Letters to the Editor

Brochs and Cattle Raiding

Dear Editor,

The hill forts like Garrywhin, and the promontory forts like St John's Point were clearly suitable for protecting cattle against the cattle raiding which remained popular into Stuart times. But the brochs, built around 100BC long after the hill forts, were too small to accommodate both people and the cattle which were the main portable wealth. I suggest that this is evidence that the brochs were designed against raiders who could not drive off cattle BECAUSE THEY CAME BY BOAT ! The raiders must have sought more compact booty like slaves, ransom, and metal. It follows that the 500 or so brochs were designed for defence, although some may have served to add dignity to a later civic centre. About half the brochs have a massive surrounding wall, often with a cluster of stone huts.

Almost all the brochs are north of the Caledonian canal line suggesting to me that they were not just an architectural style, like the 18 and 19th century tower houses, but were built over a single kingdom on the king's orders (just like the Anderson's Shelters in 1939) against raiders from Norway or the south.

In our 1995 Bulletin Gordon Wilson made the case for brochs as watch towers, and in a Club lecture Richard Hingly lumped all brochs and duns as "Atlantic Round Houses", all low (except for the "Magnificent 7") and built as status symbols. What do you think?

Yours etc

Geoff Leet


Orkneyinga Saga

Dear Editor

I would like to draw your attention to an article in Volume2 of "Northern Scotland" - A Historical Journal. It covers the period from 1150 to 1266 and is of particular relevance to Caithness.

We tend to think of the Orkneyinga Saga as the only historical source for the early history of Caithness. I was also dissatisfied with the translations of the Saga and only the cost of the Old Norse Dictionary prevented me from having a go at some of the passages. The tradition that Harold’s Tower on Clardon Head marked the spot where Harold fell in battle is not borne out by the Saga. On page 106 in "Northern Scotland" it seems he as killed in a battle near Wick. The Saga says, with poetic brevity "er fell I Vik" (he fell in Wick).The blinding of the Bishop at Scrabster raises the question as to where the castle was. In dimy1822 map of Caithness-shire, Scrabster is the name given to a building about 1¼ miles west of Thurso and south of the then road westward. This map does not show the ruins of the castle. There used to be a row of cottages at map ref.0933689 and this might have been Scrabster. How it came to be relocated at its present site is something of a mystery. I have wondered if the first "castle" was the refortification of one of the brochs and not the castle usually referred to. Things Va broch was clearly the meeting place of the Norse thing.

The review throws considerable doubt on the veracity of Prince Henry Sinclair’s expedition to the New World which was published in the Bulletin a few years ago.The full reference, for those wishing to read the article in full is:-

Crawford B.E., The Earldom of Caithness and the Kingdom of Scotland, Northern Scotland, A Historical Journal (Gray, M and Withrington, D.J. Editors) University of Aberdeen. Vol.2, No2: 1976-77 pp 97-117.

Yours etc

Jack Saxon