Yesterday we stood before a broch. It didn’t have much to say for itself; just lay there jumbled, disheveled, and worse for wear after maybe two thousand winters on the verge of a lonely beach between the Scottish highlands and the Outer Hebrides. We weren’t expecting it and only looked for it after spotting a road sign on a detour we hadn’t expected to take.
You will of course know what a broch is: A circular tower, tapering towards the top, built of interlocking stones perhaps originally three storeys high. There are the remains of dozens, maybe hundreds of them throught northern Scotland and the Hebrides. Large enough to house several family groups, their purpose is debated. It seems they were built by Iron Age people around two thousand years ago; around the time of the Roman occupation of southern Britain. One theory has it that they served as defensive fortifications for refugees from the Roman conquest, but I think that may be a little wishful. They are quite a long way from anywhere Romans were active at that time. Also I am not sure just how much resistance they would have offered to any self respecting Roman force.
Another possibility is they were built as symbols of prestige by local chiefs. This seems to me more probable as they would have been impressive structures in their time and would have provided temporary refuge against unfriendly neighbours. No one, it seems, really knows for sure.
We first saw a broch a few years ago on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It was in good condition for its age, still partly standing, holding itself distainfully above and apart from the stream of tourists flowing around it. A couple of years later, walking in light rain and mist on the Isle of Skye we stumbled (literally) onto two more brochs, or more accurately, their remains. They were really only piles of stones about a kilometre apart on lonely hills not far from the sea, although one still had about a metre of its circular wall standing. Sited on high ground they appeared out of the swirling mist as if they were unworldly spirits. There was no one else around; just us and these ancient reminders of distant lives. I remember the cold and the mist, and also a feeling of connectedness to something long lost. The memory left its mark on me together with an interest in brochs and the people who built and lived in them.
So this time, about 10 miles north of Ullapool we chanced happily on an insignificant road not marked on our map. It wasn’t the easiest to drive along, not because of its single lane with passing places, but mainly because it was impossible to resist stopping multiple times to photograph the wildly beautiful panorama of mountains and lochs on all sides. Thirty or so photographs later we reached the village of Achiltibuie, seeming to cling to the slopes of a rocky and gorse covered peninsula just beyond the mouth of Loch Broom, looking out to the Summer Isles. Just a mile further on was an old wooden sign pointing toward the beach and the broch. We decided to chance threatening rain showers and followed a footpath leading through a farmer’s field a few hundred yards down to the shore line where we could see a ruined stoned cottage and a length of stone fence. I saw a pile of stones I thought may have been the broch ruins and took a few photos enthusiastically before Sue tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the cottage ruins, suggesting they might be the broch ruins. She was right of course. Feeling slightly foolish, not for the first time, I walked further along towards the real ruins.
Naturally the stones of the original broch had mostly been dismantled and used for cottages and fences and so on, but the foundations remained. I was so glad we had bothered to make the walk. I don’t think many other people would have visited here, apart from locals. The wind was thundering across the bay and nearly blowing us off our feet and showers of rain were circling us, so we had time for only a couple of photos; not enough to give this special place the respect it deserved. Even then, as we were leaning into the wind, trying to stay upright, there was something deeply spiritual around us in the stones and in the ground. I couldn’t help imagining the people who once lived here, fishing, farming and maybe occasionally stealing their neighbours’ livestock. Living on this remote beautiful shoreline can not have been easy. Generations of children grew up here, men and women worked hard, and old people passed on memories and culture. All of that is now gone. The millennia have not extinguished everything that once was here. The spirit of these long ago people remains in this place and affects two travellers who walk back to their car but carry visions of it with them.