[ISSN 1974-028X]








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N. 18 - Giugno 2009 (XLIX)

the Origin of the Brochs
Two Contrasting Visions and Various Disquisitions

di Antonio Montesanti


"Although the Broch had been the most excavated ancient sites… none with less result. The extensive early excavations are inadequately reported." (Scott 1947: 3n).


The fascination, that the brochs have inside their social, historical and archaeological background give the opportunity to analyze a problem though to solve. We are going to assess various archaeological theories that find a heavy contrast about the origin and the provenience of the brochs.

The dozen different hypotheses can be enclosed in two huge diachronic categories which become themselves theoretical perspectives. Subdividing the two different points of view in subcategories, we will observe the impact that this double parallel have had on the modern studies and researches.

2. The start point for the provenience of the brochs

The research of brochs origin has some firm points that, at the same time, rise a large number of problems.

Geographical: The brochs phenomenon is strictly linked (bounded), and enveloped, exclusively to the borders of Scotland (1) and its population.

1 – Distribution and localisation of the brochs (after Ritchie 1988: 6)

The great majority have been founded in the Islands and in the five Northern Counties, only a few have been found in the further south counties (Forfarshire, Stirlingshire, Perthshire, Berwickshire).

Structural: The broch structure has an extreme constancy of features and presents essentially an uniformity of plan, that is often unvaried in time. The links with primitive or immature prior stages or/and envelopment are limited.

Functional: The strongly project system, defined 'passive defence', is the undeniable point on which the broch structure is based and with which get defined ‘the begin of military architecture in Britain’ (Simpson 1965: 68).

It presents a marvellous tactical ingenuity for the vast-in-size of the enclosures. That structure must to have suddenly changed the native behaviour from a dwelling-house “peaceful rusticity” to a fortified war-like system (Anderson 1883: 204; Anderson 1890, p. 146; Mulqueen 1898: 3-4; Feachem 1955: 68; Simpson 1965: 69).

3. Synchronic evolution of brochs origin (Graham 1974; Armit 2003: 17-26)




(First representative)


(Last representative)

Begins – ends


1726 ca.

(G. Gordon)

1875 ca.

(G. Petrie)

First surveys

– intensive excavations in Orkney


1875 ca.

(F.T. Barry)

1930 ca.

(J. Anderson)

Excavations in Caithness – Anderson’s disciples


1935 ca.

(G. Childe)

1970 ca.

(E.W. Mackie)

Prehistory of Scotland – Falling of “Hibridean theory”

“Scientific approach”

- “Processualist”

- “Postprocessualist”

- “New Archaeology”


No approaches about origin

4. First Perspective: from South to North

4.1 The Celtic Way or European Celtism (or Panceltism)

In the rising of pre-Romanticism or late Enlightenment, the admired Roman campaigns in Gaul were linked to the ‘vetrified forts’ phenomenon, of which Scotland represents, with 45 structures, the most impressive country in all over Europe (2).

Examples, like Dunburgidale in Bute and Ardifuar in the Crinaw District, are comparables similar to the Cornish circular fort of Chun Castle and the crannog evidence is neared to the Swiss Celtic pile-buildings (‘keltische Pfahlbauten’ or ‘habitations lacustres’) and the lake-dwellings of the Somerset (Glastonbury Culture).

This resemblance was explained using a passage of ‘De bello gallico’ about the Celts ‘Belgae’ who would have brought, fleeing from Caesar, this building typology (‘murus gallicus’) in Scotland (William 1777; Simpson 1965: 75, 84; Wainwright n.d.: 29; Scott 1947: 33-35; Ritchie 1988: 14).

4.2 The defence from Romans

The Roman invasion would have changed the attitude of the Scotland’s inhabitants. The rise of Rome would have created a second line hardly attackable, in the Aberdeenshire (Tap o’Noth and Bennachie), in front to the Antonine Wall. The structural growth of the brochs (confirmed by the radiocarbon during the 1st century BC and the 1st AD) would be the response to a series of invaders incursions through north.

