If you open a map of northern Scotland at random and study the markings of ancient sites, it won’t be long before you come across the word ‘broch’, reproduced in Gothic lettering that leaves you in no doubt of its antiquity. This is a word that I hadn’t even heard of before I moved to Scotland, but it’s one that never ceases to intrigue me because it comes down to us from a culture that is irretrievably lost.
Originally resembling cooling towers in profile, brochs are concentrated in western and northern Scotland, with just a few examples in the Borders and Dumfries-shire. They are believed to have been built roughly between 100 BC and 100 AD, although new evidence indicates that some started life centuries earlier; and they have been linked with the Picts – the enigmatic people who bequeathed to us a host of symbols carved on stones at Aberlemno and elsewhere while neglecting, perhaps through absent-mindedness or a far-sighted sense of humour, to leave us the key.
What do we know about the Picts?
Very little, is the short answer. Writing about the Picts in ‘A History of Scotland’, Neil Oliver says: “That one syllable comes down to us from the past hushed by mystery, but synonymous with pride.”
He continues: “Whatever else they might have been, the Picts were the direct descendants of the first bands of hunter-gatherers to colonise these lands after the retreat of the ice 12,000 years ago… Most enigmatically of all, in the end they contrived to leave the stage at the very moment when the kingdom of Scotland was created.”
It is true that Picts seem to have just disappeared from the face of history, either eradicated by the Vikings or assimilated into Gaelic culture. We know that they worshipped pagan gods, and that St Columba travelled all the way to the fortress of King Bridei on Loch Ness where he made an unsuccessful attempt to convert the Pictish king to Christianity. But the gradual seep of Christianity into Pictish culture won through in the end, and some of the stones that depicted other-worldly animals and shapes were revisited by stonemasons who added Christian crosses on the other side.
We even know that the Picts won a glorious victory at the Battle of Dunnichen against the Anglian king Ecgfrith, in 685 AD. It’s believed that this is the battle illustrated on a stone in Aberlemno churchyard. There’s only one small problem: historians still can’t really agree on where the battle site is.
Up to 40 feet high and ranging in internal diameter from 16 to 50 feet, brochs were built to last. Their secret lies in double-skinned walls, in other words two concentric walls of stone tied together at intervals with linking slabs. These walls were up to 10 feet in thickness, and in the cavity between them was a spiral stairway. Since some brochs bear evidence of supporting ledges for upper storeys, these stairs may have led from one floor to the next.
It’s possible that a central fire allowed warmth to rise up through the partly open floors, its smoke gathering in the roof and possibly dispersing through small holes. Some were thatched, although the broch at Dun Carloway had a capstone for a roof; and most of them seem to have had a guard chamber just inside the entrance, which could be sealed with big stones in times of attack.
It’s important to say that this is all conjecture, and we know just as little about the real purpose of brochs as we do about their builders. If they’d been deliberately trying to hit on a relic to leave for future generations to scratch their heads over, they really could have done no better.
Exploring Scottish brochs
As far as historians can tell, brochs appear to be unique to Scotland. I’ve visited several examples: Dun Carloway on the Isle of Lewis; Dun Beag on the Isle of Skye; and Tirefour Castle on the Isle of Lismore, as well as Dun Telve and Dun Troddan at Glenelg. At Dun Beag, Dun Carloway and Glenelg the stairs between the walls are still visible, and the sheer dominating strength of the place still strikes you, even after two thousand years. The most intact example is Mousa Broch in Shetland, which stands over 43 feet tall. It’s one of my ambitions to see this!
Whatever the true purpose of brochs – and it is possible that they had more than one – the sense of security inside, whether you were being assailed by an Atlantic gale or a hostile tribe, must have been reassuring. After all, you can’t set fire to stone… so just how do you get the occupants out, if you’re an attacking force? The only option would have been to light a fire and smoke them out, but on a rainy, boggy moorland that’s easier said than done.
Many centuries after they had been built, some brochs continued to be occupied. It’s easy to see why: these were formidable structures, designed to withstand the test of time. The Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland considers that Dun Beag on Skye was used until “comparatively recently”. Archaeological finds indicate a Norse presence, and coins have been found from the reign of James IV of Scotland (late 1400s) and English kings up to George III (late 1700s).
Tirefour broch, Isle of Lismore
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf unless otherwise stated