Font Size

100% 150% 200%

Background Colour

Default Contrast
Close Reset

Burray, East Broch Of Burray

Broch (Iron Age), Unidentified Pottery (Roman)

Site Name Burray, East Broch Of Burray

Classification Broch (Iron Age), Unidentified Pottery (Roman)

Canmore ID 9569

Site Number ND49NE 1

NGR ND 4897 9881

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2023.

Toggle Aerial | View on large map

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish South Ronaldsay
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Archaeology Notes

ND49NE 1 4897 9881.

(ND 4897 9881) Brough (NR)

OS 6" map (1903)

East Broch of Burray. The mound formed by the remains of this broch is still c, 22' high. On its NW side a small portion of the 13-15' thick outer wall is visible, c. 6-7' high, the rest being a grass-grown heap of debris. When excavated in 1852-3, its entrance was found to be in the E, with a 6' square guard-chamber on either side, and door checks. The interior diameter was 36'6", and the inner face of the wall, which showed the usual scarcement c. 12' above floor level, was recessed above the entrance passage to to a depth of 12'. In the W half was a mural chamber, 10' by 6'6", which is still traceable, though now filled with fallen material and vegetation. The similar chambers to the N and S are no longer visible. Outside the broch, and near to the entrance, a passage was discovered, running N, ending in 9 rough stone steps leading down to a well in which a quern stone was found.

The earth and stone embankment which surrounded the broch still rises to 5' in places, starting and ending at the beach.

Finds included several stone vessels, a lamp, combs, pins, and a small fragment of Samian ware. They are now in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS).

RCAHMS 1946, visited 1929; G Petrie 1873; 1859; J Curle 1932; J Farrer 1859

Some of the pins found are also possibly Roman. The Samian is 2nd century.

A S Robertson 1970

A broch surviving to a height of 4.5m from the base of the partially cleared interior. Much of the inner wall-face, the gallery walls, the mural cell in the west, part of the outer wall-face on the north and east and the inner end of the entrance passage in the east arc are still visible, confirming Petrie's plan.

In the outer part of the trench in the NE where Farrer's excavation broke through in 1852 (see Petrie's plan) is a well built entrance or passage 0.9m, wide through the outer face of the broch. This appears to be original, but is unnoted by Petrie. Its is 0.8m long and 0.7m high and from its ends within the broch wall, two wall faces can be seen extending from about 1.0m from it at right angles in either direction, as if this had been an entrance to the gallery from outside the

broch. Outside is a flat-topped mound of excavation debris.

No trace of the well, or the passage leading to it survive. The outwork is as described by RCAHMS but has been further mutilated in the east. Outside it in the NE are traces of what may have been outbuildings.

Surveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (IMT) 18 May 1973

One piece of well-made pottery (probably Pictish) was recovered from rubble in the cliff section NE of the broch tower and is now in Tankerness House Museum (Accession no.THM 1984.213) along with a full report on all past finds from the site.

D S Lynn and B Bell 1984

Royal Museum of Scotland (RMS) GC 45. Disc-headed pin of Roman-derived type and attributed to the fifth to eighth centuries AD. The platehead of this example bears incised decoration on one side, and on the shank there are decorated bands.

R B K Stevenson 1955; L Laing 1973

ND 489 988 Broch.

Sponsors: Historic Scotland, Orkney Archaeological Trust

G Wilson and H Moore 1997

Excavations carried out here are described in 'The Orcadian' and 'The Orkney Herald' newspapers, in 1863 and 1889 (see references).

A number of references and descriptions of this site are made in 'The Orkney Herald' and 'The Orcadian' newspapers, between 1863 and 1889. The 'John O'Groat Journal' in 1854 describes the discovery and excavation of a baked clay cup and 'whale wheel'.

M Howe 2006


Antiquarian Observation (1860 - 1870)

Loose drawings of sites in Orkney and Shetland in the Society of Antiquaries Collection (SAS 487), mainly by George Petrie.

Antiquarian Observation (1862 - 1870)

Drawings by George Petrie of sites in Orkney and Shetland in sketchbook MS 28/487/7 in the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Collection.

