This is the most well known broch in the Outer Hebrides and the only one to rise to such a height. It’s certainly a striking feature in the landscape, sitting up above the crofting township of Carloway, on the west side of Lewis.
The broch was probably built about 200BC but could have been in use up to about 1000AD. It was quite common for brochs to be used again as strongholds during medieval times and the Morrison Clan are said to have used Dun Carloway as a stronghold in the 1500’s.
The entrance is on the north side and most of the walls on this side have collapsed, leaving a view of the interior structure.
The door is only a metre high and would have had been well defended. As you go in the door there is a small guard chamber set into the wall.
The interior, showing a low entrance into one of two chambers on the ground floor.
A common broch feature is the scarcement which is when the lower part of the wall is made thicker so that it forms a ledge to support the wooden floor above it. Here the line of the scarcement can be seen about halfway between the lower and upper doorways. The lower wall would also have been made thicker to support the huge weight of the tower above it.
An artist’s impression of the broch shows how the space inside would have been used, with animals kept on the ground floor and living quarters on the floors above. Stairs and galleries were built between the concentric walls. The highest part of the broch is 9m high and it probably wouldn’t have been much higher than this originally.
There are extensive views across the surrounding landscape as well as out to sea.
Ruins of blackhouses in the field below the broch. No guessing where the stone would have come from! Blackhouses were the traditional form of cottage with thatched roofs and rounded corners.
A few miles down the road are the famous Calanais Stones and its surrounding ritual landscape of stone circles and other Neolithic monuments. There is nowhere like this small area in the remote west of Lewis to evoke such a connection with the distant past.
Carn Liath is in a pleasant location between Golspie and Brora on the east coast of Sutherland. The broch is right beside the A9, between the road and the sea, but despite being beside a busy main road you’re not aware of the traffic once you’re inside the broch.
Carn Liath is Gaelic for grey cairn and the large mound was thought to have been a burial cairn until it was excavated by the Duke of Sutherland in the 19th century. They discovered that it was a broch with remains of a settlement around it. Unfortunately the excavation wasn’t accurately recorded but the artifacts found indicated an occupancy over many centuries. Another excavation in 1986 established that the site had been in use in the Bronze Age. A Bronze Age burial cist and a food vessel were discovered.
Like many brochs, Carn Liath had a well-guarded entrance, with elaborate door checks and a guard cell.
The interior is far deeper than the exterior with the walls reaching 12 feet high.
One of the best things about Carn Liath is that it still has a well-preserved section of stairs within in walls, showing how brochs were built, with their doubled skinned walls with stairways leading to upper storeys and galleries between the two walls.
Outside the broch are the ruins of a settlement and these are from different time periods. People lived here for a few hundred years after the broch fell out of use but some are probably contemporary with the broch.
The broch is 3 miles north of Golspie and it is easily accessible. There’s a car park beside the A9 and footpath over to it, although you do have to cross the busy main road.
Looking south from the broch you can see the fairytale towers of Dunrobin Castle, the ancestral home of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland.
Nybster Broch is in the far north of Scotland, 7 miles down the coast from John O’Groats, and sits on top of a headland of sheer cliffs. The remains of the broch are well preserved and although they don’t rise much above ground level there’s still plenty to see on the ground, including the round base of the broch itself and the walls of surrounding buildings which formed a settlement around it.
Surrounded by sheer cliffs on three sides, the broch could only be accessed from the landward side and was protected by a thick defensive wall which curved across the headland.
The inside of the broch is 7m in diameter and has walls that are over 4m thick. Brochs were massive stone towers and usually had a small heavily fortified entrance but no windows. They were probably built both for defence and as a status symbol and they would have been impressive but formidable features in the Iron Age landscape of Caithness. They are characterised by having double walls with stairs and galleries within the walls. Below is an example of a broch at Dun Carloway on the Isle of Lewis.
