An Iron Age broch village
Brochs are unique to Scotland. There are well over 500 of these Iron Age stone towers, the majority spread throughout northern and western Scotland and the Northern and Western Isles. Many stood alone, but in Orkney and Caithness they were generally surrounded by sizeable settlements.
Midhowe, on the island of Rousay, is among the best preserved of the 20 or so Orkney broch villages. It has the added advantage of having been archaeologically investigated, thus providing a more complete and vivid picture of Orkney life 2,000 years ago.
The village by the sea
The settlement is sited on a narrow promontory between two steep-sided creeks, just beside Eynhallow Sound. Indeed, part of the village has been lost to coastal erosion. The settlement is protected on the landward side by a thick stone forework, or barrier, drawn across the neck of the promontory, with a ditch in front of it.
A narrow entrance, originally lintelled over (with a horizontal support), gives access into the defended area. This is dominated by the broch tower itself, but around it are the remains of other buildings of lesser stature. These seem to have been built as ancillary houses, but later in the site’s history they were used as workshops. One of these buildings still retains its iron-smelting hearth.
The broch at its heart
The drystone walls of the circular broch now stand 4.3m high, but would have been perhaps twice as high originally. The narrow entrance passage faces the sea, and not the forework entrance. This layout differs from the Broch of Gurness
, on the opposite side of Eynhallow Sound, where the approach is more direct and ‘monumental’.
The broch interior is crowded with stone partitions, tanks and hearths, mostly related to later phases of occupation. Of particular interest is the spring-fed water tank in the floor and a hearth with sockets, which may have held a roasting spit.
Artefacts of everyday life
Archaeologists digging at Midhowe in the 1930s found a remarkable array of artefacts, casting light on the everyday life of its Iron Age inhabitants. These included stone and bone tools, associated with grain processing, spinning and weaving. Also recovered were pieces from crucibles and moulds, indicating bronze-working – but not iron-working, oddly enough.
Of special interest to the archaeologists was a fragment from a Roman bronze vessel. This recalls the proud boast by a 4th-century Roman historian, Eutropius, that the king of Orkney had submitted to the Emperor Claudius in AD 43. Many of the artefacts are now on display at Broch of Gurness.
- The location – right by the shore of Eynhallow Sound, looking towards the island of Eynhallow and the Orkney mainland beyond.
- The broch interior – ‘fully furnished’ with a water tank, fireplace and partitioned rooms.
- The broch wall – stand on the wallhead and look down on the village, and out to sea.
Region – Orkney
On the island of Rousay on the B9064, 5m from pier. Orkney Ferries Ltd from Tingwall Terminal Telephone 01856 751360.
Grid reference - HY 371 308.
Post code - KW17 2PT
Tel: 01856 841815 (Skara Brae)