Tuesday, July 17, 2012


 On the small island of Mousa just off the east coast of the southern island of Mainland in the Shetland Islands, stands the world’s only intact broch. Well, it is nearly complete. The thirteen-metre high stonewalls have survived the centuries without too much desecration. The other, possibly more transient or portable parts, have gone. Astonishingly, what remains is all dry stonework, stones stacked on top of one another without any cementing infill. It has been constructed using the same techniques as those that build the dykes, the stone walls that surround the fields and jigsaw the hillsides. Stone sits on stone, holding stone with stone, interlocked with the skillful organisation of the ad hoc geometry and form of stones found nearby. The dry stone waller’s rule is: once picked up, a place - the right place - has to be found for the stone selected. That any smooth surface can be created out of a heap of rubble is always astonishing - more so with Mousa because of its’ size: its’ diameter and height.

In most other locations, brochs have been used as quarries, with the stones being removed for other purposes. Only footprints of what was there remain as archaeological relics for the imagination to interpret, and the feet to explore. Sometimes remaining low walls form a maze for our amazement, like the broch at Clickimin in Lerwick. These ancient structures were seen as a convenient source of material, already gathered in one location and sorted. It is the archetypal story of history, where simple convenience and a lack of what we now know as ‘heritage concerns,’ to which we have become perhaps oversensitive, determine outcomes defined by the necessities of existence. (see: HERITAGE - THE 'STORY' of A 'TAPESTRY' - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/heritage-story-of-tapestry.html  and SEEING PRESENT AS PAST - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/seeing-present-as-past.html).  The island location has made any idea of stealing the Mousa stones impractical. This tiny place has a surplus of geological remains even today, and a limited demand for these. Shetland’s is not a fertile ground that encourages great densities of settlement. Transporting the rocks to the Mainland would have required just too much effort. There were other sites where the task of gathering stones for cottages and dykes presented a less daunting challenge - other brochs too.

Necessity can drive astonishing efforts, but it always takes the easiest route - the one requiring least energy; the most efficient: but even this can sometimes show a resolve that is able to surprise us today. It all had to do with the practical matters of time and energy, in this world that knew nothing of the theory of time and motion studies. So it seems that it has been the inevitability of necessity alone that has left us with the structure we have today. One is tempted to label it a relic, but it is more than a relic. Relics have a haunting, sad and separate mystery about them - a vague, whimpering aloneness. The broch of Mousa is an astonishingly beautiful structure with a coherence and pride in its’ being there - a certain certainty. It is a landmark. Indeed, its’ past role, as we have interpreted this, made such a presence unavoidable, as the broch was apparently a lookout as well as a refuge. It was from the brochs that threats from invaders could be overseen and perhaps communicated to other brochs. It was to the brochs that folk retreated when a menace arose.

Protective twin, circumferial, swelling, stacked-stone walls enclose and create voids, whose purpose becomes the subject of hypotheses. This remote marvel stands in its’ solitude on the island, alone in the world, and in the imagination. One walks over rocks, slopes, moor and bog too get to the broch from the jetty where the seasonal ferry link ties up. It is not only the time of the year that determines the transport timetable, but also the weather forecast of the day. This is Shetland where all weathers can be manifest in one hour - snow, gales, sleet, cloud, sun, still and shine. The broch is left unlocked. Such it the remoteness of its’ location that security is unnecessary. The same inaccessibility that made the pilfering of the stones awkward still protects the place. The welcome is in the rock recess on the right of the entry. It is a nice surprise. Torches anticipate your visit and offer immediate assistance for the problem that is instantly obvious. One is invited to pick up a torch and walk stooped under the low, stone-lintel of the lobby, into the high light of the open central court. It is an appropriate gesture to this wonderful place - obeisance. The centre court is indeed a highlight.

How was this space used? This void is so small, yet so large. It has the same puzzling reading inside as the outside form of the broch has in the landscape, where the simple shape of the mass belies its’ true scale in a constant ambivalence of belief and doubt as to its’ real size. The theory tells of timber structures in this central void that is surrounded by the patterning of rock recesses. Timber is scarce in Shetland, with marine debris from wrecks having being collected for structures and furnishings in the past. Older pasts must have known trees, as the islands have their peat beds, but this possibility of forested hills is now difficult to recreate in the mind's eye with today’s naked Shetland - treeless. Was there really such an interior structure?

The rock recesses that make dark patches on the inner curved surface, enhance the reading of the height of this pace with their articulate, tapering stacks stretching to the circle of light above. Their pattern surprises. It steps up to the opening over with a self-consciously organised proportional reduction in size that looks familiar to the post-modern eye. Evidence of timber supports is not immediately obvious. One moves carefully across the rough and uneven pavement of this central court - was there a reservoir, or a fire pit here? - a little lost, until what looks like a crude stair that can be discerned in the disorganisation of the rubble, beckons one into a larger void that eventually becomes a doorway. After stepping up into this opening opposite the tunnel entrance, with a questioning intrigue, rising stairs between walls materialise in the torchlight and confirm the guess of the purposeful approach. A handrail rope is felt as one fumbles and gropes carelessly - tentatively - for some stability on the uneven stones set between the twin layers of questionable wall - unseen but felt as cold, rough and solid.

