Shetland is a small cluster of islands in the centre of the North Atlantic. Flanked by the North Sea to the east and the North Atlantic to the west, Shetland’s position has long made it an important trading point which has helped to sculpt and carve both its past and present.
The combination of geographical location, geology and climate give rise to an incredibly distinct, diverse and unique natural landscape. Shetland lies at 60° north, where Scotland meets Scandinavia. The latitude line passes through the sweeping South Mainland, metaphorically slicing Shetland in two.
The 60° North line passes through the uninhabited island of Mousa, on Shetland’s east coast. The island itself was once home to a thriving community and, at one time, 11 families eked out a meagre living from its fertile soils.
Today, the Mousa Boat operate daily excursions into the island and, at midsummer, run evening tours. At 1.5 miles long by 1 mile wide, the island is now an RSPB Nature Reserve, and visitors can experience an abundance of wildlife; birds, seals and the infamous spectacle of storm petrels returning to nest within the walls of the broch at dusk.
What is a broch?
A broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, built in the mid-Iron Age. They are unique to the north and west of Scotland and archaeologists are still not agreed on what their purpose was. What we do know is that they have a unique construction; built with a double-wall, giving an inner and outer wall with a staircase between the two, leading to the top.
There are about 120 broch sites in Shetland alone, and many would have exceeded 10 metres in height. Brochs were cleverly engineered using long slabs laid between the inner and outer wall to allow a greater size without the risk of building collapse. Archaeologists still debate as to whether or not they would have been roofed. Interestingly, brochs had no windows and, generally, only one door.
It has been suggested that animals would have been kept on the ground floor and that people would have lived on the first floor. A scarcement ledge [an archaeological term for a stone ledge] seen in many broch structures, including Mousa, is thought to have supported an internal wooden scaffolding that would have held up multiple levels for occupancy and/or storage.
Brochs are unique to Scotland, adding to their allure and intrigue, yet they remain, to this day, shrouded in mystery. Were they defensive, offensive or merely prestigious shows of grandeur? Could they have been used as ‘community halls’ or large grain stores? Perhaps we will never know.
Brochs are generally always in view of another broch, and another, and so on, and may have been used to send out smoke signals, for example, if danger approached – a bit like an early warning defence system. They often appear to be more defensive and imposing if viewed from the sea, with many boasting impressive facades on the seaward side. From Mousa, directly across the Sound, Burland broch mirrored Mousa in size and scale. Burland now stands in ruin; however, standing together these two brochs would have been an imposing sight.
However, one thing is clear; brochs were not built by a people who wished to remain hidden away unseen. Their prominent placing appears deliberate; dominating skylines, cliff-tops and the wider landscape. But for what reason, remains unclear, and brochs today, ask more questions than they answer.
Brochs aside, there is much more to Mousa than just archaeology; with outstanding wildlife and geology, stories of smugglers and shipwrecks, and the opportunity to get off-the-beaten-track, a trip to Mousa should be high on the agenda of any visitor to Shetland.
Written by Laurie Goodlad