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The Broch of Borwick, Sandwick

One of my favourite broch sites is found on the seaward side of the parish of Sandwick.

The Broch of Borwick is perched high on an eroding headland, surrounded by the spectacular sea-cliffs typical of Orkney's Atlantic coastline.

The site takes its name from the adjacent Borwick Bay, an inlet lying almost halfway between Yesnaby and the Bay o' Skaill.

The Broch o' Borwick. Picture Sigurd Towrie

Thought to date from the first millennium BC, the broch was probably in use for over 1,000 years, before finally being abandoned between 500AD and 600AD.

However, from its size, it is clear that the Broch o' Borwick was no great monumental structure, such as the Broch of Gurness or Midhowe. Instead, it has been suggested that it was perhaps a territorial marker, a border keep, or the dwelling of a less-powerful individual or family.

These days, the broch is difficult to spot from a distance, its ruinous seaward side blending with the cliff face below it (see picture right).

From the structure of the surrounding cliffs, and the rocks below them, we can tell that the broch once stood some distance from the cliff edge. The hard rock at the base of the cliffs would appear to mark the original extent of the headland, the softer, rock above it eroding considerably over the centuries.

Approaching from the slope to the south-east, the remains of the broch's landward wall and entrance are clearly visible, behind a large earthen bank in front of the entrance.

Standing just under three metres high, this is the best-preserved section of the broch. Severe coastal erosion has reduced the seaward side to little more than rubble.

The entrance faces south-east, and leads to a 4.6-metre-long passage. At the inner end of this passage, now almost buried by rubble, are the remains of a small guard cell.

Crawling into the broch by the main entrance is the only safe way into what would have been the interior of the structure.

The remains of the landward walls are literally on the edge of a precipitous headland, with a drop of about 25 metres (80 ft) to the rocks and sea below. Although possible, walking around the outside is definitely not advised!

Back outside the tower remains, masonry lies strewn all around the site. Segments of the outbuildings, originally documented in the 1881 excavation report, are still visible to the east and north-east.

To anyone visiting the site, it is plainly clear that the broch was positioned strategically - from a military point of view as well as a practical one. Although it originally stood some distance from the cliff edge, it was easily defensible, and could be only be approached from one direction.

An outer wall, about 60ft from the broch, and what would appear to be a ditch, added to the site's outer defences.

From a practical point of view, the broch was also close to fresh water, with a small stream running southwards a short distance to the east of the structure. The bay below was also a good landing place for boats.

The excavation

Prior to its excavation in 1881, the Broch of Borwick was a large green mound on the headland. The man responsible for the work was William Watt, of Skaill, who had also instigated the early investigations at Skara Brae.

After removing the surrounding earth, Watt recorded the broch walls as being between 3.4 metres (11ft) up to a maximum of 4.9 metres (16ft) – considerably more than the current dimensions.

In fact, in the half-century between 1881 and 1935, the broch's walls were recorded as being reduced to 2.6 metres (8.5 ft). They varied in width from 11ft to 16ft.

Broch of Borwick. Picture Sigurd Towrie

It is possible that exposure to the elements resulted in the damaged walls, but this is open to question. It is also possible that the walls offered a convenient source of quarried stone. It is tempting to wonder whether the broch supplied the masonry for the now-abandoned structure lying above the shore of the Bay o' Borwick.

The entrance to the broch was 5ft 2in high (approx 1.6m), 3ft 5in wide at the bottom and tapering to 3ft 1in at the top. It led into a paved entrance passage 9ft 9in long that tapered to a narrow inner entrance, just over 4ft high.

Watt speculated that a second chamber was built above the entrance, but, in the absence of any plans from the excavation, his reasoning is unclear.

Guard chambers

The guard chamber, found on the right hand side of the inner entrance passage, was accessed by a low, narrow door (2ft wide by 3ft 5in high). In 1881, it was open for only 4ft, the remainder of the chamber having fallen in, but the excavator speculated that it might once have been around 12ft long.

Above the entrance to this cell was a gap about 1ft square. This “lookout” led to the idea that the chamber served as a guardroom.

The interior of the broch was found to be filled with fallen masonry, as well as ash, bone and clay. Once this had been cleared out, it became apparent that the structure had seen two phases of use.

Watt suggested that the original broch tower had internal dimensions of about 24ft, but that after the structure had fallen into disuse, and was possibly ruinous, it was reoccupied and modified by the new residents.

They constructed a second interior wall – thus reducing the interior diameter to 16ft - and subdivided the interior into smaller compartments. These “renovations” were added on top of the 3ft of debris that covered the original floor.

The external defences and outbuildings

Watt recorded that the headland, on which the broch stood, was cut-off by a 160ft long wall.

This, he suggested, had been faced up with earth to create a defensive rampart 9ft high, that tapered from 6 ft at the bottom to 4ft at the top.

He also found that the area between the broch tower and the rampart had been filled with a series of “out-houses”. Little remains of these now, save a few sections of masonry and walls.

The presence of round sea stones in this area led Watt to speculate that they had been specifically chosen and gathered for use as ammunition – either thrown or used as slingshot – against attackers.

Although nowhere near as grand as Orkney's larger brochs, the Borwick broch is spectacular in its own right - due primarily to its dramatic location, and the fact that it is fairly well off the beaten track, thus giving the visitor a better impression of the site.