Bernie Bell: The Cairns – the story of a broch

The Cairns B Bell

The Cairns (B Bell)

Last  October, a ‘Brochtoberfest’ was held in the St. Magnus Centre, Kirkwall, Orkney.  The event was put together by the archaeology Dept. of the UHI, and the Caithness Broch Project.

As part of this brochfest, Martin Carruthers – Brochman Extraordinaire – gave a talk about the Cairns site in South Ronaldsay.  Martin mentioned that one of the prize finds there, was a whalebone with the jaw-bone of a man carefully placed inside it – an unusually old man, for the time – which was found in the souterrain. It looks like this souterrain was constructed, as the broch was going out of use as a dwelling place.

I was taken greatly with the idea of the (unusually old) man’s passing, coinciding with the building being closed down, then the souterrain being put in place.

broch souterain entrance B Bell

Broch entrance/souteraine (B Bell)

Once the souterrain was in place, the people had to pass by the man’s remains to get inside. It became a place of reverence.

They were very magicy people.

After Martin’s talk, and the Brochfest, what was in my head was this………………a dynasty of people – an extended family.  They played a large part in the ‘success’ of the Cairns broch – in its importance in the surrounding area and in the welfare of the land and the people of that area.  And the sea, for that matter – the sea mattered to them a lot, too –  was seen as  – almost – magicy.

A large deposit of fish-bones was found, but it looks like they were from one, big feast or event.  Maybe fish, strangely enough, wasn’t commonly on the menu?

Not long ago, in Britain, only  ‘high ups’ were allowed to catch and eat rabbit – even though they were running about all over the place. If a common person was caught catching rabbits on the ‘high-ups’ land, they were in trouble.  Maybe, even though there were lots of fish, they were seen as being only food for important people, or special occasions?  Their position probably meant that the sea mattered a great deal to the people of the Cairns, maybe it mattered so much, that it was revered and they were very careful, and respectful, in their dealings with it. A wise course of action – the sea is a trixy character to deal with.

The dynasty lasted for a long time, but this man was the last of them. He lived to an unusually old age – but his decline and the decline of the broch, and possibly the well-being of the area,  may have been following the same downward path.  Power waned, in the man, in the broch, and in the land. Then he passed, and so he was incorporated in the new purpose of the broch site – a place of reverence.  There might even have been a hope that, by doing this, the fortunes of the area might improve again.

I don’t see him as being from away. I think he was from a long line of people originating in that area. I’d like to know the results of any tests which are done to find out where he came from!

finds B Bell

Finds from The Cairns (B Bell)

As part of the Brochfest, there was an exhibition in the Kirkwall museum of finds from the Cairns dig, including the whale bone and jawbone. And also including a battered old kettle – archaeology is on-going, and the ‘rubbish’ left behind by a previous exploration of the broch, becomes of interest  to the present excavators.

I hope I don’t tread on any archaeologists’ toes by putting forward these ideas – they are just what came into my head. If I have got any of the actual facts wrong – please, reply and put me, and the reader, straight about what might have been going on at the Cairns.

If the reader is interested, they could go to the UHI blog to follow this year’s dig and find out what is going on there now.

An after-thought……………. I’d read about the little stone ‘cells’ in the Cairns Broch, with shells placed in the clay in the walls, and wondered about them.

Then, I read this – from ‘A Stone Calendar’ by George Mackay Brown, and I thought that they fitted together.


Silence: a stone cell,

Around, shell choirs abrim.”

There’s something of rock pools in this idea, too.

Meanwhile, the diggers, keep on digging – down, down, deeper and down.

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Bernie Bell is a regular contributor to The Orkney News

Lotte has built this pretend broch at her croft at Loch Eriboll B Bell

Lotte Glob has built this pretend broch at her croft at Loch Eriboll (B Bell)

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9 replies »

  1. Metalworking is a magicy thing – it involves science, and it looks like magic. Turning lumps of rock, into metal. When The Cairns broch was de-commissioned, the souterrain was constructed, the remains of what may have been the last leader of a long line, was placed there, in a whalebone ( note – a whalebone – the strength of the sea), and it became a place of reverence. Last year’s dig uncovered much evidence of high status metal–working, possibly instigated and supported by another ‘leader’ family or clan. Metal working – magic. For me, this reinforces that area as a place of reverence and wonder to the people who lived nearby, and those who came there, to visit. Possibly even as a pilgrimage.
    The remains of the broch, with the souterrain containing the strength of the leader on land, and the most powerful thing those folk would have come across in the sea, placed together. Then we have metal working – intensive, high status metalworking – not just workaday objects, but fancy adornments – status symbols. Not just showy status symbols – simply showing-off, but symbols of real strength, influence, and knowledge. The equivalent today might be….. someone wearing a gown to show that they have a Degree – it shows that they have achieved a level of ability and knowledge, and they have had this acknowledged, by something they can wear about their person. Contrariwise – let’s take someone who has, let’s say a Porsche. This could be seen as a symbol of status, or even power, but it’s been acquired, sometimes even inherited – not achieved,
    There’s a big difference between a symbol which has nothing behind it – just to say “I’m a big deal” and a symbol which shows a level of achievement and knowledge and real influence in the society of the time, and therefore that the person is probably worthy of respect and attention.
    That’s how the Cairns speaks to me, now, through what is being found – still a place of reverence – a place of status and wonder, and the conferring of acknowledgement of achievement, in one way or another, by the presentation of and wearing of symbols. This acknowledgement, taking place at somewhere which has been seen as so special, for so long, would make the giving of and wearing of these symbols, even more important. This idea brings to mind, Knowth, in the Bru na Boinne – where, as I see it, being initiated/coming of age etc. would be even more ’special’, by it taking place in that location. See

    And there’s the evidence of metal working near Mine Howe – again, possibly, associated with a place of reverence? The area around Mine Howe also shows evidence of very long-term occupation.
    Last year, the diggers at The Cairns found a little blue bead, thought to be of ‘Roman’ date – from afar- from the East. I picture a young girl, maybe 12/13, placing that bead, carefully in a niche in the wall of the special place, as girls do – have special things, and special places. She ‘borrowed’ the major special place, as her own special place, where she made her offering of a prized possession – a blue glass bead, something special, tucked into the stonework of the wall.
    People – we don’t change much.
    In a wood near where we used to live, Mike and I came upon a tree stump where some children – I strongly suspect little girls – would leave their ‘offerings’ – coins, flowers, pebbles, feathers……beads. We started to leave things there, too, for the Spirit of Place.
    And on Day 5, this year, at The Cairns – another beauty of a bead – green, dappled, like water in a rock pool.

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