Thursday, February 9, 2017


The subject is addictive. Once one has begun, one is constantly thinking about brochs: what they might be; what they might mean; and jotting down thoughts and possibilities, occasionally scribbling out likely solutions to various haunting problems. What really happened inside? Was there something cosmic here? The idea arises: how are brochs orientated? Might there be something relevant in this question? Could brochs be specifically directed like cathedrals that are religiously symbolically positioned east-west? So one starts searching and discovers a paper: Shedding Light on the Matter: An Exploration into the Regional Orientation Patterns of the Brochs and Duns of Iron Age Scotland by Thomas Crowther – see: What more might one want? The result is that there is nothing obviously definitive in this idea, such is the scope of variations in orientation in brochs and duns across Scotland. It seems that there is no overall rule, just, perhaps, regional and other variations. One observation is interesting: that the broch entrance had been positioned to make the approach an awkward turn. The author concludes:

It is by conducting the above analysis that this paper has attempted to shed new light on Scottish orientation research, and by which it is suggested that instead of a uniform E/SE orientation majority that spread throughout Iron Age Scottish society, there was actually wide spread variation that was in accordance with architectural distinctions. The author hopes to instigate further scholarly research into the orientation patterns of Iron Age Scotland.

Entry to Mousa broch - facing west, requiring an awkward turn

Then one asks: exactly what might be the rationale in the siting of the brochs? There has been a lot of fuzzy talk about this. Might brochs all see one other, even if they all orientated differently for whatever reasons? Could this relationship perhaps be the contrary possibility – that they do ‘see’ each other only because this allows each to supervise overlapping perspectives for defensive purposes? Or might their prominence be for navigation, that the brochs were landmarks for fishermen and traders? A detailed map of all brochs in Shetland is needed to peruse and test these possibilities. The idea lingers and one starts looking. Most of the maps are too general to be useful; too loosely diagrammatic with their information. After a frustrating beginning, one discovers Towards a geography of Shetland Brochs by Noel Fojut – see: The paper not only has a map clearly showing the 75 broch sites in Shetland, but also comes with a detailed analysis of broch sitings in general: their ‘geography.’

Mousa broch looking north

This study is interesting in its seemingly rigorous and all-encompassing overview, but becomes a concern. It looks comprehensively at the 'geography' of brochs, their locations, relationships and inter-relationships, and analyses these juxtapositions and their unique contexts with mathematical precision; but this, it turns out, is a study based on a very limited scope of understanding. The study appears to assume that the broch was used for the community, well some of the community, to live in without offering any reason or reference for this supposition:

The minimum population which could have constructed a broch, and carried on the daily work of subsistence agriculture, is probably around 40 individuals (25 able-bodied adults), while there is obviously a maximum set by the size of the territory, the quality of the land and other resources, and the amount of living space provided by a broch and any contemporary outbuildings. Extreme examples of population maxima in Shetland may range from 50 at more remote sites to 200 at sites such as Eastshore. The mean figure is just over 80. Given 100 brochs, this gives a broch-period population of about 4000-8000, plus a small figure for isolated groups not participating in broch-building and use.

Carloway broch, Lewis

The critical line is: and the amount of living space provided by a broch. Even though this ‘living space’ also includes the possibility of any contemporary outbuildings, the assumption is there that brochs were lived in. This seems a big jump because Fojut makes no statement on what the broch actually might be as a place or a space. It is simply a word that refers to a particular building type of a defined era. It seems that Fojut is happy to accept that it is a building for folk to live in without knowing much about this. How? What numbers? It does not seem possible to have 50 – perhaps 80 (mean) or more people living in a broch. Surely it did not accommodate everyone? Simple figures outlined in blog on brochs, (, raises questions on this issue, and notes, by way of example, the number of animals that might be part of this group if indeed animals were brought into the broch space too, as some have speculated. A broch could not accommodate any great number of people or animals: so what is its role?

Later in the study there is a greater concern that makes one wonder why the study is given any credence, sense or relevance at all:

The whole of this complex process of selection can be structured into a 'model', or generalised framework, using the data obtained from the various analyses described in this paper. The model is of flow-diagram form and attempts a description of the portion of the prehistoric decisionmaking process which was founded upon economic, and therefore environmental, considerations, where such considerations had a spatial dimension. The model must remain partial, for it cannot deal with those factors affecting decisions which did not have a direct spatial expression. Superstition, religious belief, historical accident, tradition, social structure and prehistoric politics must all be largely excluded. These, perhaps the most fascinating aspects of the society under study, remain largely inaccessible. The location model, presented as fig. 7, depends upon four vital assumptions, all of which might well have been open to disturbance from the 'non-spatial' factors cited above.

True to academic rationalisation and its innate sureness in its process, its demanding formal approach to research, the study defines its limitations, but continues to declare its results as though these might be sensible, suggesting that something tangible can come from this PhD research in spite of the huge void it is working around. How can critical unknowns simply be ignored? The words are clear: Superstition, religious belief, historical accident, tradition, social structure and prehistoric politics must all be largely excluded even though These (are) perhaps the most fascinating aspects of the society under study. It is simply astonishing that this work is presented without any apology or cringe; that its self-confidence and certainty is declared in its own expression, as if it might make reasonable sense to say that if we have 1, (but we do not know this), and assuming that we have 2, (and we do not know this either), then the total is exactly 3, all when 1 and 2 might prove to be anything, or some unknown number, or nothing at all. Yet there seems to be silent applause and latent praise for the outcome; and some self-satisfaction. It is a little like Douglas Adams’ comic science fiction novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the supercomputer named Deep Thought determined the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything to be the number 42.

