Location

5 miles North-West of Brinian, Rousay, Orkney, Scotland.

 

Overview

The Broch of Midhowe is situated in the west of Rousay, along a stretch of the B9064 which is teeming with ancient monuments, including the neighbouring cairn of Midhowe, and those of Blackhammer, the Knowe of Yarso, and Taversoe Tuick. There is a car park on the side of the road which affords fine views of the north-western tip of Mainland and the Atlantic Ocean, while a mile off shore is the small island of Eynhallow surrounded by its notoriously treacherous waters. The monument can be accessed via a short but initially very steep walk of about mile through fields of sheep, first to Midhowe cairn, and then a short distance west along the shore line.

 

When excavations began at the Broch in 1930, the only clue to its presence was a series of stones poking through the surface of the 18 feet tall grassy mound which had grown over it. Along with the impressive Gurness on Mainland, Midhowe is one of at least nine brochs to be found on the banks of the Eynhallow Sound, and as its name implies it had neighbours; South Howe, greatly eroded by the sea, is 300 yards to the South-East, while North Howe, probably a broch and as yet unexcavated, is 200 yards to the North-West. It was built on the edge of a rocky promontory sometime between 200 BC and 200 AD, and consists of a tightly grouped collection of stone-built dwellings with the impressive towering broch at its centre.

 

Precisely how the site evolved is uncertain, but it is believed to have begun with just the broch itself and a very large defensive wall to the North-East of it, about 20 feet thick with deep ditches in front and behind, spanning almost the entire landward approach between the two geos which flank the Broch. Whether this was intended as a serious defensive structure or just a means of impressing the locals is a matter of debate, although if any similarities may be drawn with the hill fort culture which was thriving in other parts of Britain at this time, it may well have been a combination of both. If the wall was a defensive structure, then it perhaps became less relevant in later times when a series of additional buildings were added around the circumference of the Broch, with some being built directly over about half of the inner ditch. Due to the damage inflicted over the millennia by encroaching waters on the South-Western side, there is no evidence of any similar precautions from this direction, although the modern seawall, which was built during the 1930's to protect the site from further erosion, certainly gives the illusion of one.

 

The original height of the broch is unknown but a mere 13 feet survives today, while the base is 60 feet in diameter with walls up to 15 feet thick; these are hollow with series of galleries built inside to allow for multiple storeys of access. As remarkable as this feature is, it was not one which was repeated in other brochs, and with good reason as there is evidence that they were filled at one point to prevent the structure from collapsing, and substantial buttressing was carried out with many stone slabs set vertically into the outer side of the north-western wall. The doorway to the broch faces directly west and is in a very fine state of repair, standing 3 feet wide and just over 6 feet high, with lintels spanning the full length of the paved passageway beyond. About half way along the passage on either side are two small cells named A and B (see plan); A is broadly 6 feet square, B is slightly less and merges into the gallery. The main interior area is 30 feet in diameter with uprights dividing it into two compartments (C and D on the plan), each of which being then further sub-divided with numerous stalls, and with a hearth and water tank in each. These latter were supplied by a natural spring which flowed up through the cracks in the rocks; the excavators noted that the water was quite drinkable throughout the duration of their stay.

 

In a later time additional buildings were constructed around the circumference of the Broch; a number have been lost to coastal erosion, and so little remains of the structure named J, closest to the modern entrance to the site, that its role cannot be determined. Four buildings survive on the north-western side; E, F and G have been damaged by erosion, but H is intact. This is a very large building which was later sub-divided into four compartments, though due to its size it is hard to believe that it was ever a single entity and had not been divided into two during an earlier incarnation. In order to accommodate its bulk, as much of 8 feet of the defensive wall was removed and about half of the inner ditch filled.

 

A large number of artifacts were recovered from the Broch, including bone weaving combs and pins; picks and hammers fashioned from deer antler; bronze pins, rings and brooches; clay pots; and a variety of stone objects.

 

Plans

The Broch of Midhowe

 

Photographs

1.The Broch of Midhowe

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20.The Broch of Midhowe

 

Links

Archaeology Data Service - Excavation Report