2,500 years ago, the highlands and islands of northern Britain were dotted with monumental, drystone buildings called brochs. From Shetland to Stornoway, today you can see the skeletal remains of these structures that once covered this area of Iron Age Scotland. They had various functions. They were grand houses and centres of communities – symbols of power and authority. But archaeology has revealed how they could also be centres of various agricultural and metalworking activities.
There is still so much that we don’t know about Scotland’s prehistoric towers. But an astonishing recent archaeological excavation, in the far northwestern reaches of the British Isles, has started to shed more light on them.
Nestled away by the coast in the beautiful landscape of Assynt is the village of Clachtoll, home to one of the most important broch sites in the country. Precariously positioned right by the coast, there are few brochs that can rival its astonishing location.
But the position itself is quite questionable for building a broch. As you venture inside, you notice how the Iron Age builders of this tower constructed it on top of very uneven bedrock. Compared to other broch sites across Scotland – Nybster in Caithness, Dun Telve at Glenelg and Gurness on Orkney for instance – Clachtoll is built upon rather bewildering terrain.
Why these Iron Age people decided to build Clachtoll broch where it is was probably to do with power projection. This was a statement of power and authority – to show that those overseeing this prehistoric tower’s construction had the ability and manpower to build such a structure even on this uneven piece of rocky coastline. This was far from an ideal place to build a broch. And living in it proved far from easy.
In the early 2000s, Clachtoll broch was an enigmatic ancient site on the brink of collapse. What remained of the broch was in dire need of conservation; filled with an incessant amount of rubble, what remained of the broch was unsafe and ruinous.
But in 2017, everything changed. That year, a groundbreaking excavation of Clachtoll Broch was conducted. The thick layer of rubble was painstakingly cleared by hand to reveal something incredible. What the archaeologists and volunteers came down upon was a great deal of evidence for a prehistoric fire. This evidence was a wide array of charred, organic artefacts, preserved down to the present day.
What these burnt remains revealed was that Clachtoll broch had experienced a fiery end just over 2,000 years ago. Today, we epitomise brochs for their mighty, drystone walls, but it’s important to remember that the interior of these structures must have originally consisted of lots of timber and other flammable materials. They were certainly susceptible to fires.
‘Pompeii of Brochs’
For archaeologists, Clachtoll’s fiery end proved a blessing in disguise. Like Pompeii, and many other ancient sites that experienced a destructive, fiery end, the anaerobic conditions of the burnt layer allowed many, rare artefacts to survive down to the present day. And so, as the excavation at Clachtoll broch continued, the archaeologists and volunteers began to find a rich array of extraordinary artefacts, burnt in the fire that had once engulfed this iron age tower. These artefacts provided an extraordinary snapshot into what life was like inside Clachtoll broch at the time that it burned down. And for what purpose this broch was used.
The artefacts preserved allowed archaeologists to quickly deduce that Clachtoll broch had served as an Iron Age farmhouse. This was an ancient home, but it was also the centre of farming activities. Charred cereal grains highlighted the agricultural foods these iron people were both processing and eating; iron sickles and adzes revealed more about the tools they were using; the remains of an iron age sheep hinted at pastoral activities also occurring in the countryside around the broch.
Other incredible artefacts revealed more information about life inside this iron age tower. Several stone, bowl-shaped artefacts were unearthed, within which was evidence of oils and fats used for lighting. These, archaeologists believe, were iron age lamps, used to light up the interior of Clachtoll Broch.
Alongside the lamps, archaeologists also discovered small shards of wood that the Iron Age farmers had used as matchsticks, to light the lamps. As for clothing, one small piece of yarn was also discovered within a waterlogged area of the broch. Rarely do archaeologists ever see ancient textiles survive, so to have this one fibre preserved is extraordinary. No matter its small size.
Today, post excavation, you can visit Clachtoll broch and get a real sense of its structure. The broch has several iconic features, visible in brochs all across Scotland. Above the entranceway for instance, is a massive triangular slab of local stone called the lintel stone. Triangular in shape, what is so interesting about this lintel is that it has been placed the wrong way up, suggesting that it was repositioned above the entrance sometime during Clachtoll broch’s occupational lifetime.
In the entranceway itself are several more iconic features. On either side of the entrance, you have a thin slab of stone called the jam, upon which would have rested an Iron Age door. Almost certainly made of wood, this door does not survive and neither does the great draw bar that these Iron Age people stored in a long, thin wall socket just behind it.
Despite its imposing architectural design, the primary purpose of brochs across Scotland seems to have been residential and not defensive. But these brochs almost certainly had several functions. From granaries to smithies to communal centres.
The brochs of Iron Age Scotland are some of Britain’s most extraordinary structures. Even now, there is still so much about them that remains shrouded in mystery. But thanks to the recent excavation at Clachtoll – ‘The Pompeii of Brochs’ – we now have an incredible insight into what life was like inside one of these Iron Age skyscrapers more than 2,000 years ago.