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Scottish Brochs and Irish Round Towers

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Among the relics of ancient Scotland a distinctive place is taken by those substantial, stone-built circular towers known as the Brochs, some of which are still in a wonderful state of preservation. They were already antiquities when the Scandinavian vikings began to cross the North Sea on buccaneering expeditions, and a proportion of the hundreds which survive were apparently in use as strongholds when Julius Caesar invaded Britain. The Broch builders appear to have migrated direct by sea from the Continent to the north of Scotland, for no traces of strongholds of similar type are to be found in England, Wales or Ireland. Evidently these people had long been accustomed to make use of stone. Not only did they display skill in quarrying, shaping and transporting this material, but they introduced certain architectural features in a comparatively high state of development which have no history in Scotland but are found to have a history elsewhere. It is obvious that the builders had learned from experience to appreciate such strongholds as bulwarks of their social organization and aids to their colonising aspirations.

The name Broch (in Gaelic "brugh") has the modern meanings of "large house" and "tumulus." In Early Irish the form is "brug," which is translated "land holding" and "march"; in Welsh the Old British name survives as "bro," which means "region, country, land," and in Gaulish the form "brogi" appears to have possessed a similar significance. Apparently a Broch was the stronghold of a family group in possession of a portion of land which was regularly cultivated. The results of archaeological research are confirmatory in this connexion, for it has been fully established by the discovery of stone querns, etc., among the Broch relics that the ancient builders were agriculturalists. It is undoubted that they were also seafarers, for the Brochs are most numerous in the Shetlands, the Orkneys and Caithness, and are more common in the Hebrides than on the western mainland of Scotland. A Shetland Broch, situated at Brough near Greenbank, North Yell, was manifestly a stronghold of mariners. It stands on steep ground, about fifty feet back from the face of a rocky precipice, and an artificial perpendicular passage leads from its interior to a deep cave beneath, which opens out on the beach. The garrison had, therefore, even when besieged, always a ready means of exit to the sea. Some Island Brochs are situated on the small islands of lakes. On the mainland there are, on the other hand, numerous Brochs several miles distant from the sea-shore. Many of these occupy strategical situations. In Strathnaver, as elsewhere, a number of Brochs are distributed like modern military "block-houses," each being in view of one or more of the others. The Broch people had evidently organized themselves for mutual protection against a common enemy.

Abroch has a number of chambers in its walls, some being reached by a spiral stairway. The circular inner part is known as the court and averages about thirty feet in diameter. In one Broch the walls are nine feet thick; in another they are no fewer than twenty-eight feet in thickness. A fair average thickness of the Broch wall, however, is about twelve feet. Only the lower courses of certain of the Brochs have survived the ravages of time, and certain of these have been covered over for centuries with turfed soil and stones. The foundations ol three were discovered in Gairloch, Ross and Cro-martyshire, by workmen who were engaged in trenching "new land" on the shores of Loch nan Dailthean. When the Broch of Okstrow, on the island of Birsay in the Orkneys, was being excavated, discovery was made, in the thick and hardened soil above its ruins, of a number of those ancient slab-formed graves known as "short cists," containing burned bones and ashes. In one cist was a stone urn which held the fragments of charred human bones; in another lay a small bronze ring. Graves of this type are usually referred to as being of the "Bronze Age" or the "Early Iron Age." But it is difficult to fix a date for these Okstrow cists. Some would have it that they are of the Viking Age, but the stone urn renders that theory doubtful. All we can say with certainty is that Okstrow Broch has been a ruin for a very considerable period. No mortar was used in building it or in building any other of the Scottish Brochs, a fact which is eloquent of the skill displayed in the construction of such enduring edifices. The stones were not dressed after being splintered to size by the quarrymen.

The two methods of constructing the shelters in the Broch walls have been described by Sir Henry Dry den: - "First, by making bee-hive chambers of stone laid horizontally, each successive course overhanging the course below, till the four sides were near enough to be closed by one slab or two slabs.... Second, by making two concentric walls at two feet, or three feet, or four feet apart, and joining them at intervals of four feet or five feet in height by floors of flagstones. The access to these galleries is by stairs in the wall, leading from the court.... The entrances to the isolated chambers, as well as those to the galleries, were not always close to the ground."