Field Visit (August 1997)

This site was partially excavated by Farrer in 1852-3 (Farrer, 1859, 5-6). The interior was found to be 36'6'' in diameter with an entrance to the E. Two guard cells stood either side of the entrance passage. There was a scarcement 12' above the 'floor level' and intramural cells were found to the W, S and N. The broch walls were found to be 13-15' thick. On the exterior, a passage with stone steps led to a well. Finds included several stone vessels, a lamp, combs pins and a fragment of Samian ware. More recent analysis of the finds indicates that some of the pins are of Roman-derived type (Robertson, 1970, Stevenson, 1955).

Today, the remains of this substantial and well-preserved broch lie within 15m of the coast edge. The interior of the structure, which measures 11m in diameter, has been partially cleared of rubble, but appears not to have been fully excavated. The internal wall face survives to a height of 4m in places - the external wall face lies beneath collapsed and accumulated deposits and is not visible. The entrance, which is mostly obscured by rubble deposits, lies on the NE side, facing seaward. Two intramural cells are visible. In front of the broch a large mound of anthropogenic deposits is being eroded by the sea. The upper part of the mound may be spoil derived from clearance work within the broch interior.

Moore and Wilson, 1997

Coastal Zone Assessment Survey

Publication Account (2002)

ND49 1 BURRAY EAST ('East Broch of Burray')


A solid-based broch on Burray at the foot of a slope next to the sea shore (visited 16/7/63 and 13/7/1985). The name “Burray comes from the Norse Borgar Ey, or “fort island” [9], and in earlier times the approach to it across the water from the north must have been dominated by the two ruined broch mounds overlooking the Sound. For convenience, and as with ND29 2 below, the name of the site has been shortened here to ‘Burray East’.

The site was originally a huge mound some 6.10 m (20 ft.) high [6] and has suffered more than most among a class of monuments notorious for having undergone incompetent exploration. It stands on what seems to be an artificial platform of earth next to the rocky north shore of the island and about 3.1 - 6.1 m (10-20 ft.) above it.

The mound was opened up in 1852 and 1853 by James Farrer, M. for Durham, on a visit to Orkney and "cost much labour and expense" [2]; the process was excessively destructive even by the standards of the time. This was only the second broch ever dug into systematically with archaeological intent -- a few years after Howe of Hoxa not far away (ND49 4) -- and the sad wreckage to which this magnificent structure (comparable to Midhowe and Gurness when it was first exposed) has been reduced can be judged by comparing the 1985 photograph of the interior with the cross section drawn after the excavation. No consolidation seems to have been undertaken so that, whereas sites like Burrian on North Ronaldsay (HY75 1) and Hoxa on South Ronaldsay (ND49 4) still stand fairly clear of debris, Burray East has filled up again with its own rubble. It is surely a prime candidate for being re-cleared and consolidated.

The mound was soon found to contain the ruins of a broch and this was partly surrounded by an earth rampart (which presumably may contain a stone wall) on the landward side. George Petrie tactfully explains that Farrer "having little time to spare, endeavoured, by making excavations at various points, instead of tracing the walls throughout, to obtain as much information in regard to the building as the circumstances would allow." [2] He actually had a short segment of the massive broch wall pulled down and, on doing this "a cell was broken into". This was the guard cell on the right of the main entrance. The present gap in the wall facing NE, and which looks like a ruined entrance, is in fact the break in the broch wall referred to.

Farrer came back in 1854 with Petrie, who records, with commendable restraint, that "I ... suggested the propriety of leaving the building undisturbed, and of the careful removal of rubbish, both outside and inside." Petrie himself returned in 1866 with some workmen to clear up some outstanding problems [9, 96].

The entrance passage faces E, parallel to the shore and about 5 m to the left of the break and where the wall still stands reasonably high; being at present invisible it is presumably still partly intact under debris. Judging from the cross section the passage stood 4.27 m (14 ft.) high when it was first exposed, but this includes the well preserved chamber over the entrance which rose to scarcement level; the actual passage lintels were c. 1.83 m above its floor. It was 4.58 m (15 ft.) long and from 1.37 - 1.53 m (4.5 ft. - 5 ft.) wide with two guard cells between the two sets of door-checks.

