By Bernie Bell

Readers of ‘The Orkney News’ may remember ‘Name That Broch’

On Saturday 20th October, there was a different kind of Brochfest in the St. Magnus Centre, Kirkwall.  The first Brochtoberfest was held two years ago, in the St. Magnus Centre, where we were introduced to the Caithness Broch Project , and, among other things, given a talk by a man who is a builder ( sorry – can’t remember his name!) about how the brochs were actually constructed.  I saw that  being worth any number of conjectures by academics. This man knows how a stone structure needs to be put together to ‘work’, and he can recognize the methods which were employed in constructions from the past.  I’m not knocking the academics!  Where would we be without them?  I’d long wondered why the Mousa Broch on Shetland has those lines of regular gaps all the way up its interior. So, I took the opportunity to ask Martin Carruthers (Brochman Extraordinaire), who explained that those gaps, with long slabs above and below them, help with load-bearing in the walls, and so, made for a stronger structure. Martin also mentioned that some objects/artefacts were found in those spaces.  Were these ‘special’ objects, placed to strengthen the broch spiritually, as the gaps strengthened it physically?

Life is for learning, and I learnt things at the first Brochoberfest.

The second Brochtoberfest, last year, was held in Caithness. We couldn’t go to this, as I have problems travelling. I can travel, but slowly, and, there and back in a day, with a whole day of interesting events in the middle – I couldn’t  manage it. I can quote from the Caithness Broch Project’s write up of their achievements in 2017             ………..

“We decided to go out with a flourish and organise a number of events (including the ‘Caithness Broch Festival’ excavations) in October. Our month of activities kicked off with a Highland Council Ranger-guided walked across Westerdale, which features surely one of the highest concentrations of brochs anywhere in Scotland. Following on from last year’s ‘Brochtoberfest’ in Orkney, we decided to cap off a fantastic year by organising a day of academic and archaeological guest speakers, hailing from all over Scotland – and even one from Bradford – to talk about brochs at Caithness Horizons, on the 21st October. The day was a sell-out and so it was great to see such an interest in the academic research into the brochs of Scotland.”

This year, the Brochtoberfest returned to Orkney, to the St. Magnus Centre, and I was very pleased to see this, as it meant I could go along this time.

The Brochtoberfest in Orkney, is hosted by the Orkney Archaeology Society, with a lot of input from UHI ( The University of the Highlands and Islands), and , of course, The Caithness Broch Project.  On arrival, we encountered OAS members  ‘manning’ a table offering various OAS publications and bits & pieces, and also – as always on Orkney – a raffle!

Brochtoberfest B Bell1

We were given a list of the talks which would be taking place through the afternoon, in one of the rooms in the Centre

Brochtoberfest B Bell2

And which you can watch on the Orkney News Facebook page where Fiona has  livestreamed them.

We headed off into the main hall, where there was much of interest pertaining to brochs, UHI courses , various excavations, and a sand pit for the children!

For actual, real, archaeological artifacts, there was a row of display cases containing finds from The Cairns dig      which takes place each year on South Ronaldsay, in Orkney. These displays included the every intriguing large whale bone which was found,, containing a human jaw bone, at the Cairns a few years ago

whale bone and jaw bone from The Cairns B Bell

Also on display were some spindle whorls from The Cairns, including one which has its central hole off-centre

Amber, who has recently completed her Masters dissertation on textiles in the Iron Age, at UHI, explained that …the whorl with the off-centre hole, wouldn’t have worked right – it would ‘wobble’ as you tried to spin, so, it was probably discarded.  I asked was it found in the rubbish heap for the broch, but Amber explained that it was found in the foundations of a building, and that ‘perfect’ whorls are also sometimes found in foundation deposits, too.  Spinning – mattered.  This could be one of those examples of when everyday objects are of such importance in the lives of the people, that they took on a ‘ritual’ significance, and were placed carefully to add to the ‘strength’ of the new structure. They were magicy people!

Amber also showed us how to spin, Iron Age style.

There was a fine selection of books on offer, to suit all ages and tastes, supplied by The Orcadian Bookshop, and the shop at Skaill House. Here’s  OAS member, Julie, promoting the Ness of Brodgar booklet

Brochtoberfest Books B Bell

There was even Lego broch building for the children. Or, not necessarily for children!

Lego Brochtoberfest B Bell

If you have Lego at home, you could have a go at building a broch, with or without the ’Mousa Gaps’.

There were displays showing work at different archaeological sites, and how these can link together, even across the world.  Orkney isn’t the only place where ancient peoples raised improbably large stones – much work has been done by UHI archaeologist on Rapa Nui ( or, Easter Island, as it was known for a long time)

Easter Island Brochtoberfest B Bell

I particularly like this image by Adam Stanford

Topknot Easter Island B Bell

and the explanation………………….

“Massive Pukas (top knot) at Puna Pou, decorated with canoes and other designs and later hollowed out for use as a shepherd’s shelter.”

And I’ll finish with the Westray Wifie, as everyone likes the Westray Wifie

Westray Wifie B BellSo far, the Brochtoberfests have alternated between Orkney and Caithness. If this is the general plan, I’m not likely to manage to go to next year’s either, and I’ll be sorry to miss it, as it really is a good way to spend an afternoon – varied, much of interest, folk to talk with about matters archaeological in general, and brochy in particular. Probably the best way to know what’s going on is ….to join the Orkney Archaeology Society! or, check out the OAS Facebook page.

October – ‘Tis the season to get Brochy!

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13 replies »

  1. Thanks to Kenneth McElroy for letting us know that the builder-man who gave the very informative talk about broch construction, is called Iain Maclean.

    • Speaking for myself (Fiona) I have been a brochoholic since first reading about them in primary school

  2. And while we’re talking brochs………..

    A strange juxtaposition………
    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 completey 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.

    • Jedward were filming for a children’s tv programme. I took them round Skara Brae where I worked at the time. And it worked because children came to the site many months later who had seen the programme and had wanted to come and look at it for themselves

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