These two systems, as given by Sir Henry, are as a rule found to be combined in many Brochs, but, as he says, "in different proportions." All the chamber windows opened to the interior of the Broch. The court therefore served as a "light well." If, as is suggested by the "set-offs" and "ledges" seen in some Brochs, there were rafters or beams for roofing the court, a large enough hole must have been left to admit light for the chambers. Such a hole was further necessary to allow smoke to escape, for in the centres of the courts archaeologists have found stone-formed fireplaces with deposits of charcoal or peat-ash, and on some of the stones the characteristic red colour caused by burning peat. If timber was used in the Brochs of the treeless islands of Orkney and Shetland, it must have been imported in considerable quantities from the mainland. It may be, however, that timber was not everywhere required.

There is undoubted evidence of the use of timber in the Broch of Dun Troddan in the sheltered and partly-wooded valley of Glen Beg, Glenelg, in the western part of Inverness-shire. Mr. A. O. Curie, the archaeologist, found eleven post-holes in the court of this Broch and in one of them "the remains of decayed wood." As a stone ledge runs round the inner wall, about six feet above the ground level, it may be that the posts and ledge supported the roof of a shelter inside the court. Projecting ledges on the inner face of the wall, about twelve feet above the ground level, are to be seen in some of the Orkney Brochs, and in certain Brochs there are additional ledges about thirty feet high. Occasionally in a court traces of low stone walls are to be seen.

In White Gates Broch in Caithness, and in another Broch near it, slab portions had been erected, but the purpose they served is uncertain. Some think they were of late introduction connected with special needs or customs. But although there may have been local variations of this character, there is everywhere a wonderful uniformity of plan and structure. The main features of the Scottish Brochs as a whole are essentially the same. As a general rule a Broch was entered through a low, narrow doorway and a long paved passage. In some cases the passage is so low that a man had not only to stoop, but even to crawl on his hands and knees. Those who suggest that cattle were driven into Brochs overlook this fact. In some passages there are jambs for woodea doors, or for stone slabs.

The winding stairway in the wall, which, in ascending, traverses the whole building, opens in some Brochs, as has been indicated, at some height above the ground, an arrangement, which may have been intended to impede an enemy who had gained entrance through the passage. The East Broch, on the Orkney island of Burray, had, as an archaeologist informs us, a spiral stairway which "only commenced at a height of about twelve feet from the ground, while below that level the wall was, with two exceptions, a solid mass, with an occasional chamber here and there in -the thickness." The stairway led to galleries which may have been living chambers. In Dun Telve Broch in Glenelg, however, the upper galleries are very narrow. Mousa Broch is strategically situated on a rocky headland, and appears to have been originally from fifty to sixty feet high. Its spiral stairway leads to six galleries, and is entered at about five feet above the hearth level. The entrance passage is five feet four inches high, but the original doorway had been made higher at some period. In the court is a "tank" partly cut out of the rock, and a hearth of one slab which had been fractured by heat, surrounded by a kerb of stones.

The largest number of Brochs are situated in the north of Scotland. Orkney and Shetland have over a hundred and forty, Caithness about a hundred and fifty, and Sutherland sixty-seven. In the Hebrides from the island of Lewis and Harris southward to the island of Lismore in Loch Linnhe, Argyllshire, there are about eighty Brochs. On the mainland the country of Ross and Cromarty has ten, Inverness-shire has six and Forfarshire two; while there is one Broch in each of the counties of Stirling, Midlothian, Selkirk and Berwick, and there are three Brochs in the county of Wigtown on the west.

