Broch

 

Brochs are part of a wider architectural tradition of massive stone construction unique to the Atlantic Scottish Iron Age. They comprise large, stone built dwellings, or drystone towers, comprising more than one storey and internal staircases. Over 500 brochs are known to exist (although this number depends on the definition of a broch)
and these are mainly restricted to the north of mainland Scotland and the
northern Isles, western Scotland and the Hebrides.
The  purpose of the Applecross broch remains hotly debated, but what is certain is that this imposing building once dominated the local landscape during the Iron Age. Although excavations led by the local Archaeological Society and BBC’s Timeteam have unmasked the structure, they have revealed only some of the many mysteries surrounding this enigmatic building.

 

Construction

The structure shows the classic construction elements of a broch: double walls with a wide internal cavity providing space for passages, small chambers and a staircase to upper levels. What is left  are the surviving lowest courses of the structure. Although we refer to the structure as a broch, it is not clear what the purpose of this building was. It may never have stood to the full height of its more famous cousins such as Dun Telve and Dun Trodden in Glenelg, or the Broch of Mousa in Shetland. Nevertheless, it was an imposing structure right through to the end of the 18th century. Around 1820 it was robbed to provide building stone for Applecross Mains farm buildings and local drystone dykes. Only a low grassy mound then hinted at its presence until its recent excavation in 2005.

The building of a stone structure of this size involves a massive investment of resource. It has been suggested that defence was the primary purpose of this and other similar structures in Scotland, although this theory is contested. If defence was the function of the Applecross broch, at a time when regional transport was primarily by sea, its position would have provided a superb lookout over the bay towards Raasay.

 Chronology

C14 dating of charcoal indicates that the main period of occupation of the broch was during the Iron Age between 200BC and 200AD. This was a period when the regional population is known to have expanded to a point where territory and resources had to be defended by each community.

Before there was any building, the ridge upon which this structure sits was cultivated: ard, or plough, marks cutting into the sandy subsoil survive under the walling. In Gaelic, the field where the campsite is based is called Cùl an Dùin, which means ‘the back of the fort’.

There are two subterranean passages on the site which may have pre-dated the main structure. These passages are dug into the subsoil and lined with stones, with some set as upright slabs and some as walling. White limestone may have been deliberately used to reflect light in the dark narrow passages. The passages may have been souterrains, used for storage, or passages to chambers which have not yet been uncovered. It is hoped that further excavations will solve this mystery.

Evidence suggests that for some reason the broch collapsed during the Iron Age. However, after this event the rubble was levelled and a new floor created. Life continued. It is likely that the broch was still the centre of the Applecross community when St Maelrubha and his Christian followers arrived in 673AD. Rather than found his monastery on the fertile lands around the broch, Maelrubha settled on the north side of the river. After the monastery had been sacked by Norse raiders in around 800AD, the lay abbot of Applecross, who administered the lands on behalf of the Church, probably lived at the broch, even though by then it was by then in a semi-ruinous state.

Broch Life

Archaeologists are still uncertain as to if, or how, the brochs were roofed, and whether they were lived in permanently as places of residence or as temporary refuges when under attack. There is plenty of evidence for day to day life in the Applecross broch courtyard. These include pottery, butchered bones from domestic and wild animals, spindle whorls and personal adornments such as rings and pins. Some artefacts recovered from the uppermost occupation layers – notably a fragment of comb made of antler – date to the Late Iron Age or Pictish period.

The courtyard and the chambers within the walls were used for some industrial activities, notably the processing of red deer antler. These were cut into hollowed out sections like napkin rings and may have been associated with fishing nets.  Another object found in large quantities is the hammer stone, a cobble taken from the beach and used for pounding. Stones were also used as polishers and sharpeners. Most common of all the stone tools was the pot-boiler, a stone heated in the fire and then placed in water to bring it to boiling point for cooking.

Metal was precious and rare in the Iron Age. Very few iron artefacts have been recovered so far from this structure, although copper alloy objects found include pins and rings for human adornment.

Outside the broch, it is known that iron smelting occurred. This involved large quantities of charcoal which has left an extensive black layer in the soil. Iron ore, clinker and slag from several stages in the process of smelting and smithing are present, as well as hearths and stone-lined ditches which may have been dug to help ventilation of the furnace.

Beliefs

Excavations have revealed evidence for Iron Age spirituality, particularly the role of religious belief and practice in everyday life. The quernstone, used for grinding grain, appears to have been treated with reverence. These have been found placed in entranceways, possibly as a closing ritual when the entrance fell out of use.

Out in the ‘industrial area’ to the west of the broch lies a cist which probably once contained burial or cremated remains. At its foot, a long water-worn cobble of phallic appearance had been set upright. This mix of ritual and industry may indicate the sacred nature of the process of turning rock into metal and the special place in society held by the smith, in both life and death.

 

Details of the monument record for the broch, a summary of excavations and associated reports are available from the Historic Environment Record.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Applecrossarchaeology.org is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, ERDF and the Applecross Trust.