‘To Build A Broch’

By Bernie Bell

I first became aware of the development of a booklet entitled To Build A Broch when I listened to Matt Ritchie’s talk hosted by the Caithness Broch Project https://www.thebrochproject.co.uk/. He was clear, informative and didn’t make me go to sleep or start fidgeting to be elsewhere!

At the time, the booklet was still in its early stages but it caught my interest and I hoped to see it in its entirety before too long – and here it is!

To Build a Broch – Forestry and Land Scotland

I spoke to Matt recently, to find out about the collaborative process behind its creation.

“I wanted to create an archaeological narrative that linked the ruins we see today to the people who built them. Artists Alan Braby and Lizzie Robertson created the core visualisations – illustrating broch construction and the interior fixtures and fittings, but importantly not including scenes of daily life within the broch. Archaeologist Kim Biddulph and artist Alex Leonard developed our cast of characters – the wealth and status of the household is on display in their clothes and jewellery, and can be compared to the functional clothing of their retainers or the hard-wearing leather of the stonemasons. And archaeologists Andy Heald and Tanja Romankiewicz set to work with me on the main text – describing the structural components that can be seen today and the architectural design concepts that lie behind them.

I wanted to describe the work of construction, and to ask what it really meant to build a broch. I realised that once the broch had been completed – the timber floor laid, the front door hung and the thatch roof raised – it would have briefly stood empty, waiting to be filled with all the sights and sounds of daily life. This must have been a very special moment in time – marked for some by a feeling of satisfaction of a job well done, and for others with mounting excitement as they waited to move in, unpack and share their first meal around the hearth.”

To Build a Broch describes the building of a broch over two thousand years ago. It presents an illustrated narrative – a story of complex structural engineering and bold architectural design, exploring an amazing vernacular building tradition that was the height of fashion over two thousand years ago. These distinctive circular drystone towers rise high from their foundations by employing a series of weight-saving and load-bearing galleries, stairways and passages within their double-skinned walls.

Matt explains further. “Brochs were built and occupied, altered and repaired, fell into disuse and were sometimes reoccupied. They stood for centuries or collapsed into ruination, to be later robbed for building stone. The ruins that we see today range from great stone mounds to a few low courses of walling; from unconsolidated ruins showing only tantalising glimpses of their structural components, to consolidated structures, partially rebuilt in places and held together by introduced mortar and steel bars. Recognising the various processes at work within the timespan between construction and collapse, ruination or conservation is an important step towards becoming a broch investigator. Learning to spot these clues within the structure helps us to better understand the various narratives at play, and imagine the key moments in time.

So I also called on friends and colleagues from across Scotland’s heritage sector to describe what working with their own brochs meant to them: Gavin Douglas explains the importance of the humble pinning stone, using Dun Carloway as his canvas; Sophia Mirashrafi describes the holistic digital documentation of Mousa; Rachel Pickering explores recent interpretation at Gurness; Graeme Cavers recounts the excavation and consolidation of Clachtoll; Kenneth McElroy looks back on the conservation work at Ousdale; and Simon Gilmour looks towards the next generation of archaeologists and broch investigators.”

To Build a Broch is designed to be read as a book, or broken into pieces to support indoor and outdoor learning. It presents a fresh take on both the interpretation of our ancient past and our contemporary archaeological practice.

Download the booklet here: To Build A Broch

To Build a Broch will also soon be available in Gaelic.

You may also like to check out the new learning resource: A Song in Stone: exploring Scotland’s Neolithic rock art

and short animated film: A Song in Stone

1 reply »

  1. I particularly like the idea and the image of ‘moving day’ when the build was finished and the people moved in and started to place their things around the interior, as people do when they first move in. It humanizes the building.

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