As we celebrate the Year of History Heritage and Archaeology and more specifically for the month of March and Early Scotland, we caught up with Rachel Pickering who highlights our top 5 brochs.
Brochs are enigmatic drystone circular structures built around 2000 to 2500 years ago. They are unique to Scotland. There are over 500 possible examples recorded, found across northern and western Scotland, particularly in Caithness, Sutherland, the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland.
Some of the best preserved examples are now cared for by us and are open to the visitors year round. If you’re looking for some new places to explore this spring and summer, these fascinating structures and their often dramatic landscape settings will not disappoint.
1. Dun Beag
Dun Beag (the small fort) on Skye may not be the biggest or the best preserved broch in our care, but it is in a stunning location. It stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking surrounding moorland and when complete would have appeared to be rising out of the rock itself. Today visitors to the site are rewarded with panoramic views overlooking Loch Bracadale below.
The site is notable for being excavated at an early date, between 1914 and 1920 by one of Scotland’s first female archaeologists; Countess Vincent Baillet de Latour, who was one of the early female Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The Countess wanted to expose the floor plan of the broch and sought to understand the different phases of occupation within the broch. Her systematic excavations and research questions were a step in the right direction for scientific archaeological investigation.
2. Dun Troddan
Along the valley of Gleann Beag near Glenelg in the north-west Highlands stands not one but two incredible broch towers, situated just 500m apart. Dun Telve and Dun Troddan are remarkably well preserved and their close proximity has raised lots of questions about how broch towers would have been used – one key question here is whether these brochs would have been in use at the same time.
Excavations at Dun Troddan in the 1920’s by Alexander Curle provided the first clear evidence for internal timber structures within a broch tower. Curle found a ring of internal post holes that he interpreted as supports for large structural timbers which he argued would have supported a low roof that rested on the stone scarcement ledge above. Curiously, this idea would have meant that part of the central area would have been open to the elements – not something that is desirable in Scottish winters! The excavations also revealed post holes close to the entrance, which may have been the remains of a wooden doorway into the central area. Curle’s results from Dun Troddan contributed some of the earliest archaeological evidence towards the debate of how these structures were roofed.
Situated on mainland Orkney, overlooking Eynhallow Sound, the Broch of Gurness is one of at least 11 other brochs that line this narrow stretch of water between the mainland and Rousay. Like a number of other sites in Orkney, the Broch of Gurness is surrounded by an associated village. Visitors to the site today can climb over the massive earthworks surrounding the site to explore this Iron Age settlement.
The site is exceptionally well preserved – the stone fittings, door jambs, hearths, tanks and cupboards still in place that provide a vivid impression of how life would once have been here.
While brochs are generally only found in the north and west of Scotland, there are a number of similar drystone circular structures found across lowland Scotland. Edin’s Hall, near Duns in the Scottish Borders is one of the most southerly examples and it is a particularly complex site.
The large stone roundhouse at Edin’s Hall is thought to be much later in date than those found further north and was probably built on the site after centuries of earlier occupation, on top of an earlier Iron Age hillfort.
Anyone wishing to bag this broch should plan their journey carefully as can only be reached by foot, following the line of Whiteadder Water on the slopes of Cockburn Law.
Of course no list of brochs would be complete without including Mousa, the finest surviving example we have. Mousa stands to an impressive 13.3m high. Between its double-skinned drystone walls is a narrow staircase circling the tower up to the top. Those brave enough to climb up today may be rewarded with incredible views across Mousa Sound – if the weather is kind!
Mousa is an incredible example of Iron Age architecture, its excellent preservation allows you to appreciate the skills of the Iron Age broch builders. Construction of such a tall and complex structure would have been no mean feat.
At dusk during the long days summer – the simmer dim as it is known locally – the broch is taken over by hundreds of storm petrels who nest among the drystone walls each night. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a summer evening you may just catch a glimpse of them returning to roost.