The major concern is that brochs might only exist because of these 'unknowns’ that might play a critical, a crucial role in their ‘geography.’ Still Fojut pushes ahead regardless to present his visions of how settlement and broch building can become a formal flow chart. Knowing that these ‘fascinating’ matters might be all intertwined in all other matters in the Iron Age that Fojut explores so rationally with such depth and intrigue, leaves one truly worried about such specialisation and formally fragmented formats framing research results.

Intramural stairs, Carloway broch

Might the broch be: a store for important cultural things; a food store; a trading post; a chapel; a lookout; a landmark; a defensive retreat; a burial ground; a charnel house; a meeting hall; a guest's house; etc. ? Might it be all of these in one? Can one really talk about broch locations without knowing what brochs were, or hypothesising on what brochs might be, both physically and functionally, politically and spiritually? What sense might there be in any location beyond guessing that it is important for a broch to be positioned close to arable ground, a coastline and/or a defensive location?

Carloway broch

Fotul's study, within its limits, is academically proper, thorough and of abstract interest. He does look specifically at the relationships between brochs and, as he calls it, their ‘intervisibility,’ which was the question that began this search. He points out that not all brochs relate visually to others – assuming a 10m maximum height limit. He has walked Shetland and looked at each site. He has seen his subject and its scope. One has to wonder: why is it that Brian Smith, as late as 2016 – see New Shetlander No 276, 2016:
The 2016 Simmer edition of the New Shetlander offers plenty of interesting reading material. Brian Smith’s recent intriguing and popular lecture ‘Did Mousa Broch have a roof? - and why not!’ is published here in full, complete with 17 illustrations.
still chooses to argue that brochs were large so that they could be seen from a distance from other brochs; and that they were so positioned for communication between brochs, for ‘intervisibility’ – possibly using fire? As noted in the first blog,, he does not say what might have been said in any communication. What is one to make of his 'no roof' proposition? Why is it that broch studies never seem to lock into firm evidence, agree, and move on to other matters with this concordance, but rather choose to continually start new and provocatively differing strands of study, research and interpretation? Is it to distract with 'false news,' like President Trump, so the paper can be published and catch attention as endless debate continues? Surely ‘intervisibilty’ is a black and white issue? If this cannot be agreed, what can be? Is Smith going to argue for a piecemeal connection between a few sets of brochs?

View south from Mousa broch

Smith’s talk (also a published paper in New Shetlander) made a big point of his preference, drawing lines to prove his theory, but only between a few brochs near Mousa. Fojut’s diagram confirms that there are three adjacent brochs that share visual contact with Mousa. The map seems definitive – assuming, as Fojut did, a 10 metre height for brochs. Maybe he has a problem here? Mousa broch stands thirteen metres high. No one really knows how tall other brochs – well, any broch – might have been. Still, the diagram is worth perusing because it appears to be certainly not a given, not a fact, that (all?) brochs were located to create a visual linkage for communication. This surprising claim (was it for all brochs?) makes one begin doubting Smith’s other declaration: that Mousa, (and all brochs?), had no roof; that the scarcement was there to support scaffolding: see previous analysis suggesting otherwise in

Interior of Mousa broch

So the mishmash of broch research continues, as do one’s ponderings. How can broch research begin to incorporate such fascinating aspects of the society under study as superstition, religious belief, historical accident, tradition, social structure and prehistoric politics? Surely this is as critical as the other factors argued for previously: the incorporation into broch research of the factual world or engineers and architects that can assist in decoding the remnants, the pieces of brochs left to us.

Carloway broch

What superstitions did the Iron Age have? What religion? What burial practices? The latter question has already been asked. A few papers have been noted (see below). An overview has revealed in one text the observation that the sacred and the profane were very much intertwined in this period:

In contrast, Iron Age mythology appears to have focused on subterranean or water dwelling (Chthonic) deities and to have been completely integrated with domesticity. Some roundhouses appear to have been deliberately built into chambered cairns, using the burial chambers for ritual purposes within, rather than separate from the home. The deliberate deposition of human and animal body parts within the walls and under the floors of dwellings is also known and further strengthens the view that the secular and sacred were indivisible in Iron Age Scotland.

This statement must surely leave a cold shiver of doubt running through research that currently seems content to smugly rationalise positions into a qualified certainty while not knowing much about what is surely an important, core aspect of the era.

This apparently acceptable neglect might fit in with our fragmented and specialised understanding of our own world, but, as was pointed out previously, we must never gauge other societies from our perspective, experience, hopes or understandings (Ananda Coomaraswamy). One might add that we should also look at other times as an integral whole, not piecemeal or in part, for this specialisation can only offer poor guidance to our revelations, and perceptions.

One is left wondering what the research on Iron Age burials might suggest.


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