At Nybster there’s no evidence of the typical double wall or galleries but it’s possible that they started above the level of the existing stonework. Or it could be that this was a much lower structure with a single thick wall – maybe more of a dun-like broch or a broch-like dun?
Above: Some of the buildings of the settlement that was squeezed in around the broch. The rather incongruous memorial behind the broch is Mervyn’s Tower and was built in the late 19th by Sir Francis Tress Barry, who was the first person to excavate the broch. He built it as a memorial to his nephew and probably used stones removed during the excavation.
Brochs are mainly found in the north Highlands and islands of Scotland, and Caithness has the largest concentration – over 200 of them! A few years ago the Caithness Broch Project was set up with the aim of preserving and promoting their brochs and other important prehistoric sites in the county. The ultimate aim is to build a broch from scratch in the traditional way and this would be the centre piece of a visitor centre and a great place to find out all about brochs. Their website is a good starting point for exploring the brochs, cairns, stone circles and standing stones of Caithness.
Nybster Broch is easily accessible – although you may need a head for heights at some parts of the path. The path starts at the carpark and follows the edge of the cliff to the broch. Below are some photos taken from our walk along the coast path.
This Iron Age fort is in an elevated postion on the slopes of the Pentland Hills and has spectacular views for miles around. It’s only 3 miles south of the Edinburgh bypass, on the A702 to Biggar, but as soon as we left the main road and drove the short distance up to where you park, we were immediately in some very attractive hill country. Enticing footpaths led upwards into the Pentlands.
The hillfort is within an MOD training area but the red flags weren’t flying that day, so the footpaths and the fort and souterrain were accessible. We arrived late in the afternoon, just as an orienteering event was finishing but more walkers were arriving and setting off up the hill – obviously a popular walking area.
The fort is only a short, but fairly steep walk uphill, on a good track and there was no problem at all finding this souterrain. It is built into one the ramparts of the fort and there’s a gate to it and a noticeboard right beside the track.
The souterrain was built into one of the ramparts during a fairly late stage of the fort’s occupation. The fort originally had a wooden pallisade, which was later replaced by a single rampart, then two more ramparts were added.
The strangest thing about this souterrain is the very odd mix of Iron Age and post war military architecture. It was excavated in the 1930’s and 40’s and the structure stabilised and made safe, probably around this time. Looking at the strange roof lights set into concrete and the air vents sticking out of the ground, it certainly looks as if there’s some kind of military bunker underneath.
Steps lead down into the souterrain.
This part looks more mid twentieth century MOD than Iron Age!
Entrance to the round side chamber
The passage is about 20m long and this part is the original Iron Age structure.
Castlelaw Fort was the second souterrain we visited that day, the first one being further east in the village of Crichton. See Two Midlothian Souterrains 1.Crichton. The drive across country from Crichton took us past the famous Rosslyn Chapel and this really was worth a visit, even if you’re not a Da Vinci Code fan.
Surely the most ornate and decorated chapel in Britain! Almost every inch of the interior has intricate stone carvings and you could spend ages looking at all the details and trying to take in all the symbolism. Photography isn’t allowed inside but maybe that’s just as well as it was better just to soak up the atmosphere and appreciate the architecture.
We met William the chapel cat, who was taking a nap on one of the pews and then we headed to the cafe for tea. The chapel and the village of Roslin sit high up above Roslin Glen, which we looked down to from the cafe terrace. Roslin Glen and Country Park is a steeply wooded gorge with a river running through it and has attractive footpaths and picnic places.
Vatersay is a beautiful little island at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides.
It is only 3 miles long, with just over 90 people living there and since 1991 it has been connected to the Isle of Barra by a causeway.
There are a number of archaeological sites, including a broch, a dun, some Bronze Age cairns and a standing stone.. At most sites there are very little remains, if any, of the original structures but they are all worth visiting for their views and to be able to appreciate their setting in the landscape.
Perched on top of a steep outcrop above the West Beach is the site of Dun Vatersay, an Iron Age fort. Virtually nothing remains of the stone fort but the site is impressive for its views and obvious strategic position.
