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Musings on Mousa, Fulmars and Big Roondie Things From the Iron Age

Coastal erosion is a big problem all over Orkney – we have over 950km of coastline and get battered by both the Atlantic and the North Sea, not to mention all the tidal races between the islands. The Westness shore in Rousay is particularly exposed, with the tidal races of Eynhallow Sound noted for their ferocity. Many of Orkney's around 135 brochs are now situated right on the shore and actively eroding. I say 'around 135' because no-one's ever agreed on the exact numbers of brochs in Orkney, or for that matter agreed on the exact definition of a broch anywhere. George Petrie did the first survey of Orkney's brochs in 1866 and he managed to list 70 in his Notice of the Brocks or Large Round Towers of Orkney (in Archaeologia Scotia Vol 5, which is something of a broch special and can helpfully be accessed online).

The broch/roundhouse debate all gets a bit technical – broch tower, hollow-walled, ground galleried broch; Atlantic/complex/ massive roundhouse etc. etc. It's easier just to use the term broch as in ‘a big roondie thing from the Iron Age’. I'm definitely with the late Graham Ritchie on this one: 'Even if they are not all Mousa, they are there in the countryside, whatever you call them'.

Mousa is exceptional, whether other brochs were as tall is another of the issues that folk still don’t agree on, but if you are ever in Shetland you really should make the effort to get to it, it's not every day that you get to climb to the top of a tower that's been standing 2,000 years, and even though it's in Shetland it does have an Orkney connection, better still with the Norse earls of Orkney.

Mousa Broch in Shetland
Mousa Broch in Shetland

We're back in Orkneyinga Saga territory here, in 1153, and Earl Harald is not best pleased with Erlend the Younger, who, when refused permission to marry his mother Margaret by the Earl (Harald's mother not Erlend's – we're not talking incest here!) kidnapped her from Orkney and took her to Shetland, to Moseyarborg, (i.e. Mousa Broch). Earl Harald surrounded the place but, as the Saga says 'it was an awkward place to assault' and in the end he took the easiest route & let Erlend marry Margaret – what the lady herself thought of the arrangement is not recorded.

Anyway, I digress: the particular big roondie thing we're concerned with on the Westness shore is South Howe, practically next door to Midhowe chambered tomb and the better-known broch at Midhowe. We've not dug any of the site at South Howe but the eroding coastal section was cleaned and recorded as part of the project and it is in a bit of a sorry state. Apart from the coastal erosion large chunks of its shoreward side have been used to build the farm buildings at Brough Farm, which is built right up against the broch itself.

Recording the shoreward section is not the easiest thing in the world, but luckily the students were up for the challenge and suitably equipped with hard hats were soon happily at work:

The Swandro team recording the eroding broch at South Howe, Rousay

There is still some of the broch tower itself remaining, neatly sectioned by the sea so you can see the massive wall construction. The interior of the broch tower was too unstable to clean and any attempt to do so would have made it more liable to erosion, so it was left well alone:

The broch wall at South Howe sectioned by coastal erosion

Thankfully there were no fulmar nests in the remains of the broch, which is often a hazard when attempting to record shorelines in Orkney. Fulmars are wonderful birds, they like to just hang in the air and glide along cliffs faces – I think you get thrown out of the fulmar club if you flap your wings - and very long lived – some in Orkney are known to have reached 50. The problem is if you accidentally disturb them when nesting, by, say, going a bit too close to that interesting cliff section, they have an annoying habit on projectile vomiting on you, and if you get covered in fulmar vomit you basically have to walk home & then burn all your clothes when you get there. The perils of archaeology!



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