Places to Visit on Orkney - 5
What is a Broch?
Brochs are unique to Scotland. These impressive, circular, stone towers often stood alone in the landscape but at Gurness the broch is in the midst of a village. This village is also incredibly well-preserved. The brochs were most likely the main residence of the local community leader or chief, and a last refuge in times of trouble for the surrounding populace, or a select few members of such. The brochs were heavily fortified with thick stone walls and surrounded by ditches and ramparts. The limited entrance ways would probably have been well guarded.
The Broch of Gurness, sometimes called Aikerness Broch is on the Northern shores of West Mainland Orkney. It is sign posted from the main Evie Road just south of Evie on the A966. It is a sharp right turn into this road and you may think, more than once, you have taken the wrong road as it takes a convoluted route between the farms. You will eventually pass by Evie/Aikerness beach, which is well worth a visit, and then not long after you will reach the broch car park. Please be aware that this road is single track and, in the summer, you will often meet coaches coming in the other direction. The car park is large and is a wonderful place to take in the view and do some wildlife spotting. We have seen Artic Terns, Skuas, Red Throated Divers, assorted ducks and much, much, more from this car park – including seals, which bobbed along while following us around. Take care of coaches turning round in here.
The Broch of Gurness
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I can recommend this book which I bought soon after arriving on Orkney. It is full of fascinating facts and details.
As often happens on Orkney the Broch was not discovered in a planned and organised dig. It was found by accident when a local Artist positioned his stool on top of a hillock. He thought it would be a good place, with a fantastic view over to the Island of Rousay. The leg of the stool went through a hole into what he, at first, thought was nothing more than a rabbit burrow, but it turned into much more.
Where to Start
When you enter the site there is a small hut to the right which houses the site shop. There is no café or bathroom but the ranger was kind enough to let us use the staff bathroom during one emergency. This hut is where you buy your tickets; again the Explorer pass, I mentioned in the other articles on Orkney, covers the entrance fee. It does have a limited amount of artefacts on display and a history of the discovery and archaeology of the site but, honestly, it is not, in any way, exhilarating. There is also a small “see and do” section for the children where they can grind some wheat or barley. Scottish Memorabilia are also for sale. I will say that the site is not particularly suitable for the disabled but some access is possible. There are a few steps on the near side of the village and a step into the shop as well. It is possible to go around the outside of the village in a wheelchair if the ground is not too soft.
The best place to start, in my opinion, is on the far side. You do this by going to the right and following the fence right the way around. You are walking on a grassy bank here and it is slippery and muddy in wet weather so wear good shoes. On the way round you will come across information boards which are well worth reading. You will also pass by some wildflower meadows which will, in the summer, be teeming with insects feeding on the nectar of the flowers, this it turn attracts many birds, so you may want to take your binoculars with you. When walking around the grassy banks there are a few drops over the edge into the ditch around the village so you will need to make sure any children are well aware of the dangers.
Once you get to the other side there is a wonderful view right down what would have been the entrance to the broch through the village. I think this gives a wonderful sense of the history of Gurness and is a great way to start your journey through this time. After just a short time soaking up the atmosphere you can close your eyes and imagine the bustling little street heading up to the broch, with people passing by, carrying their wares or, perhaps, leading their animals.
Occupation of the village began between 500BC and 200BC and so was later than Skara Brae. Occupation of the site seems to have continues until about the eighth century and a Viking woman's burial just outside the village in the ninth century.
The houses comprises of a living, sleeping, and cooking area, with smaller side rooms. What amaze me are the stone built cupboards, some inside the walls. There is a central hearth in most houses and as at Skara Brae a pit in the ground. The pit is often stone lined and some seem sealed in some way. The main use for these pits or tanks is not fully understood. I mused that some of the bigger ones would work well as a play pen for a marauding toddler.
The broch itself is impressive, both from the outside and the inside. There are guard houses at the entrance which may have housed guard dogs as well. There is a small room just to the right as you enter but my claustrophobia prohibited me from going in there. I have been reliably informed, by my children and grandchildren, that the inside is interesting with an unusable staircase leading of inside the far wall. There are a number of staircases, throughout the broch, built into the walls, but cordons prevent access. There is also the remains of what may have been a well in the floor, again there is no permitted access, not that anything on this earth could get me down there. It is not one hundred percent sure that this is a well; it may have been for ceremonial purposes of some sort. A well would make sense to me especially if the broch was a refuge and for a last line of defence.
I love the Broch of Gurness for the simple fact that you can get in among all these houses and get a real feel for life in Iron Age Britain. Just walking through these ruins is an incredible experience and elicits such great thoughts and feelings. In this aspect it supersedes Skara Brae even though it is much later and less important historically. I feel it is just as important to visit here as it is to visit Skara Brae.