broch plus

Sunday, October 27, 2013



Outline plans of five Iron Age sites in Scotland and one (West Brandon) in northeast England. All illustrate the importance of the round house in its different forms. Dun Troddan is a broch, and the defences at Clickhimin enclose another structure of this type. Kilphedir is a wheelhouse. Glenachan, West Brandon, and Hayhope Knowe are bounded by single or double palisades. At Hayhope Knoll there is also an earthwork enclosure. Information from D. Harding (2004).

A form of defended homestead peculiar to Scotland is the broch. Nearly 600 are known, almost all of them lying beyond the Highland Line, with over a hundred in Caithness. A broch is a tower, of drystone construction, the walls about 15 feet thick and the interior area anything from 30 to 40 feet in diameter. Few are more than 20 feet high, although the one at Dun Telve, Inverness-shire, is, even now, 33 feet high, and this in spite of its having been robbed over the centuries for building stone, a fate which has overtaken many of the others. The most famous, the largest and the best-preserved broch is that at Mousa, in the Shetlands, and this is 40 feet high. There was but a single door into a broch, and a staircase and other chambers were constructed in the thickness of the walls. They are often difficult to date individually, but in general terms they were being built in the last centuries BC and occupation in some cases, as at Dun Cuier, on Barra, continued on and off into the seventh century AD.


An aerial view of the broch on Mousa, in the Shetlands. The ruin in the rectangular enclosure is a house, the old Haa.

Round dry-stone defensive structure of the 1st millennium BC, examples of which are concentrated in Shetland, Orkney, Caithness and the Western Isles in Scotland. Traditionally the term `broch' has been restricted to the more elaborate circular examples of a diverse family of compact fortified buildings erected in the Scottish Iron Age; the famous broch of MOUSA forms, in effect, a type site. Mackie has attempted to regularize the term by selecting the technically sophisticated high hollow-built wall, which often contains chambers and a staircase to an upper floor, as a principal defining feature (Mackie 1965). However, Hedges (Hedges and Bell 1980) and others have argued that simpler round fortified structures such as the early (c. 600 BC) Bu Broch, Stomness, are also true brochs. A solution to this, partly semantic, problem is provided by Armit who argues that Mackie's elaborate brochs are best classified as `tower brochs' within a wider category of round houses, thus freeing the term `broch' to be used more loosely (Armit 1990). 

Traditionally, brochs have been consigned to a relatively brief interval after the 1st century BC. However, modern excavations have made this late dating seem unlikely, and even the developed `tower brochs' may have been emerging a century or so earlier. Recent explanations of the origins of the broch (e. g. Armit 1990) have discarded the idea of migrants from the south, preferring to stress local prototypes and the broch's functional and symbolic importance in the negotiation of power.

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In the early centuries of the first millennium, native society was undergoing profound political and social change. We see in the heightened development of social inequality and hierarchy the emergence of what anthropologists might term a `chiefdom society'. The appearance of souterrains (large underground stores) in the eastern mainland is but one reflection of ongoing attempts to maximize the extraction of wealth from the land and concentrate it in the hands of the few. All over Scotland, small-scale power structures founded on face-to-face relations were being superseded by far-reaching systems of control, distant authority delegated to local leaders in return for a share of the tribute. The rise and fall of the famous brochs are an architectural manifestation of the beginning of this trend away from the intensive and towards the extensive exercise of power, as hierarchies of space within a settlement (internally differentiated sites of similar form throughout the landscape) were replaced by new hierarchies between settlements (major centres controlling dependent sites). Political units, however, remained comparatively small. Identity was vested at the level of the tribe whose members might have numbered only a few thousand.

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The tendency to build self-contained circular enclosures reached its apogee in western and northern Scotland, and especially in the Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland (Fig. 5.12). Unfortunately some of the strongest patterning has been obscured by disagreements about terminology and chronology (Armit ed. 1990; Armit 1992; Parker Pearson and Sharples 1996: chapter 12; D. Harding 2004: chapter 5).
Again the circular archetype was very important and extended from individual dwellings to more monumental walled enclosures. All these features were conceived on an impressive scale. They vary from the crannogs built in open water to small circular compounds, and from relatively insubstantial dwellings to massive domestic buildings, the most impressive of which - the brochs of the Scottish mainland, the Western and Northern Isles - resemble towers (Armit 2003b). Some of these structures are isolated but quite densely distributed and were surely designed to impress, whilst others can be found inside defended enclosures which contain a variety of other buildings. Many of them were distributed along the coast where there were a number of promontory forts (Armit 1992).

Here is another case in which large round houses may have been an important settlement form from an early stage of the Iron Age. Ian Armit (2003b) has argued that structures ancestral to brochs were built as early as 600 BC and that during the Iron Age stone houses in Atlantic Scotland became increasingly complex in design. True brochs seem to have emerged about 200 BC. They are interpreted as defended high-status dwellings, characterised by such features as internal staircases and guard cells. They must have had more than one storey, and there can no longer be any doubt that they were roofed. 

Some of the structural principles that characterise the brochs extend to other forms of defensive architecture: to some of the circular-walled enclosures known as duns and even to the monumental gateways of a number of the promontory forts in Shetland (Hamilton 1968; D. Harding 2004: 137-50). Another key element is the way in which domestic structures were organised. In some brochs there seems to have been a communal space with a hearth located in the centre of the building. It was ringed by a range of compartments which were divided from one another by partitions projecting from the interior wall. In Shetland and the Hebrides, this principle was expressed on a smaller scale in the distinctive dwellings known as wheelhouses (Parker Pearson and Sharples 1999: chapter 12). A number of these were built after the broch themselves, and it has yet to be worked out how far their histories overlapped. In any case there are important contrasts between them. 

Wheelhouses were sometimes set into the ground, whereas brochs were conspicuous monuments, and on certain sites the domestic accommodation was probably at first floor level (Armit 2003b: chapter 3). Wheelhouses were sometimes associated with souterrains, but the connection between storage structures and individual dwellings is entirely different from the more centralised system illustrated by hillforts in southern Britain.

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