The continuous changing situation appears in the founds of Roman stones reused into the broch of Ruberslaw in Roxburghshire or in a chunk of Roman masonry included in the main rampart in Clatchart Craig near Newburg in Fife (Simpson 1965: 69, 78, 83).

The expedition of Agricola, who circumnavigates the Britannia, could have brought the inhabitants of the sea lands and the isles to built the tower-brochs. The idea that they were erected as protection against roman slave-trading has a fairly attractive of a romance (Hunters 1974), however chronologically imperfect and, above all, fantastic. However, the thesis consists in that the ‘Broch Tower’ typology could have been an evolved imitation of roman towers during the Roman penetration in Scotland (2nd century AD) (Scott 1947: 33-35).

Although there was not trace of burning or slighting, any brochs upon the borders, like Leckie in Stirlingshire and Torwoodlee in Selkirk, appear to have been deliberately dismantled. Moreover, the retreat of the Romans did not a signal of a return to peaceful conditions, because that fortification remained an important and further active element (Wickham-Jones 2001: 83; Ritchie 1988: 14-15; Armit 2003: 125-128).

5. Second Perspective: from North to South

This theory concerns as a primary feature that this complex enclosure is, with external influxes too, an architectural phenomenon of natives’ origins and peculiar to Scotland (P.A. Munch quoted by Wilson 1851: 420-3). However, it is not ever so. Some theory, thought admitted a secondary occupation of brochs by later peoples, proposed that the structures were built from pre-celtic people who reared the stone circles, till putting the brochs 2000 years back (Laing & Huxley 1866; Mulqueen 1898: 3-4).

5.1 Orcadian or Atlantic Genesis

The invention of the brochs was born as characteristic model in the northern isles to arrive in the south. The Orkney, instead, could have been the earliest seat of a consolidated tribal structure in possess of splendid buildings material: the ‘Old Red Sandstone’ (Brøgger 1930; Traill 1890). Some Belgian element would have applied the basic structures, already present in Skara Brae, the technique of ‘murus duplex’, giving origin to the first brochs. The first builders would have been the aboriginal inhabitants of Orkney, as recognized in the submission act in the Orosius’s statement (Piggott 1955: 58-59).

5.2 The Pictians

The self-genesis theory says that the brochs were a defensive circular evolution of tower-houses from the round stone-walled houses, of which similar features have found in Ireland, Wales and Cornowall and are so “persistently Celtic” (Piggott 1955: 59). Belonging at the pre-Pictish and Pictish period, the structures were substantially houses, enveloped by a figurative ladder: dwellings, subterrain and broch. They then would have been the normal day-to-day work and living place of the Picts. The common laying area and the identification with the pictish settlements is due to the link with the Pictish symbolism (Wainwright 1955: 91).

5.3 The Norse

Inside the panorama of theories the most interpretative, till the first scientific studies, was that of Norse origin. Its strength point grounded on fact that all known brochs, with five exceptions are situated in localities known to have possessed by the Norse and their position suggest that they belonged to a people using the sea as base for war-like operations. However, in that way, the Norwegian architectural of brochs was ascribed to the only Scotland, because there is not anyone in Norway (Fergusson 1877; Fergusson 1878: 631-640; Mulqueen 1898: 3-4).

5.4 Irish interpretation

Norwegian’s interpretation was hardly attacked, but substituted with that by which the brochs would have a connection with the Irish duns. The first origin should have been Irish or Celt, and then evolved in Scotland, to come back again in Ireland in form of high towers in Christian period (Mulqueen 1898: 1-13).

6. The Hebridean ‘compromise’

One early intuition saw the connection between the brochs and a class of prehistoric forts in the Hebrides, called ‘galleried duns’ (Simpson 1965: 81; Anderson 1883). The first archaeological scientific study connected and compared the Clettraval pottery class of Hebrides with IA B culture of Wessex, which cultural influx on the broch people seem clear. For the first time after 40 years, archaeologically came back the entrance of Gallo-Belgic theory. They came in Kent and Essex in the 2nd century BC.

