Nybster Broch, Caithness

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.

The Grey Cairns of Camster and the Hill O’Many Stanes

The great ediface of the long cairn at Camster and the neighbouring round cairn is one of the oldest and best preserved Neolithic sites on mainland Britain.
Only it’s location, in this vast empty moorland in the far north east of Scotland has made it relatively unknown compared to, for example, the great prehistoric sites in Wiltshire or Orkney. However, that is changing due to the hugely popular ‘North Coast 500’, a motoring route round the far north of Scotland which is bringing many more people to Caithness and Sutherland and giving lots of publicity to all the places to visit along the route.

Portal stones inside Camster Round Cairn
Portal stones inside Camster Round Cairn

Caithness has a wealth of prehistoric sites and driving north up the A9, or A99 towards John O’Groats, brown signs point the way to brochs, standing stones and cairns.

Boardwalk to Camster Long Cairn
The boardwalk to the long cairn. The round cairn is out of the picture, to the left.

What you see today is one huge long cairn and a round one a short distance away but they weren’t always like that. They started life as three separate round cairns, built around 3,500BC. Sometime after their construction, two of the cairns were covered by an incredible amount of stone to form one long cairn about 70m (or 230ft) long. It must have been built to impress. Not only were the 2 round cairns made into one but the length of it was extended by quite a distance so that it stretched further across the ridge on which it sits.
Horns were added at each end to form forecourts, the main one being at the highest and widest end where the original cairns were.
Camster Long Cairn
You can see the stepped platform and walls of the forecourt but these have been reconstructed to show what it probably looked like originally. This design is quite different from other court cairns of Scotland and Ireland, where the forecourts would you usually be formed from orthostats.
Another difference is that there was no entry into the chambers from the forecourts. This is where the ceremonies would have been performed but the entrances to the two tombs are through tiny openings in the SE facing side of the cairn.

Entrance to Camster Long Cairn - Copy

Restoration work has made access to all three tombs easy, although you do have to crouch down and crawl through the entrances and some of the passageways are quite low and narrow. Each cairn has a passage leading into a central chamber, where you can stand to full height and where enough light has been provided by skylights and a little light getting in from the entrance, that you don’t need a torch.

Of the two chambers in the long cairn, one is tripartite and the other is a simple chamber.

Camster Long Cairn passage
The passage into one of the long cairn chambers

The round cairn has an anti-chamber and this leads into the main chamber which is tripartite, with pairs of orthostats dividing the 3 compartments. It has a fine corbelled roof and stonework.

Camster Round Cairn chamber

Passage, Camster Round Cairn
Passage inside the round cairn

Camster Round Cairn anti chamber
Anti-chamber in the round cairn

 

When the tomb of the round chamber was opened up by antiquarians in the 19th century they entered from the collapsed roof of the cairn. After clearing the rubble that had fallen into the chamber they discovered that the entrance passage had been completely infilled with stones and rubble to seal off the tomb. This was a common practice when Neolithic tombs came to the end of their use.
Skulls and bones from 2 skeletons were found placed in the rubble.

The scant finds from the 3 tombs included some animal and human bones, ash and charcoal, pottery sherds and flints.

Hill O’Many Stanes (or Mid Clyth Stone Rows)

This is an intriguing prehistoric site, about 6 miles away from the cairns (as the crow flies). It is from the Neolithic or early Bronze Age and one can only guess at what it was used for.

Hill O'Many Stanes (1)
On a barren hillside near the coast there are 22 rows of upright stones, all less than 1m high, and radiating out in a fan shape. There are about 250 stones but there could have been many more originally.

Hill O'Many Stanes (2)

There aren’t many stone rows in Scotland, at least not of any complexity or size, but for some reason, Caithness has a concentration of them.