Bronze Age Kerbed Cairn
There are two Bronze Age cairns on the hill below the dun and the most obvious one is a round kerbed cairn situated on some level ground below the the dun. It was excavated by Sheffield University in the 1990’s and the remains of a cremated body were found. The other one is about 200m away but is not so easy to make out.
The ruined Tacksmans House, between the dun and the small village of Vatersay. Built in the time when the whole of Vatersay was one farm, leased by the tacksman (tenant farmer).
In a gap between the small hills at the south end of the island is a standing stone. No one knows if it is prehistoric or if it had just been a very large gatepost at some time in history! It’s still a very fine stone and as you approach it from the north, the view you suddenly get of the sea and the islands beyond is breathtaking.
Heading south, past the standing stone, the magnificent view looking down to the tail end of the Outer Hebrides – the remote, uninhabited islands of Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray
and Prehistoric Rock Art, a “Coo Palace” and a very unusual church!
These are all found a short distance from each other, between Knockbrex and Kirkandrews, on the eastern side of Wigtown Bay (nearest towns – Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet).
Castle Haven Dun
Entering Castle Haven Dun is like discovering a long lost secret garden, the walls all clad in ivy and the interior a mass of unruly brambles and vegetation. From the shore, the walls emerge up from the rock that it’s built upon, so that it’s hard to see where the rock finishes and the stonework starts. It merges into the landscape in a way that makes it difficult to spot from the road or the coast and there are no signs or even a path to it (style-like steps in the wall beside the road indicate where to go).
Yet, this is an exceptional dun, both because of its state of preservation and its unusual design for this part of Scotland. Built on a small promontory, the dun is D-shaped, with the main entrance from the field on the north side. In the south wall of the dun, a narrow passageway leads to a flight of steps down onto the rocky shore below.
A Galleried Dun
This dun has a feature similar to the Iron Age brochs of northern Scotland, ie. the main structure consists of two concentric walls with a gallery between them. From the central courtyard there are doors leading into the gallery between the walls. The gallery was roofed with stone lintels, some of which are still in situ.
However, unlike the brochs, which had stairs winding up within the walls, Castle Haven has the unusual feature of stone, style-like steps jutting out from the inner wall of the courtyard, to take you up to the next level.
I’d be intrigued to know how high the dun was originally and if there were galleries on more than one level. Due to its shape and fairly large size, it’s unlikely that the walls towered up high like traditional brochs.
Galleried duns are also found in the north of Scotland. For example, Dun Ardtreck on the Isle of Skye, which is also D-shaped and on a promontory, and it is possible that the design of brochs developed from these galleried duns.
The Coo Palace (a posh cow shed!)
Castle Haven Dun owes its state of preservation to considerable restoration work that was carried out in 1905 by James Brown, the laird of Knockbrex. He had a keen interest in architecture and as well as his work on the dun, he also built Corseyard Dairy with its very posh cow shed, known locally as “The Coo Palace”!
Another of James Browns architectural creations was a tiny church in the nearby hamlet of Kirkandrews and I think this is one of the most unusual churches I’ve ever seen. Its design is inspired by a fusion of Arts and Crafts and Celtic design and a fondness for miniature castles! The small panelled room with a fireplace at one end reminded me more of a miniature banqueting hall than a church. It looks very cosy and there are some beautiful photos of when they have had candlelit services there.
Parking at the church is very limited! The best way to appreciate this stretch of coastline around Castle Haven Bay is by walking or cycling along the narrow country road. It’s only 2 miles from the Coo Palace to the church and along the way you pass the dun and the rock art and get some lovely views of the bay.
Tongue Croft Rock Art
Rocks bearing cup and ring marks are plentiful in the Galloway countryside but are often difficult to find (or find access to). This rock art is just a few metres from the road, on the road between the Coo Palace and Kirkandrews. It can be found just over a wall on the right hand side of the road if travelling eastwards.