The episode were not to ascribe to Caesar’s campaign, because the pottery of Hebrides confirms that the last Wessex IA B emigrants arrived in Skye in 75 BC. The develop of the brochs structure showed that the Hebrides would only represent an embryonic stage. Excavations and assessments to the big enclosures Jarlshof, Cleckhimin and Musa lead to comprehend a fairly complete chronological sequence of IA in the Shetland.

The first similar-broch structures, the ‘Atlantic roundhouses’ by Armit (1991) start between 5th and 4th century BC, in a crescendo they reached the shape of fort and castles building in the last 2nd century BC extending till 2nd AD, after their develop as “Celtic towers”, firstly on Skye.

The Hebrides, differently from the Northern Provinces, have not need of a sophisticated defensive enclosure for their mountainous nature (Mackie 1969b: 66-68; Mackie 1969a: 15; Mackie 1965a: 266). Although was been accepted the “Celtic theory”, the important evidence about the relationship to earlier and later structures changed the perspective of the Atlantic Insular Area and Highlands, considered to be no more a remote and backward area (Hamilton 1966: 127-128; Ritchie 1988: 20).

7. Critical assessment to the impact to interpretation

It seemed that the Hibridean theory might have unanimously accepted. After the recent interpretation of radiocarbon dating of Bu (800-400 BC), the building broch-like structures in Orkney and the sequential phases of continuity in Caithness, the last origin theory has fallen too (Ritchie 1988: 16; Armit 2003: 31-32).

Nowadays, the processualist archaeology can not suppose any assessment of emigrations or peoples movement, for its properly structure or as reaction to a so huge hypothetical background of so many failure theories (Ritchie 1988, 41; Cunliffe 2005, 325-330). The changing of vision abandoned the difensivistic theory and the origins research (Childe 1935) for a new approach. It has supposed, anthropologically, that the ‘fortresses’ must reflect peculiar social conditions.

The picture appear now like a well-to-do farmers based in stoutly defended sites, the brochs were rise neither as defensive towers nor fortresses, but simply farm houses (Scott 1947: 33; Ritchie 1988: 16), they became castles only in a second period (Armit 2003: 111-115).

8. Conclusions and final considerations

From first theoretic scientific study (2), leading irrefutable considerations (Graham 1949: 90-91), only now we can find a new approach dictated from the New Archaeologists.

2– The first scientific study on the brochs (after Graham 1949: 90-91)

Everyone brings his properly experience and excavation data and, above all, dating (i.e. Dockrill et al. 2005: 157; Dockrill 2006), without give any apparent interpretation or answer about the problem (Ballin-Smith & Banks 2002; Turner 2005).

Probably this new simplistic approach, about the origins, to that new vision is due to a new scientific interpretation and read of data with Fujut’s (4, 5) school about the placed and the landscapes resources (Fujut 1983 [2005]; Dockrill 2002: 15).

3 – Methods of scientific theories application to the brochs data, Thiessen polygons (after Fujut 1983 [2005]: 153)

4 – Methods of scientific theories application to the brochs data (after Fujut 1983 [2005]: 164)

In that way is getting building the big brochs mosaic and probably, it will become understandable only after that every single ‘tessera’ will be positioned in the right place. However, in this way it is going to opening black holes every day bigger, i.e. about the relationship with the Romans and the rule and presence of brochs in the South (5), to which, now, it seems impossible to respond (Armit 2003: 119-125).

5 – Brochs in the South of Scotland (after Armit 2003: 121)

"Building skills and traditions do develop within a community, and somewhere within Scotland, but only in the terms of our definition, there lies the earliest broch. But if we ever find it, and we will never know if we have, will we really be closer to understanding these monuments?" (Barrett 1981: 19)





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