Context 158 - March 2019

22 C O N T E X T 1 5 8 : M A R C H 2 0 1 9 KENNETH McELROY Celebrating these pinnacles of prehistoric building A voluntary, grass-roots organisation aims to help revive the economic prospects of Caithness by constructing a full-scale replica of that mysterious, ancient Scottish building type, the broch. For many years the romantic landscape and rich culture of Scotland have attracted tourists in their droves. Now, fuelled by initiatives such as the North Coast 500, and TV series and films such as ‘Outlander’ (and soon perhaps ‘Outlaw King’), Scotland is seeing phenomenal growth in the tourism sector. However, Caithness, the northernmost county of Scotland, continues to slip under the radar for many tourists. Caithness has had no starring role in the ‘Outlander’ series, for example, and for tourists who yearn for iconic mountains, it will come as something of a surprise – it is the ‘Lowlands beyond the Highlands’. But what Caithness lacks in iconic peaks or Jacobite romance it makes up for with some of the most extraordinary archaeological, historical and pre- historical sites in all of Britain. Thousands of monuments are scattered across the Caithness landscape – from neolithic cairns to the abandoned remains of clearance-era crofts. However, it is one particular structure that sets Caithness apart from the rest of Scotland, and indeed the world: the broch. These evocative iron-age monuments have been described as the pinnacle of prehistoric drystone building and engineering1, and it is easy to see why. These impressive structures reached over 40 feet in height, almost ‘cooling tower’ in appearance, and were built out of drystone – no bonding agents such as lime and mortar were used. Brochs were double-walled, and between the walls of the broch ran a staircase: it is posited that brochs were essentially multi-floored con- structions, given the presence of the staircase, but also thanks to the ‘scarcement ledge’ which appears in the remains of many brochs. The broch-builders also incorporated other archi- tectural components into the brochs. Corbelled cells and voids, gaps in stonework, run through the inner wall – a feature that has provoked some debate. Were voids used to strengthen the load-bearing qualities of brochs, or were they a part of a form of central heating? Brochs often pose more questions than answers. It is the ambition of Caithness Broch Project (CBP), a small, grass-roots archaeo- logical charity seeking to promote Caithness as a heritage tourism destination, to attempt to unravel some of the mysteries of the broch – by constructing a full-scale replica. For such a large and ambitious project, it may come as a surprise to hear that CBP is very much a voluntary, grass-roots group. Its found- ers, Iain Maclean and Kenneth McElroy, do not fit the typical mould associated with major archaeological projects: they are not archae- ologists. Maclean is a self-employed builder, and ¹ Geddes, George (2009) http:// issue19/4/3.3.3.html Nybster broch, on the east coast of Caithness, was occupied throughout the late iron age and well into the historical period. It evolved into a complex of interlinked stone buildings, connected by passages.