Scottish Brochs

Dun Carloway Broch

The remains of Dun Carloway broch.

Brochs have always fascinated me. Brochs are tall (up to 15 meters/50 feet) round towers, with an outer double-skinned, dry-stone wall.  The double skinned walls are bonded together by rows of slabs, which often form stairs between the inner and outer walls, and provide access to upper floors.  The following photograph shows the inner stairs in the Dun Carloway broch.  These would have been dark and dingy.

Dun Carloway broch - between the walls

Between the dry-stone walls of Dun Carloway broch.

Brochs are unique to Scotland – 571 sites for these strange and quite sophisticated buildings have been identified in Scotland, although some people believe that the number of brochs is less than that, and some sites attributed to brochs are the remains of simpler buildings.   Archaeological research has shown that the main building period was from 100 BC to 100 AD.

In some of the surviving ruined brochs traces of timber has been found, supporting the idea that they had timber floors.  It is likely that the ground floor was used for key livestock, and the upper floors for residential accommodation.  Some brochs stand alone on the landscape, others are surrounded by the remains of settlements. Some are within defensive earthworks.

Brochs were common in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, and in Caithness in the far north of the mainland.  There were a number in the south of Scotland, including a cluster in Galloway, and several in Lothian and the Borders, although only scant remains exist of these southern brochs today.

The reason for building brochs is much disputed by researchers.  It seems clear that defence was the driver to build many.  Another reason for building brochs would have been as high status homes for local magnates.

Tall buildings with a very small door and no windows would have been very difficult to attack. In fact in 1153, long after brochs had fallen into disuse by the local population, the Viking Orkney Sagas record that the Mousa broch was used for protection by a Viking party that had abducted the mother of Earl Harald of Orkney.  They managed to hold out for a winter against the Earl and his troops.

The fact that such complex building were being built contradicts the view that Scotland 2000 years ago was an unsophisticated place. It also shows that the economy was sophisticated enough to support teams of broch “architects” and “master builders” who travelled between sites and communities.  These structures are too complicated to be designed and built by local people without the involvement of specialists, although local communities would no doubt have provided the labor.

In the summer of 2014 I was lucky enough travel by boat to several of Scotland’s islands and the Faroes, a group of islands half way between Scotland and Iceland.  This should have allowed me to see two of the best preserved brochs in Scotland, and therefore the world, as brochs are unique to Scotland.

Dun Carloway broch is on Harris in the Outer Hebrides, and Mousa, the best preserved broch, is on a small island off the main Shetland island.  Unfortunately the weather was too bad for the ship to land in Shetland (Scottish summers!), but I did manage to spend some time at Dun Carloway.  Although much ruined now, with some of the stone robbed and used by local farmers, I couldn’t help but be impressed by this 2000 year old building facing the Atlantic on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides.  It must have been built by a sophisticated, organised people, not the uncivilised barbarians Roman writers lead us to believe lived north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Text and photographs copyright Ian Douglas 2016.

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