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between 12:00 Friday 15th December and 12:00 Monday 18th December


South Ronaldsay, Howe Of Hoxa

Broch (Iron Age)

Site Name South Ronaldsay, Howe Of Hoxa

Classification Broch (Iron Age)

Alternative Name(s) Uppertown; The Howe; Howe Farm

Canmore ID 9612

Site Number ND49SW 1

NGR ND 42526 93962

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


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

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Administrative Areas

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

Archaeology Notes

ND49SW 1 42526 93962

(ND 4252 9396) The Howe (NR)

OS 6" map (1900)

The broch, Howe of Hoxa, lies in a conspicious and commanding position on a rounded eminence, 50-60ft above the beach, at the N end of a hog-backed ridge on the broad low-lying isthmus which divides the Bay of Widewall on the S frrom the Dam of Hoxa on the N. The site was cleared by Petrie in 1848 but was almost immediately obscured and mutilated by a well intentioned but misdirected effort at conservation. Although the building was unquestionably a broch, what has been "conserved" is only the much re-constructed inner wall of the tower; the external base is hidden by grass-covered debris. There is no longer anything to be seen of the outer wall-face, but Dryden allows for a thickness of 14ft and Wilson states that the greatest height of wall found standing was 8ft. Measured between the original wall-faces, the internal diameter is 29ft 8in but this has been reduced by a late facing which rises only 7ft 6in from the present floor level and ends under a scarcement formed by protruding stones. On the W side, a series of slabs, of which five remain, project as radial partitions towards the centre of the court. High up on the wall on the S side are two slabs embedded parallel in the wall like the joints of a door but the space between is built up and there is no sill or lintel. There is now no trace of the original entrance passage but a doorway constructed in the E arc may correspond to the position of the inner opening to the court. There is no sign of the mural-cell mentioned by Petrie or of the door-checks and barhole shown in an illustration of Wilson's account. In Petrie's original excavation note, some stone querns, a shallow stone mortar and pestle and two small circular stone vessels, both 4 1/2m deep and 5" x 7" in diameter respectively, lay in the recesses between the "radial slabs" and there seem to have been one or two stone troughs in the floor. Finds in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) include a stone pounder, a ball of serpentine, a tooth of a sperm whale and a boar's tusk.

D Wilson 1863; RCAHMS 1946, visited 1935.

"The Howe", the remains of a broch on a flat topped ridge, mainly as described by RCAHMS.

Surveyed at 1/2500.

The ridge on which the broch stands has the ill-defined remains of a wall along part of its W side. The remains are so slight that it is a matter of conjecture as to whether the wall continued around the northern end of the ridge or descended to the flat ground to the West. It does, however, curve in towards the narrow part of the ridge SW of the broch but is then lost by ground disturbance at this points. There are indications of small rectangular buildings having stood along the ridge to the SW and old field banks which ascend the ridge from the flat ground to the West. The whole complex is unlikely to be associated with the broch and is probably comparatively recent.

Visited by OS (ISS) 25 April 1973

ND 425 939 The Howe: broch, disturbed and partially altered, also remains of settlement outwith broch, prehistoric.

Sponsors: Historic Scotland, Orkney Archaeological Trust

G Wilson and H Moore 1997.

The Howe

Broch [NAT]

OS (GIS) MasterMap, April 2010.


Antiquarian Observation (1870)

Four drawings by George Petrie of sites in Orkney in sketchbook no. 6 (MS 28/487/8) in the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Collection.

Field Visit (August 1997)

A broch occupies a natural ridge to the centre of a narrow isthmus. This elevated site offers good views over the surrounding landscape and is clearly visible from as far away as St. Mary's Holm on Mainland. The broch was partially excavated by Petrie in 1848 and has been largely 'renovated' since then. The interior was divided by radial slab divisions, although, those now in evidence may be reconstructed rather than original. The internal ground surface has been levelled out and roughly surfaced. The inner wall face has been rebuilt with further, mortar-bonded courses, added. The outer wall face, which is not now visible, is said to have been 14' thick and to have stood to 8' high. The exterior appears not to have been fully exposed; substantial deposits survive around the circuit of the broch. Topographic anomalies indicate the presence of further structures, possibly houses, built over accumulated debris to the immediate E of the broch. Further to the S end of the ridge, two uneven areas may represent the remains of yet more settlement.

Moore and Wilson, 1997

Coastal Zone Assessment Survey

Publication Account (2002)

ND49 5 HOWE OF HOXA (‘Brough of Hoxay’)

ND/42529396 (visited 16/7/63 and 13/7/1985)

This probable solid-based broch stands on the north shore of South Ronaldsay I., on the summit of a hog-backed ridge (the “howe” in the name) among flat ground and overlooking the beach.

