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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016330

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


Gurness has the most extensive and well-preserved domestic buildings surrounding the broch to be seen anywhere in Scotland, and these, together with the visitor centre and a superb view across Eynhallow Sound to Rousay, make this monument a truly fascinating place to visit (it is also a very exposed location needing a reasonably calm day to enjoy it). The first buildings that one encounters after entry to the site, close to the visitor centre, are in fact the latest in the seq uence. Before excavation the entire site was a huge grassy mound, and these buildings were found at a high level in the mound, to the north-east of the underlying broch. They were dismantled and re-built in their present position. One is an excellent example of a Pictish house in which five cells surround a central livingroom, and the other is a large oblong house, which has often been assumed to be a Norse hall house but which could equally well be Pictish (artefacts associated with it are unfortunately undiagnostic). There was certainly activity on the site in the Viking age, because a female grave with typical Scandinavian brooches was discovered inserted into the old rampart surrounding the broch (her gravegoods may be seen in Tankerness House Museum: a pair of oval bronze brooches, an iron necklet, an iron sickle and an iron knife with a wooden handle).

Coastal erosion has destroyed the northernmost part of the site, but it is likely that the outer defences of the broch, a wide band of three ramparts and three ditches, origin ally encircled the broch completely, with an entrance causeway still surviving on the east side. The broch itself was almost certainly built as a tall tower, but its walls have been much reduced in height, probably as a source of building stone; it has a solid wall-base, with cells within the wall on either side of the entrance. The layout on the ground-floor has been complicated by later modifications, but the original design included a well-constructed rectangular hearth and steps leading down to a subterranean cellar with a water-tank fed by a spring, both of which still survive.

Surrounding the broch and filling the entire space available within the outer defences is a remarkable series of semi-detached houses, which, it has been estimated, might have been the homes of some 30-40 families. The construction of these buildings takes every advantage of the available stone, using large upright slabs as well as horizontal dry stone masonry. Although secondary in the overall sequence of building, it is thought that these houses were inhabited contemporary with the use of the broch, and their arrangement neatly respects the pathway leading from the broch out through the ramparts and ditches.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

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