Across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland there are around 500 brochs, circular defensive towers made of stone. Sometimes these stand alone, sometimes they form the focus of a community of smaller buildings. The shores of the Eynhallow Sound, between West Mainland and Rousay, are especially thickly populated with brochs. Two stand out as exceptional: Midhowe Broch on Rousay, and the Broch of Gurness, nearly opposite it on West Mainland.
The Broch of Gurness was built as a planned settlement some time before 200BC. A circular area of nearly 50m in diameter was mapped out. Ditches were dug around the outer edges of the circle and ramparts were built with the spoil. The plan seems not to have been completed immediately, but within a fairly short time a broch was built, off centre within the inner ring of ditches defending the site.
Externally the broch was 20m in diameter and may have reached a height of 10m. Internally it was equipped with stone walls or dividers and a deep well. Around it was built a village of small stone houses, each with a yard and a storage shed. Over time, further modifications followed. The west side of the broch collapsed and had to be rebuilt, and other changes were made around the causeway bridging the ditches.
By about AD100 the population of the area had declined and the tower seems to have collapsed again. The inhabitants largely abandoned the site, leaving just one family who set up home amid the rubble in what has become known as the Shamrock House, because of the four rooms that lead off the central area. During the Pictish period in the AD500s-AD600s, this was also abandoned. (Continues below image...)
By the time the Vikings arrived in Orkney there was probably nothing at Gurness except for a grassy mound. At least one Viking was buried here, but there was otherwise no sign of any later disturbance or development until the site was excavated in 1929.
Today's Broch of Gurness still manages to give a sense of how it would have looked to its builders and original inhabitants. Over the intervening 2,000 years the sea has swallowed up half of the land between the original north ditch and the outer edge of the broch. Further erosion has been checked by the building of a sea wall to protect the site.
The first structure encountered by the visitor is a 20th Century addition, the visitor centre. Opposite are the remains of the Shamrock House used by the Pictish family that lived here after the broch had fallen into disuse. This was originally found in an upper level on the south side of the site but was moved to this position in 1929 to allow excavations to continue below its original location.
Then you negotiate the concentric rings of ditches at what would have originally been the rear side of the broch, all the time approaching the remains of the main tower of the broch itself. This is at pretty much the height it was at when the archaeologists uncovered it in 1929, though what was originally a dry stone construction is today largely held together by mortar.
The village that surrounds the broch is more difficult to visualise than the broch itself. Walls are low and in places fragmentary and internal fixtures appear as sometimes little more than piles of stones. But it all starts to come together in an understandable way when you move around to the east side of the complex, where the entrance causeway that led from the outer defences of the site to the door of the broch can still be seen. And, still better, around it the shapes of the houses seem much clearer.
The causeway was probably designed to give an impressive or intimidating entrance to the complex in 200BC, and it remains impressive even today. Equally impressive is the doorway to the broch itself.
Because the upper levels of what was once a tall structure cannot be seen, it is difficult to gain a clear understanding of the way the broch would have been used. However, it is still possible to see the hearths on the floor. There are also many stone partitions, items of furniture and cupboards and cubbyholes. Within the thickness of the walls is a stone staircase that would originally have led to upper levels.
A particularly interesting feature is what the original archaeologists took to be a well in the floor of the broch, which had been filled in part way through the period of occupation. As this is a deep hole in the ground, with water at the bottom, it's a reasonable assumption to call it a well and believe that's the end of the story. The recent rediscovery of a rather spooky hole in the ground at Mine Howe has caused a rethink. Like Mine Howe, the well at Gurness has steps down into the interior and has chambers built into the its sides. No one yet has a convincing answer, but the idea that this was simply a broch well is now in doubt.
The Broch of Gurness is an intriguing place, and a tantalising one. Unlike Skara Brae, which predates it by around 3,000 years, the evidence of the real people who built the broch always seems just out of reach. They certainly existed, but in wandering around the site today it's difficult to imagine them actually living out their day-to-day lives here. But despite that this really is a fascinating and intriguing place.