The Ruins of Breckness: Prehistoric & Modern – Brochs

by W.G.T. Watt, of Skaill (from Orcadian Papers 1905)

These ruins are situated on a low-lying and flat promontory  in the township of Outertown and parish of Stromness. They face Hoy Mouth, always in a state of commotion owing to the strong tide running to and fro through it, and which, in a westerly gale with the tide meeting the full roll of the great Atlantic waves, is probably one of the grandest sights in Orkney. But to add to the grandeur of this, there are, immediately across the sound, the lofty hills of Hoy, bleak, black and barren, with ragged cliffs against which the great waves dash and fall off in huge volumes of foam.

A bold beautiful landscape and sea piece to look at! Then to the north-west of the ruins are the dark, beetling cliffs of the Black Crag, 360 feet high, which gives shelter to the township from the cold north wind; while the green fields and well cultivated land round about form a pleasant contrast to the bold cliff scenery and boisterous sound. In winter the scene has peculiar charms, but in summer the effect is even greater, the whole surrounding landscape and, as a rule, less turbulent ocean being then lit up and mellowed by the bright and most exquisite colouring of the sunset, which is not surpassed even by “the glorious tropical” sunsets which I have had pleasure of witnessing. On the whole, a more romantic or picturesque spot for a dwelling would be difficult to find in Orkney.

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view at the Broch of Borwick (F Grahame)

I have frequently observed that the broch builders invariably pitched on a site not only suitable for natural defence but one that likewise had pleasant surroundings, so we are not surprised to find at Breckness the remains of a large and most interesting broch. I recently inspected the ruins, and came to the conclusion that the broch must have had an interior diameter of over 30 feet, with walls at least 16 feet thick. We may suppose that, looking to the measurements of other brochs, notable those of the broch at Mousa in Shetland, the one at Breckness was 50 feet or more in  height, and no doubt similar to other buildings of the kin in the matter of its interior plan, all brochs having been designed very much alike. They were dry built circular towers, on an average between 40 and 50 feet, and walls from 12 to 15 feet thick. The outer and inner walls were well built, the intervening space being filled in with loose rubble work.

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Entrance to the Broch of Borwick (F Grahame)

The entrance to a broch is generally about S.E., and the passage that runs through the thickness of the wall to the interior court is between 5 and 5 1/2 feet high, and about 3 feet wide. On the right hand side at the inner end there is generally a guard chamber. Off the court also are one or more small chambers in the thickness of the walls. from the ground floor a narrow stair leads to galleries. Light to the stairs and galleries is received from small windows looking into the court, but no windows, so far as I know , look outside from the external wall. In the case of the Broch of Burwick, however, which I partially excavated in 1881, I am inclined to think that above the passage over the doorway there has been a chamber with a small peep-hole or outlook. Around the top of the tower may have been a landing with parapet, from which the inhabitants could assail an enemy with comparative impunity.

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Broch of Borwick Orkney (F Grahame)

Thus you may picture the Broch of Breckness. We have no certainty as to the period when brochs were erected, or what race of people inhabited them, though it is generally supposed that they were Pictish; but one thing is certain, they are of great antiquity, and the fact of the sea having encroached on the hard rocks of Breckness and carried away more than half of the Broch there, notwithstanding that it is a good deal sheltered from the fierce attacks of the Atlantic by the skerry of Braga and an outlying promontory, is sufficient proof of its great age.

From what I can gather, there is no doubt the Norsemen found the brochs peculiar buildings of defence on their arrival in this country about the ninth century. In Norway, I understand, no brochs or remains of brochs have been discovered.

I have never heard of any relics being found in the broch at Breckness, but a few years ago I came on a skeleton in the bank close to the broch. It lay full length in a grave, the sides of which were built with sea-worn stones, and which was covered with flat shore stones. Nothing was found in the grave by which to form any opinion as to the time when the internment had been made, but no doubt it was an ancient grave. There may be a number of such graves about the same place, as a broch when in ruins was a favourite spot for the people of early times to bury their dead in, but as a rule it was by cremation the ashes being placed in small cists similar to those found in tumuli.

Next week: More from W.G.T. Watt of Skaill  and “Bishop Graham”

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5 replies »

  1. And here’s my broch story – I’ve always got a story!

    A couple of years ago, Mike and I were meaning to walk through the Broch of Gurness, to go along the coastal path which can be accessed through the gate at the far side of the Broch. As we entered the Broch enclosure we saw a number of people, some with film cameras, and there was a general air of activity and anticipation. A man approached and asked us would we mind waiting a little while before continuing our walk. He explained that Jedward were in the broch, and were about to emerge any minute, and, as the cameras would be filming, it would be best if we’d stand aside. This seemed like a pretty strange proposition – Jedward/Iron Age fortified dwelling. But, we stood aside and chatted with the man, then……sure enough, Jedward emerged from the Broch! and started to skitter about, as Jedward do. Picture it – I think surreal is the right word for what we were experiencing!

    After a short flurry of activity, the man thanked us for our patience, and said it was OK for us to continue on our way.
    He’d completely fallen in love with Orkney and, while we were waiting for the emergence of Jedward from the Broch ( did you ever think you’d read that sentence?), he was asking what life is like here – work opportunities etc. We were very positive and enthusiastic, as always. I don’t know if he followed up on it, or if he was kept busy following Jedward.
    Truth really can be stranger than fiction.

    • Bernie I was with Jedward at Skara Brae and took them round the village. It’s on YouTube

  2. Here’s another brochy bit………………
    A while ago, Martin Carruthers (of UHI) told me that the hump along from the school in Finstown, is a broch. I hadn’t realized that – it just looked like a lumpy bit by the road. It still looks like a lumpy bit by the road, but now I know it’s a broch, I do like it that there’s a war-time pill-box on top of it, which links in nicely with your piece about wartime coastal defences. Iron Age brochs/wartime concrete edifices – both chains of defence along the coast of Orkney.
    Recently, Mike and I did something we’ve been meaning to do for some time. We went for the tiny walk round the Ouse. It’s hardly any walk at all, which is why we never got round to it. I’d had it in my head to do so, as I thought it would give a different perspective on Finstown, and it does. From the mill at the end of the water, working round to the left, that hill between the hills becomes more out-standing…………it’s just a different view – a different way of seeing Finstown.
    Then there’s the broch. Suddenly the broch stands out very clearly as a mound – a mound between the two stretches of water, with the hills behind. To me, it was really striking – a big difference in how it strikes the eye.

    As for Jedward – are they as annoying as they appear to be, or is it just an act?
    You can’t possibley comment!

    • Jedward were find with me Bernie – although twins they are quite different characters – just lads (but very wealthy ones)

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