The outermost door is 1.68m (5 ft. 6 in.) from the outside and had only one recessed check; the inner was 3.20 m (10 ft. 6 in.) from the exterior) and was composed of two huge flagstones set on end and projecting from the wall with a bar-hole and socket behind these. Two opposed guard chambers opened off the passageway with their doorways between the two sets of door-checks. The sills of both the cell doors appear to be raised about 60 cm (2 ft.) above the floor of the entrance passage. Each guard cell was a fine square, corbelled chamber with a roof apex about 3.20 m (10 ft. 6 in.) above its floor. The cell on the left seems to have a cupboard or aumbry in its inner wall.

A void or chamber 3.66 m (12 ft.) long was above the entrance lintels which had gaps, or "meurtrieres", between them [5, 75]. No lintels are shown roofing this upper chamber but they had presumably once been at the level of the scarcement, itself 12 ft. (3.66 m) above the floor (below). Both Petrie’s and Dryden’s cross sections show clearly that the chamber extended as far forward as just before the outermost door-check; in fact this check seem to extend upwards to form the front wall of the upper chamber, an unusual arrangement. This outer wall is only 90 cm (3 ft.) thick and must have rested on a massive lintel (though Petrie’s cross section seems to show this as flat).

The present condition of this entrance passage is unknown; it may well still be partly lintelled under the debris, though the chamber above seems likely to have collapsed further. An underground passage leading to a deep covered well was found just outside the main entrance [7, fig. 372].

The interior was evidently cleared down to a recognisable floor level although no details are given about this. On the interior wall face was a scarcement ledge (of which there is now no trace) 30 cm (12 in.) wide and 3.66 m (12 ft.) above the floor; it was formed half by projecting slabs and half by recessing the wall above 15 cm (6 in.) back from that below [5, 74].

Two other mural cells were in the wall, at 11 and 3 o'clock. The former is a short rectangle in plan with a fine, corbelled beehive roof, the upper part of which is still visible. The stone lintel over the doorway to this cell had cracked at some early period of the broch's use and had been propped up with a vertical stone slab. This is a fairly clear indication that the wall of the building was once very much higher and heavier than now.

The cell at 3 o'clock was not cleared out but was evidently a long rectangle in plan, concentric with the curvature of the broch's wall and un-roofed; its doorway is about 1.22 m (4 ft.) above the floor. There is apparently an manuscript source which says that this cell was roofed with a corbelled dome [9, 96].

The doorway at 9 o'clock led to an intra-mural stairway rising to the right, and to a long stair-foot guard cell, or lobby, leading off to the left; the sill of this door is about 1.52 m (5 ft.) above the broch floor. The stair was not discovered by Farrer, but by Petrie in 1866 when he discovered twenty steps; he had suspected its existence after the initial clearance of the site and came back specifically to look for it [5, 74, footnote]. In 1864 he had got into the lobby or guard cell at the foot of the stair, which had previously been inaccessible, and found great numbers of animal bones stuck into the crevices in the wall. He pulled some out and found all had been broken and split as if to extract the marrow.

The clearing of the stairway revealed a gallery on the wall head, and part of this is still visible at 10 o'clock and from 2-4 o'clock, the outer face being exposed. From Petrie and Dryden's cross sections there appears to have been a door or void leading to this upper gallery with its sill at scarcement level and more or less above the door to the cell at 11 o’clock. Thus the stair probably lead to a short landing from which the doorway lead out on to the raised wooden floor resting on the scarcement, a common broch arrangement. There is no doubt that Burray East was once a high, hollow-walled tower broch.

The finds listed below indicate that there was a late occupation on this site, probably in the 7th century and later, when the ball-headed bone hipped pins and the composite bone combs were in use. No stratigraphical evidence for these two phases of use was recorded.

