Brochs: the prehistoric castles of Scotland

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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.

Travel photography scholarship in Antarctica!

Think you have what it takes to hang with a National Geographic photog? Now, could you last two weeks shooting in Antarctica? If you think you have what it takes, check out the new WorldNomads.com travel photography scholarship. If you win the assignment, you’ll go take Gap Adventure’s Antarctica Classic M/S Expedition to the Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, and your photos will appear on the National Geographic Channel’s website.

Oh, and since I’ll probably reblog it, let me know. They can also appear on Gadling if the winner’s cool and gives me permission.

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Bowermaster’s Antarctica — Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands

Six a.m. and the sea is clouded by a morning mist, making the always mysterious-looking Elephant Island appear evermore … mysterious. Its sharp rocky peaks climb out of the Southern Ocean in inverted Vs; the tide is high, washing out the few shallow beaches that ring it. Just off Point Wild – named for Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton’s right hand man – penguins feed near the surface of the gray sea and a solitary Weddell seal curls up in the rocks. Just around the point we watch a leopard seal rip a penguin to bits for breakfast, flopping it around on the surface like a rag doll.

I wonder how Elephant Island would have fared historically if this weren’t the very beach where Shackleton and the twenty two men from his crushed “Endurance” had pulled and sailed to back in 1916. It is impossible to land on the beach this morning, due to the high tide, but I have been here before. Even when the seas are calm and the tide low it is a narrow, rocky, inhospitable place. That they managed to sail their trio of tiny lifeboats here, to the far eastern end of the South Shetland Islands at all is a miracle. That they survived for many months on this thin sliver of rock is testament to … well … I’m not sure what exactly. Fortitude? Patience? Belief in myriad higher powers?

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Minus the Shackleton quotient, I doubt many around the world would have ever heard of this rocky lump. But today it holds a historical context far larger than its minute circumference. Bobbing in the rough seas just offshore, I can make out the monument built by the Chileans who sailed to the rescue aboard the “Yelcho” to rescue Shackleton’s men.

As we rock in the morning mist I try to imagine the scene as Shackleton and his crew prepared the small, twenty-three foot, six-inch lifeboat “James Caird” for its last-gasp, 800 mile sail to South Georgia. I envision them chasing down seals as they slid up onto the rocks, both for the sustenance they would give and the warmth their just-slit bellies held for the men’s long-frozen hands. I can imagine the men gathering in small groups to discuss among themselves the wisdom in the choices made by “the Boss” of who would go … and who would stay behind.

Today the pack ice is far from Elephant Island, but in April 1916 it was threatening to return any day, trapping the entire crew for another winter. They’d already been “lost” for fifteen months and were nearing the end of … everything … food, health, sanity. Which meant as they pounded nails straight, gathered provisions (matches, paraffin, extra socks) and filled the bow of the small boat with rocks for ballast there was an urgency that we cannot imagine from this vantage point. They all knew the risks of trying to sail a gerry-rigged lifeboat across the stormiest seas in the world with the scantest of navigational tools and a tiny, homemade sail. In the quiet of this morning I can almost hear their last conversations as they readied to push the “James Caird” off into the rising seas.

Click HERE for more dispatches from Antarctica!