Brochs: the prehistoric castles of Scotland

broch, brochs, Mousa broch
In Scotland, the past is still very much present. In rural areas you can hear people speaking Scots Gaelic or Lowland Scots like their forefathers did. There are castles and stone circles all over the region. The most enigmatic remains from the past are the brochs.

Brochs are mysterious drystone towers dating to around two thousand years ago. Built without mortar or nails, they’re architectural wonders, yet nobody is sure what they were for.

The best example surviving today is the broch of Mousa, pictured above in this photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Built around 100 B.C., it still stands to its original height of 13 meters (43 ft). A stairway cleverly constructed inside the thick wall spirals up to the top, where a walkway offers a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside.

Archaeologists used to think brochs were fortresses, a sort of prehistoric castle. This idea has given way to theories that they were homes of the elite or even simple farmhouses. This former archaeologist thinks the original theory is more likely. To me they feel like forts, and are far more imposing than the standard homes of the day. Plus in Lowland Scots the word brough means fort. In Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, borg also means fort. The Vikings reused some brochs as fortified bases from which the ransack the countryside. Many brochs have earthen ramparts around them, or are located on easily defensible spots such as beside a cliff or on an island in a loch.

%Gallery-130017%It’s hard to say how many brochs there are in Scotland because archaeologists argue over which sites are brochs and which aren’t. Estimates vary from barely a hundred to almost six hundred. Most are clustered in the far north, especially on the windswept Shetland and Orkney islands. Researchers can’t agree on when they were built either. Most agree it was from about 500 BC to 200 AD, but they can’t get more precise than that. This was the Iron Age, when competing tribes fought over land and crafted elaborate weapons and jewelry.

Perhaps the oldest known broch is being excavated right now. A broch at Nybster in Caithness may date back to 500 or even 700 BC, although it’s unclear if these early walls constituted a broch or if the broch was built on top of it. Prince Charles visited the excavation this week. Charles studied archaeology at university and has even gotten the royal hands dirty on several excavations.

All this academic debate just adds to the mystery. Located in the rugged far north of Scotland, often in remote areas, they can’t fail to impress. The sheer effort and skill required to build them in such a hostile environment commands respect.

They have more mysteries to offer up too. Inside there’s often evidence for rooms, floors, or other structures, but none have survived in good enough shape to show what they were used for.

To learn more about brochs and ancient Scotland, check out the BBC’s Mysterious Ancestors website.