Brochs are ancient middle Iron Age dwellings, built from as early as 500 BC (and inhabited until 1,000 AD). They are only found in Scotland, where there are thought to be well over 500 brochs, most of them lying in northern and western Scotland and the islands.
Brochs are formed of two concentric walls, and were built using drystone techniques (i.e. without mortar or other bonding agents). Their thick walls thinned out towards the top, tapering inwards to prevent the walls from toppling under the weight. Most had a narrow entrance passage, often containing small chambers leading off the ground floor. Inside, there was typically an inner communal space with a stone hearth. Stone stairs corkscrewed between the inner and outer walls to the top, which would probably have had a conical thatched roof. Timber platforms and ledges indicate that some brochs included a first floor.
It is not known what brochs were used for or even why they were built, but they most probably had a wide range of uses. Some archaeologists think they served as fortified homes for chieftains or important local families, others think they were defensive structures, and even places of refuge – perhaps even an early form of Scottish bothy.
Here are 10 of some of the best preserved brochs that are well worth a visit.
1. Midhowe Broch
This beautiful ruin is situated on the west coast of the island of Rousay. It was built on a narrow promontory beside Eynhallow Sound between 200 BC – 200 AD. The structure has a diameter of 9 metres, and its walls are around 4 metres high. The interior of the broch contains many chambers and hearths.
Lots of archaeologists and historians have studied Midhowe broch (since the 1930s), and many of the archaeological discoveries there are displayed at the visitor centre by the well-preserved Broch of Gurness on Orkney’s mainland.
2. Mousa Broch
Mousa Broch, located on the Shetland Islands, is one of the best preserved brochs. It towers over 13 metres above the surrounding countryside and is the tallest prehistoric building in Britain.
Standing on the uninhabited island of Mousa, this broch can only be reached by boat. The broch contains three large chambers, which each have a stone cupboard built into the wall. A spiral stair also leads to six galleries. This broch appears twice in the Orkneyinga Saga collection of Norse histories.
3. Nybster Broch
Nybster Broch (and nearby Dunbeath Broch) are both located on the North Coast 500 route, on the historic east coast of Caithness – an area with the most brochs in Scotland. Whilst Nybster has much lower walls than many others, it is one of the most important broch settlements in mainland Scotland, situated on an easily-defended high promontory.
There are many interlinked ancillary buildings and spoil heaps as well as the broch itself, and it is thought that people lived here for over 1,000 years. Archaeological finds from Nybster Broch are displayed at the nearby Caithness Broch Centre in Auckengill.
4. Carloway Broch
This remarkably well preserved broch stands on a hilltop above Loch Roag in the district of Carloway, on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. Archeological evidence suggests that it was still in use around 1,000 AD and potentially even in the 16th century by the Morrison Clan.
Carloway Broch’s walls still reach over 9 metres high in places, and contains several chambers and tiers of galleries on two levels.
5. Dun Dornaigil
Dating back at least 2,300 years, Dun Dornaigil stands in a beautiful location, overlooking the Strathmore River in the historic county of Sutherland.
Its walls now stand approximately 2 metres high, though an impressive 7 metre-high area remains where a doorway is located. This distinctive entrance with large triangular lintel highlights the status and prestige of the broch’s inhabitants. It is thought the broch is now roughly half its original height. The broch’s interior is filled with rubble from the upper part of the broch, and is now inaccessible, thus its interior has never been archaeologically investigated.
6. Glenelg Brochs: Dun Telve and Dun Troddan
This pair of tall broch towers are situated in the beautiful valley of Gleann Beag. Dun Telve is situated just 500 metres from Dun Troddan, so visitors can easily see these unusually close together brochs on the one trip. They are among four brochs which still stand close to their original height (along with Mousa in Shetland and Dun Carloway in Lewis).
They were probably built between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago, and became a tourist attraction in the 18th and 19th centuries due to their well preserved state and height. Dun Telve retains a section of wall over 10 metres high, and is more than 20 metres in diameter. It contains a winding stone stair that leads to the top of the tower. Dun Troddan is shorter, at 7.6 metres, but better preserved, providing evidence as to its use. The interior floor shows evidence of a number of holes for upright posts and a hearth, containing a quern-stone which would have helped grind corn.
7. Carn Liath Broch
Carn Liath Broch is near Golspie in Sutherland, and is on Scotland’s North Coast 500 route. The broch itself is accompanied by the rare survival of the ruins of an associated village which includes stone houses, outbuildings and earthworks – the earliest of which would have been around at the same time as the broch’s heyday. There is a narrow entrance passage and a stairway running up between the two walls, which would have led to upper floors.
Standing 3 metres tall, when built it appears this broch could have been at least three times that height. Carn Liath has many defensive measures including particularly thick walls, settings for two wooden door-frames and a small guard cell on the north side.
8. Clachtoll Broch
Located on Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, Clachtoll was the scene of an important excavation by community heritage group Historic Assynt. They launched a major programme of conservation and excavation works in 2017 after the structure was threatened by coastal erosion, and were able to reveal the remains of the home and more about the lifestyle of those who lived there, providing a remarkable snapshot of life in Iron Age Scotland.
Evidence indicates that the farming family who inhabited the broch left after a fire, which had caused the roof and walls to collapse inwards. These smouldered down forming a thick layer of ash – creating perfect conditions to preserve the broch’s contents. Remaining undisturbed for 2,000 years, the internal deposits span around 50 years of the broch’s final occupation, revealing the layout and the broch’s internal features. 13 steps survive, leading to a short landing on what would have been the first floor. Clefts and crevasses in the bedrock floor were filled with rounded cobbles and small stones, and a layer of flooring along with rushes, reeds and grasses was visible, which would have acted as a carpet.
9. Broch of Gurness
This impressive Iron Age complex showcases Orkney’s rich archaeological heritage. The Broch of Gurness was in the centre of a major prehistoric settlement and is Scotland’s best-preserved example of a later prehistoric broch village. (There is also evidence of later use during the Norse period). Gurness stands in a spectacular location and is one of at least 10 brochs that line Eynhallow Sound’s shores, looking across to Rousay on the northeast coast of mainland Orkney.
Archaeological excavations determine that the village began between 500-200 BC, covering an area roughly 45 metres wide, defined by deep ditches and ramparts. The site consists of a central tower with thick walls, surrounded by three concentric rings of earthwork banks and ditches for defence. An entrance causeway lies across the eastern end, and there is a settlement of small stone houses with yards nearby that grew up around the broch tower. Whilst it’s thought Gurness was abandoned after 100 AD, evidence shows the site was in use in the 9th century, following the discovery of a grave of a Viking woman. Iron Age artefacts are on display in the on-site visitor centre.
10. Edin's Hall Broch
Very few Iron Age broch’s exist in Lowland Scotland – most were built far to the north-east, which makes Edin’s Hall a rare find. It has not been excavated so its exact age is unknown, though it is thought to have been built in the first two centuries AD. Edin’s Hall is surrounded by the remains of a hillfort, built around 2,500 years ago that pre-date the broch itself. The broch stands in one corner of the fort in its own enclosure.
Edin’s Hall broch is entered by a single entrance passage flanked by guard cells, which gives access to a central, circular courtyard 22 metres in diameter with walls 5 metres thick. It is much larger than typical brochs, suggesting it may not have been as tall, or even verging on being a large Iron-Age roundhouse. Nevertheless, its wall chambers house a stone stairway, suggesting a second floor once existed.