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ACTIVE OUTDOORS: Unearthing the fascinating world of the brochs

By John Davidson

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Walkers on the John O'Groats Trail at Badbea. Picture: John Davidson
Walkers on the John O'Groats Trail at Badbea. Picture: John Davidson

Brochs were the tallest prehistoric structures in the British Isles, and while they can be found dotted about the Highlands and Islands, Caithness has a particularly high concentration.

These buildings were constructed over 2000 years ago and, while they have been keenly studied, there remains debate around their original purpose.

Were they simply a grand dwelling house, perhaps for a local chieftain, or did they serve a defensive need?

The huge circular stone towers remain a fascination, and it’s easy to see why. I first remember coming across one on a cycle tour in the north-west many years ago, having seen the word ‘broch’ on the map but not really knowing what to expect.

As I approached Dun Dornaigil broch, almost at the foot of Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro, I was awestruck by the remains of its rising circular wall. This broch has never been excavated, but there are others, such as Clachtoll, that have been unearthed and studied in some detail.

Ousdale broch pictured before the recent works to stabilise the structure.
Ousdale broch pictured before the recent works to stabilise the structure.

In Caithness, the best preserved broch is at Ousdale, where the Caithness Broch Project have worked tirelessly to preserve this Iron Age site. A new 1km path has been created in the last couple of years from a layby beside the A9 leading to the broch, through the remains of a Clearance village known as Borg, the Norse for ‘broch’.

It’s also accessible as part of a longer linear walk on the John O’Groats Trail. Starting at Helmsdale, the trail follows the coast through Navidale before crossing the Ord and picking up the old coach road into Caithness. Heading inland slightly, the historic route leads close to the broch, which can be easily reached now via the new path.

If you continue over the Ousdale Burn, you can reach the Clearance village of Badbea and visit the monument to those who used to survive here. Further on, creating a long walk with transport required at each end, you come to Berriedale, where there is a separate 7km round-trip walk to visit An Dun bothy – perhaps for another day!

Of course, it’s possible to visit these places one by one on a slow trip up the A9, and that’s what the Caithness Broch Project is suggesting in a series of new itineraries due to be published at www.thebrochproject.co.uk

Dunbeath broch.
Dunbeath broch.

Also on their list of suggestions is a visit to Dunbeath broch, a short walk from the lower village car park which is also the starting point of a longer walk into the depths of the strath, with its chambered cairn and other historic sites.

A heritage centre in Dunbeath explains more about the village, which is the birthplace of Neil M Gunn, Caithness’s most famous writer.

Near the north coast, another itinerary suggests a visit to Achvarasdal broch, on the road forking right towards Shebster to the east of Reay. Situated in a small natural woodland, this fine example of a broch has the largest diameter – 18 metres – of any in Caithness.

This minor road is part of the National Cycle Network which follows this quieter route between Melvich and Thurso, and a glance at the map will show you there are many more brochs and other historic features along the way.

Back on the east coast at Nybster, another broch is described as “one of the easiest of its kind to visit in Caithness”. Located at Auckengill, Nybster broch was excavated and partially cleared in the 19th century, with various finds reported including combs, stone vessels and quernstones.

Interestingly, Roman finds have also been discovered at the site, which is even thought to have been inhabited before the broch was built.

Despite the Broch Project’s obvious love of these Iron Age structures, these new itineraries offer more to the visitor or curious local. There are historic harbours, grand castles, beaches, visitor centres and even a distillery or two included in their suggestions.

There are plenty of walks to visit many of these sites, from a short stroll to a lengthy outing. So if you like to explore some history while also getting active, seek some inspiration in the far north and find out how our ancestors used to live in these remarkable places.

Dun Dornaigil broch in north-west Sutherland
Dun Dornaigil broch in north-west Sutherland

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