritage research and a growing cohort of researchers in this field. It’s an exciting time to join us:  our archaeological laboratories which include chemical, microscopy, analytical and artefact labs and new teaching spaces are undergoing a £1.2 M refit over spring and summer 2024 and we are hosts and leads of a Marie Curie MSCA/UKRI Doctoral Training Programme starting in October 2024, through applicants will be able to access additional training opportunities.

The University of Stirling is internationally renowned for natural sciences research that explores the complex interrelationships between human behaviours, technologies, and biological, environmental and aquatic systems. Within Biological and Environmental Sciences (BES) we look at how environments and ecosystems have changed over time to predict and mitigate the future impacts of climate change. Research at Biological and Environmental Sciences was recognised within the REF 2021 (Research Excellence Framework) with 100% of Geography and Environmental sciences research rated as having either outstanding or very considerable impact. The University of Stirling is in the top 15 in the UK for research impact for Geography and Environmental studies. We have a research focus on Quaternary science and landscape change, where we give a deep-time, science-based perspective on contemporary environmental issues through new understandings of the complex relationships between long-term environmental change, human adaptations and resilience embedded in landscapes. The analytical and laboratory facilities within BES will compliment those in the University of Glasgow providing opportunities to develop novel interdisciplinary methodological approaches and generate a range of environmental and palaeoenvironmental data sets. The research facilities within BES will allow for the full integration of field survey, remote sensing and mapping capabilities with laboratory expertise that includes, SEM-EDX and XRF elemental analyses together with pedological, sedimentological and palaeo-botanical analyses.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) is the charity that cares for, shares and speaks up for Scotland’s heritage. We’re Scotland’s largest membership organisation and independent from government. Since 1931, we’ve pioneered public access to and shared ownership of some of the most magnificent buildings, collections and landscapes in Scotland. We care for houses, battlefields, castles, mills, gardens, coastlines, islands, mountains, as well as plants, animals and birds. Without our involvement, many of these places and things would have been lost forever to the passage of time, development, and the elements. We believe in protecting Scotland’s nature, beauty and heritage, and sharing our amazing places with everyone. Scotland is blessed with a wealth of stories, values, objects and landscapes that, over time, have been woven together to unite communities, traditions and nurture our unique national spirit.

NTS’s archaeology team are responsible, together with property staff and rangers, for the conservation work that impacts the cultural heritage elements of our properties and landscapes. Key members of the archaeology team have in-depth knowledge of the special places in our care, including peatlands that are currently undergoing restoration. NTS are uniquely placed to work in partnership with this project, having on the ground expertise, access to suitable landscapes, relevant archival and archaeological records and understand the issues to be addressed in this collaborative project.  The current focus on peatland restoration means this work is of high priority to the NTS as it will address current challenges and the work aligns well with the NTS’ new 10-year strategy.

What we’re looking for

You should have a first degree in Archaeology, Physical Geography, Environmental History, Natural Science or related subject, with an interest in the archaeology and/or palaeoecology of wetlands, peatlands and/or environmental issues. The AHRC expects that applicants to its PhD programmes will normally hold, or be studying towards, a Master’s qualification. If you are not in this position, you may be able to use relevant professional experience to provide evidence of your ability to undertake independent research. 

You should have previous experience in the broad area of archaeological science and/or the study of past environments, environmental change, historical ecology (e.g. via taught courses and/or dissertation topic(s). Because this is an interdisciplinary project, it is expected that candidates will have some, but not all, of the skills and experience listed below. We strongly encourage candidates with experience in some of these areas and an interest to learn further skills and gain experience in another discipline to apply.


  • Mapping of archaeological or modern landscapes using GIS (essential)
  • Ability to synthesise archaeological and/or ecological data (essential)
  • Understanding of landscape histories (essential)
  • Palaeoenvironmental skills (desirable)
  • Geoarchaeological skills (desirable)
  • Archival skills (desirable)
  • Identification of organisms (desirable)
  • Modelling peatland landscapes (desirable)
  • Understanding of ecological and climate systems (desirable)
  • Basic statistics (desirable)
  • Driving licence (essential)


  • Archaeological or ecological fieldwork (essential)
  • Science laboratory experience (essential)
  • Landscape/historic environment research (desirable)
  • Soil or peat survey work (desirable)
  • Soil or peat lab analysis (desirable)
  • Palaeoenvironmental skills (desirable)
  • Working in peatlands or other wetlands (desirable)
  • Lone working (desirable)
  • Record of publication in related fields (desirable)


  • Independent and critical thinker
  • Able to work within an inter-disciplinary research space
  • Effective communicator
  • Experienced collaborator
  • Able to work effectively within a team
  • Interested in archaeology, environment and climate change issues
  • Ethically and socially aware

We want to encourage the widest range of potential candidates for this studentship and are committed to welcoming individuals from different backgrounds to apply. We particularly welcome applications from Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area.

Applicants should ideally have or expect to receive a relevant Masters-level qualification or be able to demonstrate equivalent relevant experience in a professional setting. Areas include, but are not limited to, Archaeological Science, Geography, Geosciences, Environmental Sciences, Ecology, Soil or Natural Sciences

Applicants must be able to demonstrate an interest in the archaeology sector and sustainability, together with enthusiasm for developing skills more widely in related areas.

Details of Award

This project is funded via an AHRC SGSAH Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA). It can be studied Full-time.  The award includes a stipend and fees at UKRI rates.

For 2024/2025 the rates are set at: £19,237 (stipend) and £4,786 (fees).


Funding for this PhD is open to UK nationals and international students.

From 2021 onwards, the AHRC via SGSAH offers awards to PhD researchers from the world (UK, the EU and International). All funded PhD students, whether UK or International will be eligible for a full award – both a stipend to support living costs, and fees at the HEIs’ UK rate. 

To be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  • Have settled status, or
  • Have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • Have indefinite leave to remain or enter 

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student.

Whilst SGSAH funding only covers the equivalent of a home fee, International candidates will have the difference between the Home and International fee rate waived by the College of Arts and Humanities.

All applicants must meet the AHRC’s academic criteria.

Further guidance

How to apply

Application is by CV, personal statement, and sample of work and online application form:

The application should include:

  • A CV
  • sample of work of no more than 5,000 words
  • statement from the candidate, outlining your motivation and relevant professional experience and preparedness for the proposed doctoral project

Please send your CV, statement and sample of work directly to Professor Nicki Whitehouse (nicki.whitehouse@glasgow.ac.uk) by 13 May 2024

For informal enquiries please contact the primary supervisor, Professor Nicki Whitehouse, nicki.whitehouse@glasgow.ac.uk or second supervisor, Dr Eileen Tilsdall, e.w.tisdall@stir.ac.uk

First published: 17 April 2024