Saturday, 27 May 2017

Fit's a broch aboot?

Happy Saturday wishes to you! 

The sun is shining for the third day in a row and it's nice and warm which for the north east of Scotland is pretty exciting. (it's not seriously hot, mind but at c.18 Deg C it's comfy) It makes me want to be at home lazing about and trying to write outside, battling the inevitable screen glare issue rather than being elsewhere. It makes me really appreciate having a home and garden to step into. 

For these reasons, I'm re-blogging a post that I created for my slot last Wednesday (24th May) for the Writing Wranglers and Warriors blog. It is particularly apt. I think, since it's about ancient homes that were typical in Scotland some thousands of years ago. Mostly though the post is about a special kind of building that's almost exclusively found in Scotland. Yes, there are some examples in Ireland and in England but BROCHS are predominantly a Scottish ruin. 

The title of this post is in my best Doric, the dialect of the north east of Scotland and translated means 'What is a broch about'? Was it a home? Or was it built for defence? Or did it serve another purpose?  

Home Sweet Home…or was it?

You’ll find a multitude of sayings about ‘home’ on the internet. These few are particularly useful for my topic today.

Home is where the heart is.  Pliny the Elder
He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
A man's home is his castle. Proverb

Skara Brae 1986
We all know of the huge variety of domiciles that we could call home, nowadays, but an assortment of architectural house styles wasn’t always the norm.

As a hobby historian, I’m quite fascinated by the earliest types of habitation and the effort it took to create them. Admittedly, I’m more familiar with the most primitive dwellings in my homeland area of Scotland than those in other parts of the globe.

I’ve crawled into a reconstruction of a hunter gatherer’s hide, a very primitive covering made from sewn-together skins, but that’s not quite the same as walking your way around someone’s home that’s connected to others, making them into a tiny communal hamlet. 
Skara Brae 1986
Probably the earliest type of collective living I’ve wandered around were the homes of ‘Stone Age’ Neolithic people on the island of Orkney at Skara Brae. What remains of these stone dwellings is totally remarkable, though only because they lay under sand dunes for millennia before the wind and waves uncovered them in the mid 19th century.

At Skara Brae we can envisage a day in the life of the people. The delineated areas of the homes (minus original roofs) are easily visible as in a ‘bird’s eye view’. Their cupboards are built into the wall, the fireplace is central and their sleeping cots are blocked off with large slabs. There is even a built-in channel that is essentially primitive drainage, as in for toilet use: functional but effective buildings.

Ring of Brodgar
Were the Skara Brae houses fortified in any way? It doesn’t seem the case but there are some new theories going around (resulting from recent excavation) that the nearby timber/standing stone circles in the Orkney Isles may have had a community aspect to their construction. 

It’s now believed by some current archaeologists that the earliest of these stone henges pre-date that of Stonehenge in England and that the culture of building such henges may have travelled southwards, rather than northwards. Regardless of the direction of architectural influence, the massive wooden and stone circles were most likely built for religious observance and of people to congregate for positive reasons without the need for defence from outside entities, as in human raiders. In the Orkneys some archaeologists now think there was a religious community living alongside the henge monument.

 This recent BBC programme covers the issues-albeit a little dramatically and some critics might say fancifully.

Celtic Roundhouse Wikimedia Commons
Skip forward a couple of thousand years and sail south to mainland Scotland. Archaeologists have to work much harder to find evidence of Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age ‘Home Sweet Home’. Mainly because wooden constructions last a lot less than those that were stone built.

The Bronze Age and Iron Age tribes seemed to have mainly lived in hut circles, some with stone foundations (probably where wood was less available) and the bulk in wooden ‘Celtic’ roundhouses. There’s sufficient evidence around Scotland for some variety in shape - some were oval though most were circular.  Some individual roundhouse dwellings have been found but it was more common for them to have been erected in a small cluster situated near strip- field farms.

Crannog dwellings built on wooden platforms are a fine example of Bronze and Iron Age living. By the time crannogs were erected out over the water of inland lochs they were probably fortifying themselves mainly from marauding wild animals rather then marauding tribesmen. However, along with the Bronze Age and Iron Age technology—effective weaponry in particular—there came a greater need for tribespeople to defend themselves.

I’m currently very interested in a type of dwelling that’s almost exclusively found in Scotland – the Broch. But was it Home Sweet Home or not?

Dun Carloway - Wikimedia Commons
Broch building is very difficult to define. Until recently not enough time or effort was given to investigating this unique style of building. Broch remains are found in southern Scotland but the bulk are to be found in northern Scotland, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

So how does a Broch differ from a Celtic roundhouse, or from a crannog?

A Broch is a massive drystone built hollow-walled tower. Some of these towers were thought to have been as high as 50 feet with walls of around 4 feet thick- like the Broch of Mousa in Shetland. Staircases wind their way up the hollow wall structure to give access to upper levels and some of the evidence shows there could have been multiple platforms, circular balconies or partial floors, inside a broch.
Interior staircase Dun Carloway- Wikimedia Commons
Many brochs are thought to be from the Neolithic period but intriguingly others situated towards the south of Scotland have been dated to 1st century AD, during the Roman occupation.

Brochs have no windows and only one low entrance way so the interior would have been extremely dark. How damp they were inside, I don’t even want to imagine! What the roofs were constructed of is a matter of interpretation: possibly thatched like roundhouses. A corbelled stone roof is thought to be less likely, though that would have been a remarkable feat of engineering and the technique not unknown because Neolithic people used it in structures like the Maes Howe chambered cairn on Orkney.

Mousa, Shetland Isles - Wikimedia Commons
Earliest archaeological thinking was that Brochs were built as a defensive structure but that’s hard to believe since there were no windows to give access for repelling invaders. 

Some experts then thought they were built more as a status symbol by the local chief to show his superiority in the region. The broch at Mousa, Shetland is certainly impressive enough for that!

However, some recent archaeologists aren’t ruling out the idea that people maybe ‘holed up’ in them like in a self-sufficient ‘siege’ when invaders threatened the area, and that they normally lived outwith the broch in some other form of dwelling house. I’m not sure I’d want to be inside one for months on end.

The theories are all fascinating conjecture!

I’ve been following a Facebook page named the Caithness Broch Project which has an aim of properly identifying the multitude of Brochs that litter Caithness. They also intend to build a replica Broch to satisfy the curiosity of tourists like me. I’m eagerly waiting for that to be built so that I can pop up and visit it though that’s likely to mean a 400 mile round trip for me.

 What's your favourite ‘Home Sweet Home’?

Whatever you do today- enjoy! I'm doing more new writing and some gardening. See you later...


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