There are some 500 brochs scattered across Scotland, especially across the north and west of the country. Built in the last couple of centuries BC and the first couple of centuries AD they combine features of fort, fortified house, and status symbol, and could easily have served different purposes in different places and at different times. Of all Scotland's brochs one quite literally stands supreme: Mousa Broch rises to 13m high and is both magnificent and awe inspiring.
The broch stands on the now uninhabited island of Mousa, a mile or so off the east coast of Shetland's Mainland. Access is by the passenger ferry Solan IV operated by Mousa Boat Trips from Sandwick, some 15 miles south of Lerwick. For more information see our Feature Page about the ferry.
The ferry lands at the jetty in the inlet of West Ham, close to the croft from which the RSPB operates Mousa as a bird sanctuary. The island itself is fascinating for those with an interest in birds, or wanting to see seals basking.
But most visitors find Mousa Broch an irresistible draw. To get there you follow a track above the shore of the island for a little over half a mile. The broch comes into view fairly quickly and from there your attention is focused on a structure that just keeps on getting bigger as you approach.
Standing above a rocky shoreline, Mousa was one of a pair of brochs built to stand guard over Mousa Sound. The other is at Burraland on the Mainland on the opposite side of the sound. It is far less well preserved than Mousa.
The entrance passage into Mousa is long, reflecting the enormous thickness of its walls. At its base the broch is 15m in diameter, but the interior is only 6m in diameter. Once inside it is difficult to understand how people might have lived within what resembles nothing so much as a power station cooling tower. The remaining fixtures and fittings, such as they are, give little help, for these largely date back to a later "wheel house" constructed within the walls of the broch, probably in the Pictish period.
Within the huge thickness of the base of the walls are a range of chambers probably used for storage, while at higher levels passages run between the inner and outer skins of the wall. Opinions differ about whether this was to ensure that the sheer mass of the walls didn't cause the broch to collapse; or simply an anticipation by 2000 years of the invention of double glazing.
On one side of the interior an entranceway gives access to the bottom of a steep flight of very narrow and very low steps that leads to the top of the wall. Half way up is a landing, breaking the climb into two halves and giving access to what was once probably an upper level of the interior of the broch, built on a ledge running around the circumference of the interior.
The top of the wall comprises a walkway around much of the broch, giving superb views across Mousa Sound. The interior of the broch is covered with a modern grille to prevent access by birds.
It is thought the broch was never much higher than it is today. But given its importance it comes as a surprise to find that very little is really known about Mousa Broch. It was cleared out in 1860 and 1919, but there has never been a proper archaeological investigation.
As a result, many mysteries remain. It is unclear whether, like many brochs, Mousa was the focus of a settlement that surrounded it or if it has always stood alone. There are a few humps and bumps around it, but not many. But perhaps most of all, it is unclear why Mousa, alone of 500 or so Scottish brochs, has survived intact to such a magnificent height.
Some suggest this is because of a lack of later development in this part of the island. Yet within sight of the parapet are the ruins of a fishing station or haa from the 1700s plus its various stone walls, and remains of a group of croft houses. Why didn't the builders of these follow normal practice and recycle the readily available stone in the broch?
We have our own theory. In December 2004 we received an email: "Hello. I am an American that lives in New Jersey, and was given a stone by one of my friends that he got when he was visiting the Zetland Islands. The stone is from a site of an old dome shaped Cairn that has a winding stairway. I feel bad that the stone was taken from this sacred place and would like to get it back there somehow. even if it is just near the area. It may sound crazy, but I don't think the the stone is very happy where it is. I put it in a plant that was healthy and the plant's health rapidly declined."
Further correspondence established that the stone had been taken from Mousa Broch, specifically from the area of the landing between the two flights of stairs. Our correspondent subsequently sent us the stone (picture on this page) by mail and it spent the following several months on a shelf next to a piece of the Berlin Wall, apparently quite happily awaiting the completion of its journey home. In July 2005, when the pictures on this page were taken, the stone was replaced in Mousa Broch, approximately where it was taken from before its trip to America and back.
Perhaps Mousa Broch still stands to a height of over 13m because our ancestors also found out the hard way that anyone taking stones from the broch rapidly came to regret it?