Standing beside the main road from Wick to John o' Groats in the tiny hamlet of Auckengill is the Old School House, built in the late 1800s. Today this is home to the Caithness Broch Centre, a museum dedicated to the exploration of a number of key themes relating to the brochs.
There are the remains of some 500 brochs scattered across Scotland. The distribution of these uniquely Scottish structures tends to be densest in Shetland, Orkney and on some of the western isles: and especially in Caithness, which lays claim to more brochs per square mile than anywhere else.
A broch is a drystone circular tower with rooms, galleries and stairways contained within the thickness of its walls. The walls tended to be much thicker at the base than at their tops, and the structures could reach heights of up to 15m. They were built in the last couple of centuries BC and the first couple of centuries AD. For drystone structures, some very advanced construction techniques were used including weight saving devices intended to allow taller structures to stand securely, and the use of air circulating through the voids within the walls for heating and cooling.
Some brochs, like Mousa Broch on Shetland, and Dun Carloway on Lewis apparently stood in isolation. Others like the Broch of Clickimin near Lerwick, the Broch of Gurness and Midhowe Broch on Orkney, and Carn Liath near Golspie seem to have stood at the centre of a community of outbuildings which nestled around them. This has fed the long-standing debate about whether brochs were primarily for defence or for show, and whether their role changed over the centuries during which they were in use. It actually seems quite likely that they served different purposes in different places and at different times.
Internal arrangements within brochs also seem to vary from place to place. The Broch of Gurness has remains of ground floor hearths and stone room dividers, while it seems likely that at Dun Carloway the ground floor was used to accommodate livestock while the human residents occupied the first and upper floors of the broch.
The inside of the Caithness Broch Centre has a bright and airy feel that contrasts with the Victorian stone exterior. The centre seeks to address three aspects of the brochs: the communities who in the 1800s and 1900s first excavated them; the communities who actually lived in the brochs; and the legacies the brochs bring to modern communities in the areas in which they are found. It does this through information panels and with collections of artefacts found in brochs in display cases in the centre of the room. The overall theme is set by aerial imaging of Nybster Broch, on the coast nearby.
It is possible to visit the standing remains of any number of brochs without gaining any real feel for the people who actually lived in them: the scale of the brochs and the stone construction seem to exclude the humans from the picture. This is a gap ably filled by the themed collections of artefacts on view at the Caithness Broch Centre. As a result you can look at groups of tools used for various purposes; or look at the collection of lamp bases and a striking stone and realise that their residents actually needed light in the brochs. We were particularly struck by the collection of leisure equipment: including stone balls, dice, a gaming board and gaming pieces.
If there is one thing you don't really get at the centre it is a strong sense of what a broch actually looks like if you've not already visited a number. There is a small cut-away model on a window sill, but this is easy to overlook and given the available space we'd have thought that a very much larger cut-away model (perhaps on a scale of feet rather than inches) standing in the open area of floor would more than fill the gap!