Archaeological research has revealed that the Broch people "were," as Dr. Joseph Anderson writes, "possessed of a considerable degree of civilization. There is abundant evidence," he goes on to say, "that they were not only expert hunters and fishers, but that they kept flocks and herds, grew grain and ground it by hand mills, practised the arts of spinning and weaving, had ornaments of gold of curious workmanship, and were not unskilled workers in bronze and iron." Finds of Samian ware have been made in some northern Brochs, and one at Scapa in Orkney has yielded a hoard of Roman coins of the Emperors Antonius, Trajan and Vespasian. The native relics include stone lamps, distinctive vases, bracelets, etc., similar to those found in the ancient circular towers of Sardinia, known as the Nuraghi. Between these Nuraghi and the Bioch; there are striking resemblances, including the internal spiral stairway opening at some height from the ground, a low doorway, or a high, narrow doorway with jambs, and the long passage with "guard chamber" leading to the court, as well as wells or "tanks," etc., inside the court. Like the Brochs, the Nuraghi were protected by outworks which were reconstructed from time to time, and many occupy sites of strategical value. There are more differences between the Nuraghi types in Sardinia than between the Nuraghi as a whole and the Brochs as a whole, and both have links with the Talayots of the Balearic Islands. It used to be thought that the Nuraghi were tombs or tomb-temples, but recent archaeological exploration has established that they were strongholds.

The Round Towers of Ireland, about eighty of which survive in various stages of disintegration, constitute another class of ancient stone strongholds of arresting character and great historical interest. These are lofty, tapering buildings of circular form with substantial bases, measuring from thirteen to twenty feet in external diameter, their original heights being anything from sixty to over a hundred feet. At the circular base of an Irish tower the walls are from three and a half to four feet in thickness, and they gradually diminish towards the roof, which, in each case, was originally of conical shape, built of stone and capped by a single stone. The doorways, as a rule, are not fewer than four feet from the ground, and some open at heights of from eleven to thirteen feet and must have been reached by portable ladders. The interior of the tower was divided into several stories, and as there was no permanent stairway, these were likewise reached by ladders from one another. The lower storey was lit from the door, and each of the other stories had windows opening alternately on opposite sides of the tower, except the top storey, which had four windows, facing the north, the east, the south and the west.

The towers were originally used as strongholds, and apparently determined attacks were made upon them by pirates and other robbers. If the garrison "showed fight" they could have thrown down stones from the upper windows, or poured out boiling pitch or boiling oil, or molten lead. The attackers must have erected stagings to attack the high doors, and these could have been protected by roofs if attempts were really ever made to counterattack from the windows, which is doubtful, for the defenders as we shall find were men of peace. The "model Round Tower of Ireland" - that is, an example in a wonderful state of preservation- stands on Devenish Island, Lough Erne, county Fermanagh, its height being eighty-four feet ten inches. The stone-built conical roof is complete, a damaged part having been carefully replaced, and round the base of it is an external cornice in four spaces separated by the carved heads of bearded men. Three of the spaces have ornamentation in low relief. An arched doorway opens at a height of nine feet from the ground. There are five stories, with the usual four windows opening towards each cardinal point in the upper storey.

Among those who were credited with having erected the towers are the Phoenicians, the Buddhists and the Druids. Since Moore's time, however, the antiquity of the towers has been greatly reduced. It has been fully established that their builders were Christians. Dr. George Petrie, an outstanding authority, was of opinion that they had their origin in the seventh century of our era, but Miss Stokes and others have urged the view that the period of their construction lies between the end of the ninth and the beginning of the twelfth century. They were all isolated structures connected with ecclesiastical establishments and served as belfries, watch-towers and places of refuge. There is abundant evidence that during the Viking Age, when the piratical sea-rovers from Denmark and Norway plundered churches and monasteries, the ecclesiastics retreated to the Round Towers, carrying their treasure with them.

In 1097 the tower near the Monastery of Monasterboice was burned, "with many books and treasures." Both the tower and church of Trim, Meath, were in 1127 set on fire by an army "when filled with unfortunate people who had fled thither for safety." Irish tribal wars often involved the ecclesiastics in trouble or disaster. A record dated 1076 tells that the King of Meath spent three nights in the tower of Kells and was killed there by Amley MacMoylan, prince of Gaileng. In 1176 the tower of Telach Ard, which had "its full of people," was burned by Tighearnan O'Ruarie. These and other records indicate that when the robbers were unable to force an entrance they burned down the doors and set fire to the wooden floors in the interiors.

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Pictures for Scottish Brochs and Irish Round Towers

Cashel Cathedral joined to a ninety-foot Round Tower
Cashel Cathedral joined to a ninety-foot Round Tower >>>>

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