This week we’re delighted to welcome Kenneth McElroy from the Caithness Broch Project to The Scots Curator. In this interview, Kenneth explains why brochs are among the most intriguing structures in Scotland’s history – he tells us what these multi-storey Iron Age towers may have been used for, where we can find them, and also about exciting new plans to create an authentic replica of a broch using traditional building techniques.
You can find out more about The Caithness Broch Project at www.thebrochproject.co.uk
First of all, what is a broch? What makes them so interesting?
Brochs are a type of prehistoric structure, and which began to appear on the landscape of Scotland over 2,000 years ago. They don’t appear anywhere else in the world – they are unique to the country!
They are a continuation of the vernacular tradition of constructing buildings using drystone – that is to say, without any bonding agents like lime and mortar; just stones stacked on top of stones, held together by gravity!
Brochs are essentially large towers (the largest surviving example, Mousa, reaches over 40 feet high) with two sets of walls instead of one, with a ‘gallery’ or corridor running through the walls, which often held a staircase so that upper levels of the structure could be accessed. These Iron-Age structures were multi-storeyed, although what occurred on these upper floors is largely conjecture: we simply don’t have enough evidence to understand their use.
Indeed, brochs, despite a wealth of study being applied to their nature for well over 100 years, are still somewhat relatively mysterious structures. It seems, however, that they were dwellings of some sort, although it is likely that a wide range of activities took place here: from grinding grains with quernstones, to the creation of brooches.
What were the advantages of brochs to their inhabitants?
That ‘double-skinned’ wall I mentioned? It may have had an important purpose – acting as a means to protect the inhabitants from the frightful elements. As some people may know, Scotland can be wet and windy. By having two walls, this mitigated the effects of the Scottish weather. The rain permeates the first wall, but fails to reach the second wall, ensuring that those inside are kept warm by the hearth fire.
On a wider, more societal level, brochs were extensions of ego; it is thought that these were statements rather than strategic. Your first impression of a broch may be that they were defensive ‘castles’ of some sort, but in reality they would have been quite useless in a siege context. Simply block up the entrance – brochs usually only have one entrance and no windows – and you could set fire to the structure’s roof, which was likely made from flammable material.
So, instead, brochs are statements of power. Significant structures like these require a considerable amount of manpower. And with that, you need to have the resources, co-ordination and control to get these structures built. The bigger the broch, the more power you have obtained and the more resources you have at your disposal. So, brochs reflect a sort of formation of proto-kingdoms at this time, before the early medieval period when groups such as Dal Riata and the Picts started to form.
Where are the best places to see brochs?
Brochs can be found the length and breadth of Scotland, from Unst to Duns. They are largely absent from the Aberdeenshire region, though, where hilltop enclosures and hillforts were more popular. However, the Atlantic ‘fringe’ of Scotland is where most brochs can be found – Shetland, Orkney, Sutherland, Skye, Caithness and the Western Isles all have dozens of brochs. There are more brochs in Caithness than anywhere else – with around 180 – but there are fantastic examples to see in each of these regions, with Shetland having the best surving example of a broch in the shape of Mousa.
Your ultimate goal is to create a broch replica. Could you tell us a wee bit about this project?
Yes! We’re hoping to commemorate the achievements of our Iron Age ancestors by constructing a replica broch – the first full-sized broch to be built in Scotland in over 2,000 years. It’s an exciting and ambitious project, but we think Caithness is the ‘home of the broch’ and so something like this would really make for an unmissable attraction: not only would provide the region with an important tourist attraction – which would aid in the economic sustainability of the region – but it would an incredible, immersive and iconic ‘living history’ experience – a vivid re-imagining of life two millennia ago.
It also means we could revive the dying art of drystone dyking – this would be the biggest drystone dyking project ever, potentially – and so there’s a great opportunity to re-learn and develop practical building skills and techniques. Woodworking, joinery, textiles, farming, pottery and ceramics, blacksmithing, food preparation, leather tanning, thatching … all manner of activities would take place here and so we could lead to a real renaissance in both experimental archaeology and ‘forgotten’ skills.
We’ve made excellent progress over the last year – essentially we are mulling over our options as to where the broch should be built. This is an incredibly important aspect – this impacts on basically everything else behind our project, so we’ve got to take our time and make the ‘right’ decision. But we hope to make that decision in the next few months – and then we can crack on with one of the most exciting experimental archaeology projects in the world!
If anyone wants to help, we’d be delighted if they joined as a ‘Friend’, which is completely free: thebrochproject.co.uk/friends. You can also donate at thebrochproject.co.uk/donate, or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.