Yesterday we explored the remote and ancient way west of Ben Hope in Caithness, through Strath Hope towards Bettyhill on the North Coast.

Approaching Dun Dornaigil Broch
from the south, with Ben Hope to the East

Ten of the words in the last paragraph would have fitted the remit for inclusion in my latest collaged creation, as described in my previous blog why build a word broch? which you may like to read.

That’s because these ten words can be made out of the letters of John Nicolson & Francis Tress Barry, celebrated at Auchengill Museum, Caithness as archaeological excavators of Nybster Broch in 1896. The Caithness Broch Project (benefactors from the Brochtober exhibition and auction of artworks, supported by Lyth Arts Centre) had suggested that artists might celebrate Nicolson and Barry in some way.

My response was to place central to the collaged word-broch structure:


1843-1934 architect at Canisby 1825-1907 historian of archaic traces

John = Janet     Francis = Sarah

(It was particularly pleasing to me that the two life-partners of these men had names that fitted my constraints, along with a version of the occupation of each man.)

So here is the alphabetic constraint I set myself when I started work on the word-broch in September 2019. In doggerel, to lighten the load of all those stone slabs:

 How to build a Word-broch 

Slab onto slab to raise a broch.
This one constrainer: “Lift aloft
The stones, these litera to carry:
“J O H N N I C O L S O N ✳ F R A N C I S T R E S S B A R R Y”

No “D”, no “-ing”, no “double-L”;
Only one “E”; no “Heaven” nor “Hell”;
No “double T”, no “U” nor “Me”
Can enter my vocabulary.

“Threshold”, no. No “lintel” place...
Above the doorway, leave a space
Yet... raise a word-broch? Yes we can:
T R E S S B A R R Y, F R A N C I S ✳ J O H N N I C O L S O N

© Kathy McVittie 09 September 2019

First of all I envisaged the words that I generated – Gaelic and English both – each written in immaculate calligraphy on individual “slabs”. These would represent the flagstones of Caithness sandstone, such characterful building material for millennia in the local area and across the Pentland Firth on Orkney.

However, as the project escalated, and my word-store proliferated, I needed to be more selective, choosing words that could be clustered into mini-stanzas, each representing a different aspect of The Broch, or my response to these majestic buildings.

And as a dancer, I felt that some of my response had to incorporate the shamanic elements of water/sea (cyan), the celestial (blue-mauve), earthen (brown and green), and blood/fire (red). For readability I took the technological route towards this, by laser printing of most of the stanzas. Alas, my calligrapher’s hand was never truly steady.

Using colours for the different elements in ‘broch-word-play I

The printing was done in Cambridge, and then the components of the collage travelled with me by train to Brora for assembly, mounting, and framing. Including a “deliberate mistake” word, inserted on the principle that no work of (wo)man should ever be totally perfect (and mine isn’t, anyway… But the “mistake” item and its kin are a delight to me anyway, in Caithness and Sutherland).

Thence to Thurso (by train again) for assistance with hanging hooks (thanks to Durrans of Thurso), and collection by the Caithness Broch Project, in time to meet a re-negotiated deadline.


In fact when Beloved and I drove up through the Flow Country to Lyth Arts last week, my offering was less hung than propped … and not yet labelled.

Ah well. At least it was in the august company of a work, ‘Brims’, by John Nicolson himself, donated by his grandson.

Whether or not anyone puts in a bid at Auction really matters less than the fact that I saw this process through, however amateurish. For this I’d like to thank the following for their support and forbearance, as acknowledged indeed (alphabetically), on the border to broch-word-play I, where I have inserted:

Caterina ✳ blesses Alison Annie Iacob Rose Sarah

You know who you are, stalwart friends (whose names thus rendered were “allowed” in the frame), along with Coach T who encouraged me to consider and define what my personal take is on “Success”. That, as they say, is yet another story.




Kathy McVittie is a biologist, life-writing companion and poet.

Her fascination with the structure, sound and texture of words and plants took her from the fields and gardens of childhood into agricultural research at Cambridge and out again into the landscapes of northern Scotland. Her tools are a pencil and a trowel. She likes to dance and sing, especially under the sky.

She shares some of her musings at