The Perfection of Mousa Broch: A 19thC Visit to Shetland

An American Professor toured Orkney and Shetland in 1890. His impressions of the islands were published in the local paper, The Orkney Herald. In this account he tells of his encounters with the Iron Age brochs of Shetland – which he sometimes refers to as ‘Pictish Towers’.

Mousa broch , the tower as seen from a distance on the shore
© Copyright Colin Smith

‘The tower of Mousa is said to be the most perfect specimen of its type now existing. It stands close to the shore, on the landward side of an islet of a few acres, separated from the mainland by a strait perhaps a mile in width. It is built of unhewn stones of varying sizes, without cement, and has an exterior height of forty one feet and a base diameter of fifty feet. The wall of this circular tower is fourteen feet in thickness, and is for a certain distance solid. In the thickness of this wall, however, several recesses sufficiently spacious to have been used as sleeping chambers. These open upon the inner court.

About four feet above the entrance to the north east chambers a narrow stair conducts to a circular corridor, the wall being divided from about eight feet above the ground into inner and outer sections, with galleries between. From the lowest corridor or circular passage a stone stair leads in turn to a second higher gallery. This stair forms at the same time a solid partition wall dividing the lower circuit.’

looking up the winding stone stair between the walls of the broch
© Copyright Chris Downer

‘A similar principle of construction prevails in the higher corridors, and there now remain six tiers of these galleries, varying in height from four feet to five feet six inches, none thus being of sufficient altitude to have permitted persons of ordinary stature to stand or walk erect. From this and other analogous phenomena observed in connection with the prehistoric remains found in these islands, the folk mind has deduced the conclusion that the Picts were a race of dwarfs. These galleries received their light from the inner court through apertures pierced in the inner wall. Apparently the ground space of the court was divided by some partition walls, but of this I did not feel sure. From above there is a commanding outlook, down the main coast to Sumburgh Head.

Just across the Sound, on the mainland, are the remains of a similar structure. From without the tower has a somewhat irregular appearance, deflecting first slightly inwards and then bulging outwards, to contract again. This phenomenon is believed to be due to subsidence. The only entrance to the tower is by a low passage.

The Broch of Mousa has also an historic or romantic importance. Bjorn Brynjolfsson, eloping with Thora, Harold’s daughter ,from Norway, spent part of his honeymoon here on his way to Iceland, and later it harboured a Countess of Athole and her lover. Now it affords shelter and resting to innumerable seabirds, and a visit on a rainy day is not to be counselled.’

Our American Professor is perhaps a Victorian romantic for the story of Bjorn and Thora is not the consensual marriage and subsequent ‘honeymoon’ as he describes it. Bjorn twice kidnapped Thora . It was on the second occasion that he landed up at Mousa.

“King Harald Finehair sent out messengers to the Shetland and Orkney Islands, as well as Dublin, declaring that Bjorn Brynjolfsson was a wanted man, dead or alive. Despite this, Bjorn and his crew managed to successfully land at Mousa, one of the Shetland Islands. After spending the winter there, and performing some sort of wedding with Thora, Bjorn set sail for Iceland.” via The Scandalous 10th-Century Kidnapping And Voyage of Thora Of The Embroidered Hand

And what of Margaret, the Countess of Atholl?

In 1154, Erlend Junge, a chief from Hjaltland, fled with Earl Harald’s mother, Margaret, widow of Madadh of Atholl, and shut himself up in Mousa, where he stood a siege, ‘Orkneyinga Saga’.

In ‘The New History of Orkney’ Thomson states:

” it was through his mother that Harald (Maddadsson) inherited a claim to Orkney; she was Margaret, daughter of Earl Hakon and a half sister to Earl Paul II, but on her mother’s side she was also part Scots with many relatives in the Norwego-Celtic ‘Clan Moddan’ which dominated the southern frontiers of Caithness….after the death of the Earl of Atholl ,Margaret returned to Orkney where her love affairs complicated the internal politics of the earldom.”

One of Margaret’s love affairs resulted in a child ‘by Gunni Olafsson , Sweyn Asleifsson’s brother. Earl Harald, now a young adult, was highly displeased; he outlawed Gunni who had to be shipped off to safety in the Hebrides.’ Thomson

You can read more about Sweyn Asleifsson here: Svein Asleifarsson – Orkney’s Last Sea Wolf and A Tale of Two Sveins

For more of the American Professor’s 1890 trip to Orkney and Shetland;

In his next recollection our American Professor turns his gaze upon Clickiminn Broch

Fiona Grahame

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