Was Iron Age Orkney the centre of a vast north warrior province?

The Broch of Gurness

Iron Age Orkney was the centre of a vast province, ruled over by a chieftain who co-ordinated a massive programme of defensive brochs to counter a threat from the south.

This was the conclusion of Brian Smith’s lecture Brochs Rethought in Kirkwall on Sunday night.

Smith explained to a packed venue how his 18-month survey of brochs in Orkney and Shetland came about because he was dissatisfied by what he had read on the subject by archaeologists.

He outlined 70 years of broch studies – starting from V. Gordon Childe’s idea that they were created by invading Celts from south-west England, who “lorded it over native populations” in a society resembling medieval feudalism.

All this changed in the 1970s, following the discovery of two roundhouses – one at Quanterness, Firth, the other at Bu, Stromness.

These, Smith explained, became regarded as “proto-brochs” – the architectural ancestors of Orkney’s brochs. This, together with an enormously influential survey of Shetland’s brochs, led to the widespread idea that the brochs were family homes – the dwellings of aristocratic farmers – who controlled a number of farming families who worked in the territory.

At the same time, the concept of a warlike society fell out of favour.

“ Modern archaeologists have an aversion to the notion of invasion that amounts to neurosis” joked Smith.

So the perceived purpose of brochs shifted – no longer were they the castles of invading “noble” Celts, perpetually at war with other. Now they were, in the words of one archaeologist, “over-embellished farmhouses”.

But one element remained constant. All participants in the debate to date have linked brochs with arable land – something Smith took issue with, showing that although some do sit on good farmland, by and large they do not.

Needless to say Smith also disagreed with the previous archaeological theories offered about brochs. He preferred to develop the theories of his “mentor”, John Stewart of Whalsay – a man with “an acute mide, keen eyes and an ineradicable habit of ignoring what the experts said.”

Smith feels that the Iron Age was an era of war, the brochs acting as military installations in a warlike society.

As such, he proposed a theory that the broch-builders had an enemy to the south. Illustrating this with maps on which broch locations were plotted, Smith suggested, persuasively it has to be said, that the brochs were situated in strategic positions, watching over harbours where an enemy might gain a foothold as well as monitor huge expanses of sea.

They are also found clustered around places where an enemy might co-ordinate an attack from east to west or north to south.

The pattern certainly seemed to fit with Shetland’s brochs, and the same can be said for those in Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland.

The broch cluster along both sides of Eynhallow Sound was, Smith feels, especially significant.

“But is it not more likely that Gurness and Midhowe were especially important brochs – they certainly look it – and that the others are there to guard them?” he said.

“If the military theory of brochs is right,” said Smith, “we would expect to find them, in strength, at the exits and entrances of Scapa Flow , exactly where the modern military installations are to be found. And that is where they are.”

But given that such an effort was made to construct a series of defensive structures against a hypothetical threat, who were these enemy? Rather than the inter-neighbour feuding suggested by some early scholars, Smith believes “the enemy lived outside the broch province – the inhabitants of central and southern Scotland .”

This broch-province, which Smith compares to the Norse earldom of Orkney in the tenth century, had Orkney and Caithness at its centre and Shetland and Sutherland forming “its exotic peripheries”.

In control of this province was a chieftain, who Smith speculates, was based at Eynhallow Sound – perhaps in Gurness or Midhowe.

The appearance of the brochs, he argued, was not a gradual architectural development, as most scholars now believe.

“They were a new development in the society of the north of Scotland , and I suggest they were a sudden one,” he said. “Something special happened when broch-builders came on the scene, wherever they originated.”

Smith went on to draw a parallel with the appearance of the brochs and events in northern Scotland in the first and second world wars.

“During the wars,” he said, “[military surveyors and politicians] commandeered land and planted made-to-measure fortifications and emplacements in appropriate places, in a short space of time. I suggest that much the same happened here, at a more leisurely pace, during the Iron Age.”

Behind the buildings were a group of immigrant architects, with immigrant soldiers garrisoned at the forts when work was complete – perhaps full-time, perhaps only during the summer months.

Concluding, he said: “When I look at brochs, I see the fortifications of a primitive but extraordinarily successful society. These building’s weren’t for mere ‘defence’”

He added: “Who would have dared approach an enemy territory bristling with hundres of massive forts, especially at the end of a gruelling sea journey. Brochs were the strongholds of an aggressive, not timorous people.”

“They looked out over the seas, a meticulously planned grid of scanner; they guarded every harbour, channel or valley where an enemy might lurk; they deployed soldiers who owed allegiance, not to a private landowner, but to the whole society and its god-like chief.”

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