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.

Facebook Friends of the Cairns

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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