Dimensions. External diameter 19.5 m (64 ft.) (Hedges gives this measurement as 20.07 m [8]), internal diameter 11.13 m (36.5 ft.): the wall proportion is therefore about 43%. The wall chamber at 3 o'clock measures 6.4 x 1.5 x 2.4 m (21 x 5 x 8 ft.) high; that at the foot of the stair was 6.1 m (20 ft.) long and from 1.07 m (3.5 ft.) to 1.45 m (4 ft. 9 in.) wide.

In 1985 careful measurement of the broch's internal wall face by the author suggested that it had been laid out along an exact circle with a radius of 5.50 +/- 0.06 m; the intended diameter would thus be 11.00 (36.07 ft.).

Finds. No clear provenances are given for these but Petrie believed that some of them, having been found among the rubble fallen from the broch wall, must have been originally inside cells or chambers in the upper parts of the tower. This phenomenon does not seem to have been observed in more recently excavated brochs in which the stratigraphy has been more carefully observed. A complete list of the finds has been compiled by Hedges et al. [8] and the more important included the following.

Iron objects: a knife blade and a possible chisel.

Bronze objects included 1 decorated disc-headed pin.

Bone and antler: 4 long-handled antler combs, 2 broken composite double-edged, riveted combs, 2 ball-headed, hipped pins, 1 hipped pin, plain pins, 1 whale vertebra cup, 2 ball-shaped heads for iron pins, 1 hollow and 1 solid, femur-head whorls, fragments of handles, a spatula, tubes, antler plates with holes, and many cut and sawn pieces including a part of a supposed wheel.

Stone: whorls, several vessels, and 1 broken polished disc of mica schist, usable as a mirror when dipped in water [10], rotary quernstones, a loom weight and a lamp with wick rest. There is also a stone whorl from 'Burray' from the J W Cursiter collection in the Hunterian Museum which probably comes from this broch (B.1914.736).

Pottery: 1 sherd of Roman Samian ware, 2 native potsherds.

Animal bones included sheep, cattle, deer, pig and horse [8].

Sources: 1. OS card ND 49 NE 1: 2. Farrer 1857: 3. Farrer 1868: 4. Petrie 1857, 56-8; 5. Petrie 1890, 72-6 and 85-6: 6. Petrie 1927, 24: 7. RCAHMS 1946, 2, no. 862, 293-5 and figs. 369-372: 8. Hedges et al. 1987, 96-101 and pls. 3.11 and 3.12 (ms plan of broch and sketches of openings in wall, with dimensions, by Dryden): 9. (Anderson 1874, 717)

E W MacKie 2002

Ground Survey (June 2006)

ND 489 988 East Broch (ND49NE1) is at the NE point of Burray on the farm of Northfield. A survey of this large broch was carried out as part of a post-graduate student training programme with Orkney College UHI in June 2006. The aim of the survey was to train students in a number of landscape and building survey techniques. It was also hoped to produce the first up-to-date record of the broch since antiquarian investigations by Farrer and Petrie in the 19th century. Topographic survey of the broch and broch mound with the immediate surrounding area was undertaken using a Timble total station. The plane table survey covered most of the broch mound and located the visible sections of walling. A selection of exposed wall faces were drawn at 1:10 and the locations of the sections were tied into the OS using a total station. Photographs were also taken.

Archive lodged with Orkney College Geophysics Unit.

Sponsor: Orkney College.

J Moore 2006

Standing Building Recording (8 June 2007 - 15 June 2007)

ND 4898 9882 A second season of recording was undertaken from 8–15 June 2007 covering the large broch at the NE point of Burray, as part of a postgraduate course with Orkney College UHI. This has produced the first full and up-to-date record of the broch since antiquarian investigations by Farrer and Petrie in the 19th century. The work has recorded the structure of the broch to modern standards, provides clear evidence of an area

of extra-mural settlement to the E of the excavated structure and has highlighted a number of areas of erosion caused by recent animal action.

Report to be deposited with Orkney SMR and RCAHMS.

Funder: Orkney College.


MyCanmore Image Contributions

Contribute an Image

MyCanmore Text Contributions