What is a broch? Before May 2016, when I first visited Carn Liath, I would have guessed it as a Scottish personal ornament, perhaps in the form of a thistle or harebell.

I would have been wrong.

Ben Johnson writing for Historic UK has it that

Brochs are mysterious features of Scottish archaeology. These two thousand year old stone structures date from the Iron Age, and it is estimated that at least seven hundred brochs once existed across Scotland. Most are now in a poor state of repair, but the most complete examples can only be said to resemble the cooling towers of modern power stations.

while Orkneyjar: the heritage of the orkney islands, tells us that

[a] typical broch stood from five to 13 metres high. It was a circular, two-storey, drystone, structure, accessed by a single door at ground level.

Inside was a main inner “chamber” from which smaller cells – either built into, or up against, the wall – branched off. A winding, stone staircase, housed within the broch’s double walls, led upwards to elevated floors and finally the top of the structure.

Although, like the earlier roundhouses, it is possible that some brochs were no more than fortified dwellings, a widespread belief is that they had a defensive function and are characterised by immensely thick outer walls.

© Sigurd Towrie 2004

In August 2019, having moved to Sutherland the year before, we ventured north to Caithness to visit the Broch Centre at Auckengill. We found it tricky to find details of its opening times, so went in the middle of a Saturday in August.

The small building – used to house Northlands Viking Centre until 2017 – sits beside the main A9 and is free to enter. I can’t find a definitive list of opening times: we visited in the middle of an August Saturday when it was manned (womanned actually) and welcoming.

The display primarily focused on the recent (2011?) work and material finds of the Caithness Archaeological Trust. It also featured local man John Nicolson (1843-1934) who, while acting as foreman at the archaeological digs of Sir Francis Tress Barry (1825-1907) of Keiss Castle.

Nicolson was also an architect (for example, of the graceful church at Canisbay) and archeological chronicler in his own right. Some of his watercolour works of Iron Age finds (for he was a self-taught artist) are included in the exhibition.

And down at the coast, near the intriguing remains of Nybster Broch, is a Caithness stone memorial that Nicolson designed to commemorate “Baron de Barry” (as his mentor was ennobled by King Luis I, following Barry’s development of open-cast copper mines in Portugal).

Over 100 years later I happened across an invitation for both professional and amateur artists to submit works for an exhibition, Brochtober, at Lyth Arts Centre, a celebration of things Broch. (Until 27 October 2019 there is an online auction fundraiser for the Caithness Broch Project.)

Over the next few days I hope to post some pictures of my journey as an amateur artist, towards building

word-play-broch I

my submission to the exhibition.