This arrangement for access within in the broch had been known from words and diagrams. It becomes beautifully obvious in the aerial views of this place; but just how it really worked was never very clear. Now it was. One discovered the broad stones set as treads between two dry stone walls shaping a mysterious spiral of a stair leading to somewhere else around the curve of the cave. The rope rail was useful as the steps were steep and irregular, and the light dim and directional in this all-pervasive black. Managing torch and traipse became a real challenge. Yet there was light at the end of this vertical trench of the walled tunnel - glimpses of it slipping in around a rectangular dark panel that materialised as a hatch door that opened up to the sky, revealing the walkway rim seen in the aerial views. It is discovered that the broch has been sealed off to keep the birds and their droppings out. The sloping door hatch at the top of the stair and a circle of mesh over the courtyard’s oculus protected the voids of the broch from the sea birds that had found them so comfortable to rest and nest in. The problem was the guano - not only the mess and the smell, but also the damage that the chemistry of this material was causing to the stone. Folk who visited in earlier times still speak of the noise that these creatures once made in this space, as being perhaps more overbearing than the smell.

Stepping out into the bright light of the day at the top of the broch revealed the astonishing landscape vista of sea and land. This was a well-chosen place for the supervision of any approaching danger. This day, that allowed the ferry to run, was blue-skies sunny with white fluffy clouds, but windy. It had been some weeks before the scheduled trips could begin again. The brilliance of the southern light glistened on the waters with a blinding dazzle of glitter that always amazes and delights, and allows one to forgive the grim days of gales and storms. It is the image every photographers dreams of - that classic landscape ‘sunset’ vista that makes one instinctively reach for the camera.

Up on top, in the wind and clear light, the making of the broch became more obvious. Between the substantial thickness of twin walls, large flat stones had been used as planks bridging the void, butting against each other to make a pavement. Gaps between these slabs revealed a grim depth of darkness that appeared to have once accommodated something useful. The stones looked so thin for their span that one was more than wary of moving too heavily along this circular promenade, especially when the surrounding walls felt too low. Perhaps it was the wind, the distance from the ground, and the open depth of the panorama that changed perceptions, even though there was a rail to offer some assurance to help manage any acrophobia?

 Retreating back through the door flap into the dim of the stair, making sure that the door was closed to prevent the entry of birds eager to use the place as shelter, one manoeuvred carefully backwards down the shambles of the spiral rock steps. Now, with one’s attention able to notice matters other than how one might negotiate the height of the black path to the top, the eye was attracted to the glimpses of the central court through the openings in the inner stair wall. The walls increased in thickness as they got closer to the ground, making spaces of various sizes in their width on various levels. What were these used for? Strangely, these openings did not offer much luminance for the interior of the stair. When the fine drizzle of the day came with the frequent adjustment of the weather once the centre court had been reached, these edge spaces proved to be good shelters from the rain, offering height sufficient for one to sit in, very comfortably.

So this is Mousa. For years it had been a dream to visit this tiny speck seen from the Mainland coastal road - to experience its’ reality. Now, as one sought sanctuary in its’ sheltering voids, one had time to ponder how this place might have been used. Looking around only emphasised incredulity and raised more questions. The place had power, but why? Mousa is a marvel. It has a newness in its’ strength. Its’ amazing presence humbles us. Its’ structure astonishes, baffles us - bewilders. One is left looking, trying to believe: trying to understand how these walls were erected. What effort? What time? What process? How were these walls used? What did these stones know? What have they seen? All of this is answered by their being there, without any rational explanation for added comprehension to assist with the puzzle. We just know that man had a hand here; that lives were lived here.

Those stairs had seen many a movement; been touched by many a foot - the walls by many a hand. The broch of Mousa’s power gives it a certainty and mystique that one accepts because it is there. As one walks away from it, one is constantly turning around to see it - to see how its’ scale and size is transformed from the known and sensed massive walls into the Legoland model on the slopes. Then Lot’s wife’s view slowly becomes only glimpses of parts - still very interesting parts - until the whole is lost behind hills. It says something of the scenery of Shetland that what appear as gentle undulations in the landscape can hide such a huge mass so quickly. Scale is disguised in the bareness of this weathered land, where even the huge development of the oil terminal at Sullom Voe appears from the distance as child’s trinkets scattered around a croft.

Then, as one leaves the island on the ferry, the quiet certainty of the broch appears as a firm, solid silhouette shaped against the bright sky of the afternoon. It is now a cohesive part of the landscape, growing from it, standing securely on it, as its subtle curves ease its’ mass into that of the land, with both becoming smaller and smaller as the ferry retreats. And still one has to turn to look to see this transformation - to admire it. Mousa’s broch stands compact and unyielding as one retreats. It anchors the island with an assurance and quiet confidence that comes from more than age, although time does enhance its’ being. Its’ presence defies even the suggestions of purpose that the illustration of what it might have been indicates. The interpretative plaque standing beside the entry attempts to explain the inexplicable, complete with quirky guesses of statures, faces, functions and clothing in delicate drawings.

As John Betjemin said of those who interpreted his poems into music and dance: he did not believe that it added anything to his work, but he thanked them for their effort. Here one can similarly thank the archaeologists for their effort. The Mousa broch holds its’ own inner strength - single-mindedly proud and unapologetic. The world is better for having this emblematical place that tells us so much of those of another unknown era with so little: their endurance and intelligence. It leaves us guessing, wondering about ourselves and our times as much as theirs.

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