About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Orkney's Brochs

The Midhowe Broch, Rousay

Entrance to Midhowe: Photograph by Sigurd TowriePerhaps the most impressive of all Orkney's brochs is the Midhowe Broch on Rousay.

The broch is one of the many archaeological structures covering the island's western coast.

Looking across the churning waters of Eynhallow Sound towards the Mainland, these massive structures must have been an awe-inspiring sight to early travellers.

Defensive or dramatic?

Constructed and used some time between 200BC and 200AD, at first glance the Midhowe broch appears to have been built with defence in mind.

Standing on a promontory formed by two geos, the broch is protected on one side by the sea and on the landward side by a stone rampart and ditch. This massive rampart is built in an arc between the two geos and effectively cuts off access from the land.

Although there is no doubt that these outward defences would have looked impressive in their heyday, it may be that they were merely built for dramatic effect.

The southern end of the rampart stops short of the geo and leaves a ledge on the rock face by which a "visitor" could easily gain access to the promontory.

Like the Broch of Gurness, Midhowe is surrounded by a group of external buildings. These, however, are probably from a later date, a time when the need for defence was not as important.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie
One of the interior sections of the Midhowe broch.

Coastal erosion, a problem for all shore sites such as Midhowe, has greatly damaged the remains of these outhouses.

The remains of the broch's circular wall stand to a height of approximately four metres and within the structure the general layout of the ground floor is remarkably well-preserved.

Large slabs of local flagstone were used to divide the interior (diameter 9.6 metres) into two smaller, semi-circular rooms. These were then further divided into smaller cells, each with its own hearth and water-tank.

Water was supplied from a spring that flowed up through a crack in the rocks and during the excavations, it was written that the main storage tank retained water which:

"remained clear and drinkable all the years the work of excavation was going on."

Hollow Base

Midhowe differs from other Orkney brochs in that it had a ground-floor gallery built into the walls. However, this hollow base was obviously not a good idea because at some point the gallery had to be blocked and filled in when the walls threatened to collapse.

A projecting ledge, about three metres (11 feet) up would have at one time supported a timber first floor.

Roman contacts?

Perhaps the most interesting things about Midhowe are the artefacts found within during excavation. The majority of these were the normal domestic items as you would expect to find on such a site - tools, whetstones, quernstones etc.

However, like the underground chamber of Minehowe, the Midhowe Broch yielded a few surprises as well.

Among the items uncovered were the remains of a bronze ladle and some shards of pottery - items that had a definite Roman origin. Because Orkney was well away from the areas of Roman control, they must either have been acquired as gifts or through trading or raiding excursions south.

Click here for more on the subject of Orkney and the Romans.

The discovery of bronze jewellery on site also hints at the wealth and status of the family unit that lived at Midhowe. The archaeological evidence also indicates that, at some time, a bronze-worker was based at Midhowe. However, the small quantity of debris uncovered may simply mean that this craftsman was merely a travelling artisan.

Photograph by Sigurd Towrie