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Publication Account

Event ID 585287

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


HY21 1 BORWICK (‘Broch of Borthwick’, ‘Bur-wick’)


Solid-based broch in Sandwick, on a cliff promontory next to flat farmland. The site, originally a green mound, was explored by W.G.T. Watt in 1881, but his description of the broch he discovered is not as clear as it might have been, mainly because he published no plan of the site.

The broch stands on top of a cliff promontory which falls 18.3-24.4 m (60 - 80 ft.) sheer to the sea and rolling, cultivated land runs right up to it. A small stream runs past the site immediately to the E. The promontory was cut off from the flat land beyond by an outer wall; a shallow depression immediately beyond it may be a ditch. Outbuildings were found between the wall and the broch.

In 1881 the wall of the ruined tower stood to a height of 3.4 m (11 ft.) and in places reached 4.9 m (16 ft.). The Commission measured the wall height as 2.6 m (8.5 ft.) in 1935 [3], so considerable dilapidation occurred during the half century after the excavation; the building now seems to be fairly stable. The entrance passage, still lintelled over, was 5.57 m (18 ft. 3 in.) long with door-checks each formed of a slab set on edge 2.97 m (9 ft. 9 in.) from the outside; the actual broch entrance is only 4.3-4.6 m (14-15 ft.) long as a secondary wall had been added to the inner face at some stage (below). A guard cell opened off the right of the passage; the door was 1.57 m (5 ft. 2 in.) high but rubble now chokes the passage to within 45 cm (18 in.) of its lintels. There are no clear signs of bar-holes behind the door. The passage is lintelled only down as far as the door frame and there is a void or chamber above these; this void is taken here as an indication that the structure is a hollow-walled broch. If the building stood to 4.9 m (16 ft.) in 1881 Watt should have uncovered traces of the upper gallery and the intra-mural stair on the wall head but he makes no mention of any such features; presumably the stair started at first floor level but was not observed.

Watt cleared the debris from the interior and found under the rubble "unctuous matter" containing ashes, bones and shells mixed with clay to a depth of 60 cm (2 ft.) or more. Underneath this layer was a layer of small flat stones from 60-90 cm (2-3 ft.) thick and under this the broch floor. Some flagstones on edge were just showing above the "unctuous matter" and "crude inner circular walls" rested on the 90 cm (3 ft.) thick basal stone layer. This presumably refers to the secondary wall round the interior shown on the Commission's plan; this is 2.58 m (8.5 ft.) thick at the entrance.

There seem to have been secondary oblong chambers in the interior, presumably formed of the flags on edge; a secondary stairway on the east side is also described, founded on the basal stony layer. No signs of mural galleries, stairs or chambers were apparent then and none are now. The basal course of the outer wall face projects forward slightly from those above.

From the verbal description it sounds as though the interior stratigraphy of the broch showed a mass of small masonry debris on the original floor level - perhaps derived from the partial demolition of the upper walls - with a secondary wall (perhaps built of the larger stones from the demolished wall) built round the interior on top of it. The "unctuous matter" then accumulated during the subsequent, secondary habitation of the broch. The composite bone comb found would fit into the late Iron Age phase of this secondary occupation, perhaps in the 6th or 7th centuries AD, as at Burrian broch on North Ronaldsay (HY75 1) and in the late levels in Dun Cuier on Barra (NF 60 3). The long-handled combs are character-istic middle Iron Age broch period artefacts (visited 19/7/63 and in 191985).

In 1983 a midden lying on bedrock was found in the cliff face 9 m NE of the broch; it contained Iron Age pottery, ash and animal bones [4].

Dimensions: External diameter 16.8 m (55 ft.): internal 8.2 m (27 ft.). The wall thickness varies from 3.49 m (11 ft. 5 in.) on the west through 4.3-4.6 m (14-15 ft.) on the south and east to 4.9 m (16 ft.) on the N. The walls proportion may thus be about 47.3%. The entrance passage was 1.58 m (5 ft. 2 in.) high, 1.05 m (3 ft. 5 in.) wide at the base at the exterior, narrowing to 90 cm (2 ft. 11 in.) at the checks; it then widened again to 1.53 m (5 ft.).

Finds [2]: the artefacts found are given no provenance but it may be supposed that many of them came from the "unctuous" earth -- the debris of the secondary occupation of the tower. The more important include, of bone, 2 long- handled bone combs (one fish-tailed), 1 composite, single-edged round-backed comb, 1 single-edged non-composite comb, 1 broken double-edged composite comb, 1 small whale vertebra cup, 1 socketed handle, 3 needles or bodkins (1 decorated), a spindle whorl, antler tines, a cetacean ivory toggle and a possible antler bridle cheek-piece.

Stone: objects included some thin, round stone discs, probably pot lids, a polished gaming piece, a possible stone lamp, a perforated whetstone, hammerstones, some Skaill knives and choppers, and some querns (type not stated). A full list of the finds has been compiled [5].

Iron: 1 rod.

Pottery: 1 native sherd.

Sources: 1. OS card HY 21 NW 1: 2. Watt 1882, 442-50: 3. RCAHMS 1946, 2, no. 679, 252-3 and figs. 344, 345 (plates) and 347 (plan): 4. D. Lynn and B. Bell in Discovery and Excavation Scotland 1983, 19: 5. Hedges et al. 1987, 83-5: Fraser 1924, 26.

E W MacKie 2002

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