Orkney Shores – Broch of Gurness

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The Broch of Gurness is a survivor of a flourishing Iron-Age settlement built 2000 years ago from local Stromness Flagstone on the shore of West Mainand in Orkney. It was discovered by accident when a local artist set up his easel on a mound near the shore to paint the lovely view across Eynhallow Sound to Rousay. The leg of his stool suddenly disappeared into a hole in the turf. When he poked around he found that there were intriguing stone walls concealed by the accumulated sand and vegetation. Subsequently, in 1929, the large grass-covered mound on the edge of the Aikerness Peninsula was professionally excavated and it now conserved and displayed by Historic Scotland.

This archaeological site is situated next to the beach by the Point of Hellia. The sea would have been important for transport and food. It looks like the original inhabitants of the village used loose slabs of stone from the seashore to built their walls and houses. Coastal erosion has destroyed the northern part of the defensive ring ditches and walls around the village. The settlement comprises a central circular tower about 20 metres in diameter which would originally have stood about 8 or 10 metres tall with thick double walls, room spaces, and its own well. There are stone steps leading upwards from the ground floor to an upper floor or floors which vanished long ago. Outside the broch tower a group of adjoining roughly circular dwellings were constructed with attached yards and storage spaces; the remaining lower parts of the stone walls and the floors are well preserved. It is thought that originally the tower and the surrounding houses could have had timber roofs with turf cladding but no evidence of these survives.

The houses were cleverly designed with built-in furniture all made of stacked stone slabs. Each home has a centrally placed stone hearth for the fire, and a nearby water tank has been dug into the ground and lined with stone. All the furniture has been built into the inner surface of the stone walls that would have supported the roof. It is simply amazing – so neat. There are beds and sleeping alcoves that would no doubt have been filled with straw and animal skins for comfort. There are chairs, cupboards, storage bays, shelves and recesses. No windows as far as I can make out. Maybe the conical roof had a hole to let out the smoke from the hearth and let in a little light. As you walk around the remains of this ancient village it is easy to imagine how functional and ordered village life would have been in these cosy dwellings.

6 Replies to “Orkney Shores – Broch of Gurness”

  1. I had been thinking how clever were the Orcadian people who built this village 2000 years ago – then I watched a programme on TV last night and learnt that at the same time the Greeks were building the Parthenon!

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