Scotland’s Best Coffee Roasters
When we think of grand Scottish buildings, often it’s the castles that come to mind, yet the north and west of Scotland are punctuated with some fascinating brochs representing some of the nation’s most incredible prehistoric architectural triumphs.
Brochs are unique to the north and west of Scotland, and this blog will consider Shetland’s best brochs – and with over 120 known broch sites, this was no easy task.
But before we dive into the pick of the best, what is a broch and why do they remain one of Scotland’s greatest mysteries to this very day.
A broch, in simple terms, is a round, stone structure constructed using two drystone walls – an inner and outer – with a staircase built between the two, reaching the top. They date back about2,000 years to the mid-Iron Age, and there was a high density of them throughout Shetland. Archaeologists still dispute what they were used for – whether they were defensive or offensive. Were they storehouses, or were they the high-status homes of local chieftains? Perhaps they were community hubs? We don’t know. All that we can be sure of is that they remain shrouded in mystery and still, to this day, leave archaeologists scratching their heads for answers.
It would be wrong to start this insight into Shetland’s brochs with any other broch than Mousa. Mousa is the best-preserved example of a broch anywhere in Scotland – it is no exaggeration tosay that this is the best broch in the world. Standing at an impressive and gravity-defying 13 metres, a stone staircase between the inner and outer broch walls leads visitors to the top, where they can gaze out across the surrounding landscape.
Mousa is a now uninhabited island off the east coast of Shetland, accessible during the summermonths by boat trip, operated by The Mousa Boat. Historic Scotland manages the broch itself, and the island as a whole is an RSPB Nature Reserve due to the important breeding colony of storm petrels that nest within the stone walls on the island and, more impressively, within the broch walls itself.
Mousa Broch has featured twice in the Norse sagas of the 12th century. In one account, the broch was used as a bolthole for an eloping couple who were en route to Iceland. It was also described as being a difficult place to reach and attack.
Although the jury is still firmly out on the purpose of brochs, we know that the approaches to Mousa Sound would have appeared an imposing sight. Not only did the Mousa Broch stand sentry on the island side of the sound, but another broch, a mirror image of Mousa, stood across the water at Burland. Burland Broch now stands in ruin, and most of the stones have been taken from the site to build the surrounding crofting township at Burland.
Perhaps the best thing about the Culswick Broch is its location; it stands on a remote headland, deep in the heart of Shetland’s lesser-explored West Mainland. The walk out to the broch takes visitors over open moorland and breathtaking coastal stretches punctuated by sheer cliffs and stacks.
The broch itself stands on the highest point of the headland, with views across to the island of Foula. The broch structure is constructed from local red granite, giving it a warm and welcomingfeel, and the views across the West Mainland provide the perfect backdrop to a picnic after the one-and-a-half-mile walk.
On the whole, this is a quiet corner of Shetland and should provide the solitude that many of us crave when out exploring.
Scatness, unlike most of the brochs featured here, is an archaeological site managed by Shetland Amenity Trust with a small visitor centre and guided tours interpreting the wonder and mystery of Iron Age Shetland.
One of the most impressive features of Old Scatness, no longer visible today, is the massive ditch that surrounded the broch and associated Iron Age village. The trench was four metres deep, with ramparts standing at up to six metres high above it and seven metres wide – this would have been a difficult obstacle to overcome if you were on the attack.
The site itself is fascinating and has changed how archaeologists consider the broader broch period in Shetland and beyond. Radiocarbon dating on-site pushes the period of broch building back to 400 BC, placing them firmly in the mid-Iron Age.
The exciting thing about these early dates is that it may suggest, albeit tentatively, that broch building began in the north and was adopted to south and western areas of Scotland from Shetland.
Old Scatness, like Culswick, has an impressive triangular-shaped lintel stone that stands above the entry door, and like Clickimin – but very few, if any others – has two entrances. Generally speaking, brochs had only one door and no windows, suggesting that these were defensive or protective buildings.
Moving north to the island of Yell, and another ruined broch that stands unexcavated and collapsed is the broch of Burraness. This is another quiet, often unexplored part of Shetland thatis worth visiting. The one-and-a-half-mile walk out to the broch from North Sandwick takes in stunning coastline and two sandy beaches.
The broch appears more dominating from the seaward side where the walls still stand several metres high. The area to the back of the broch is punctuated by ramparts – another nod towardsthe suggestion that these could have been defensive structures.
Clickimin Broch is a bit of an enigma and not altogether what it first seems. The broch itself sits on the side of Clickimin loch in the centre of Lerwick, overlooked by the modern high school. The oldest parts of the site date to the Late Bronze Age, where a farmstead can still be seen in the area surrounding the broch.
The broch itself looks typically broch-like; it has a double wall made of drystone and a later wheelhouse added inside the main structure of the building but, it’s unclear that this is what the original design would have looked like. In the late 19th century, the broch stood in a ruinous state, no more than a rubble of stone, and local antiquarians rebuilt it, modelling it on what they supposed it would have looked like when it stood 2,000 years ago.
Whether the broch is close to the original or not almost doesn’t matter; its location, structure, mystery and intrigue continues to draw people down to the quiet shores of the loch to discover more about Shetland’s Iron Age past.
Neighbouring the island of Yell is Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island and home to over a dozen brochs. One of the best to visit is the Underhoull Broch, with its deep ditches and ramparts enclosing the broch structure. The broch is no more than a grassy mound on the hill, but the structure is clearly defined, and the views across to Lund and beyond to sea are impressive.
Underhoull, like many of the broch sites in Shetland, is one of continuous occupation, and two longhouses stand, just a stone’s throw away from the broch, evidence of the later Viking and Norse influence on the area.
Brochs stood all around the coastline of Shetland, generally in coastal locations, but sometimes beside lochs or on outlying islands that may have at one time been linked to the mainland before sea levels began rising. Where Old Scatness is one of Shetland’s most southerly brochs,Underhoull represents one of the most northerly. It has been suggested that the brochs may have worked together, sending out early warning signals to each other to report danger. Each broch is in view of another, and this intervisibility could have been used advantageously to send smoke signals to neighbouring brochs, sending signals across Iron Shetland and beyond.
Shetland’s broch sites are incredible, and discovering them is great fun, yet, even today, the brochs ask more questions than they answer.
Written By Laurie Goodlad
Scotland’s Best Coffee Roasters