Principal Gordon visited the site towards the end of the 18th century and reported seeing a curved gallery on top of the mound [3]. This site seems to have been only the second Orkney broch to have been dug into for antiquarian reasons -- the first being Burgar in 1825 (HY32 1), and the project was carried out by George Petrie in 1848 [6, 8, 9]. However the site was almost immediately afterwards mutilated with mortared masonry by the well intentioned efforts at conservation carried out by the proprietor [6, 108 ff.]. Although several features are now hidden or destroyed because of this, the cementing has nevertheless ensured that -- in contrast to Burray East for example (ND49 1) -- much of the structure is still visible and the interior is relatively free of debris. However the almost complete lack of understanding of broch architecture at the time the work was done means that the existence of potentially important features like the intra-mural stair were unsuspected and unsought while others were covered up. A plan prepared at the time has been published [10, fig. 3.23).

Apart from the area around the main entrance, only the interior of the tower was exposed and the site now looks like a knoll containing a large round hole lined with masonry; the outer face seems to have been further buried by material thrown out from the interior. The upper part of the inner face of the wall, to about half way down, was pointed with cement; indeed much of the top of the wall seems to have been completely reconstructed, as can be seen on the north side where masonry has been added directly on top of the original shelf scarcement, producing a “reverse scarcement” effect. This modern superstructure is clearly indicated above a 'ledge' on the elevation above the plan in Petrie’s notebook [10, fig. 3.23].

Some modern features have also been added, like a stone platform of flags which once had a flagpole on it and which stands beside the modern entrance. This doorway faces east and is completely modern, and one cannot tell now whether any of the original passage remain. This was exposed in 1848 and appears to have been of the standard broch design, with one set of door-checks and probably a bar-hole leading in to a mural cell immediately to the right (but with its door leading to the interior of the broch) [6, 109, fig. 121]. The present entrance is short, cemented and lacks any door-checks; no guard cell can now be seen.

The interior diameter is 9.05 m (29 ft. 8 in.) and a secondary wall lining has been built round at least part of the inner court, varying in thickness from 30-90 cm (1-3 ft.). This rises only 2.29 m (7.5 ft.) above the present floor and at its highest point ends just below a shelf scarcement 13 cm (5 in.) wide made of projecting slabs. At one point on the north side this scarcement can be seen above the secondary wall and emerging from the cemented masonry; the conservers evidently had no idea of the significance of the ledge. Opposite the doorway the secondary wall blends with the cemented primary face, indicating that extensive reconstruction has taken place. Radial slabs are still visible set into the secondary wall, and seem to have been somewhat larger when first exposed [6, fig. 120]. They evidently divided the floor of the interior up into at least six radial partitions, rather like a wheelhouse. The drawing also shows rotary querns on the floor [10, fig. 3.24].

The building almost certainly possesses an intra-mural stairway leading to upper galleries in a hollow wall. At about 9 o’clock two upright slabs are set into the inner wall face which, even though no sill stone seems to be preserved, must surely be the jambs of a raised door, now blocked up; this, judging from similar doorways in other Orkney brochs, probably leads to the stair [10, fig. 3.23]. The feature is recorded in a drawing made soon after the excavation [6, fig. 120], but that shows the masonry between the jambs as neat; in fact it is now a very crude rubble blocking and might have been inserted by the proprietor soon after the excavation. Other shelf-like structures in the inner wall face shown in the same drawing are no longer visible.

It should be noted that the only authentic account of the broch as it was found when excavated is that by Petrie. The other descriptions were second-hand and some of the statements in them describe features seen by people who had seen the ruins only after they had been "conserved". Even the mural cell seems not to have been seen by Petrie since he says "There appears to have been a chamber in the thickness of the wall ... " [8, 23] and marks this at 9 o’clock on his sketch plan [10, fig. 3.23]. It is not clear whether the drawing reproduced by Wilson [6, fig. 120] was made before or after conservation.

Few finds were recorded [8], mostly of stone, and they include some querns, evidently rotary [6, fig. 120], a mortar and pestle and 2 small cups or lamps (one apparently a steatite handled lamp [10]), both 11 cm (4.5 in.) deep and 13 cm (5 in.) and 18 cm (7 in.) in diameter respectively. There were also saddle querns and rubbers [5, 122].

Dimensions: external diam. c. 17.68 m, internal 9.14 m; the wall thickness is about 4.27 m [10] so the wall proportion would be about 48%. In 1985 the author made a plan of the interior wall face, below the reconstructed parts, with a steel tape and theodolite; the result showed that the structure had been built very exactly around a true circle with a radius of 4.53 +/- 0.06 m, or a diameter of 9.06 m (29.70 ft.).

Sources: 1. OS card ND 49 SW1: 2. Low 1879, 22: 3. Gordon 1792, 257: 4. Petrie 1872, 361-62: 5. Thomas 1852, 119-22: 6. Wilson 1863, 2, 107-10: 7. Tudor 1883, 335: 8. Petrie 1927, 23: 9. RCAHMS 1946, 2, no. 815, 283-4: 10. Hedges et al. 1987, 102-04.

E W MacKie 2002


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