Scotland’s Northern Isles are littered with evidence of life from prehistoric times. The neolithic sites at Skara Brae in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland are evidence that people have lived in the area for more than 4000 years.
Remnants of Brochs are more widespread and are evidence of life from the Iron Age. Perhaps one of the largest, and quite well preserved is the Broch of Gurness in Orkney. The Broch is a village with as many as 14 homes. There were also at least 7 burials. The village is estimated to be about 2500 years old.
The Broch at Jarlshof seems to have been built over earlier settlements. There is a large, well-preserved Broch in Lerwick (Clickimin) as well as one in Caithness.
Brochs were built near the sea and over a cistern. Water was thought to be important to the rituals of the Iron Age people. Indeed, each Broch is built over a cistern. The purpose of the cistern is not entirely clear, but it is believe that the water within it was used for ceremonial ritual. Each home within the village had a “tank” full of water. This was generally near the hearth so that heated rocks from the fire could be placed into the tank and warm the water within.
Remnants of two homes, each with a central hearth
Around the edge of each village is a rampart or ditch. This may have been for protection but again, the purpose is unclear. Each village also had a communal midden where scraps were thrown. Excavation has been able to tell us about the diets of the Iron Age people, and although the sea was abundant with fish, very few were actually consumed. The people tended to prefer limpets, cockles and other shellfish.
The Broch of Gurness is built on the edge of Eynhallow Sound. Eynhallow, one of many islands that make up the archipelago of Orkney. Eynhallow was once home to about two dozen people but a fever in 1851 led to the dismantling of the homes to make them uninhabitable and residents who were still living, moved to mainland or to nearby Rousay.