If Ken McElroy gets his way, a very unusual feature will soon be added to the wild Caithness landscape at the northern edge of mainland Britain. He plans to re-create a 50ft-high iron age “skyscraper”, known as a broch, one of the most intriguing and mysterious types of building ever constructed in the British Isles.
The elaborately built, drystone structures stood several storeys high and were erected only in Scotland, with hundreds being constructed between 600BC and AD100. The identities of the people who built them remain a mystery.
Nor is it understood what purpose lay behind the building of these huge windowless structures, which would have loomed over the local landscape and been visible for miles. Some historians have suggested they were built as refuges for local people seeking shelter from Roman slave ships. However, this idea is controversial and is rejected by other researchers, who argue that they were erected by people who wanted to show off their power and status.
Only one relatively intact broch remains in existence today, on the tiny island of Mousa, now uninhabited, in Shetland. McElroy – a director of the Caithness Broch Project – plans to create a completely new version, using traditional techniques, including construction methods such as drystone walling.
“Brochs are pinnacles of prehistoric architecture,” he argues. “They were several storeys high but were built without cement, and that is a remarkable achievement on its own. While the rest of Britain was living in low-level roundhouses and the like, these iron-age skyscrapers were being built all around Scotland.
“It is also important to note that Caithness has a higher concentration of broch sites than any other area in Scotland – and that makes the region the best place to tell the distinctive story behind these remarkable buildings.”
Most brochs have imposing walls that were often three metres thick, and which were double lined with spiral staircases running between their inner and outer lining. They would probably also have had wooden roofs, a central door and other features.
“They were incredibly sophisticated structures for their time,” adds McElroy, a self-confessed “broch-bragger” who has been promoting the cause of these strange structures for years.
He highlights three key motives for building Scotland’s first new broch in 2,000 years. “We are still in the dark about the reasons for constructing brochs. However, in learning how to build one, we should get a better idea about why they were constructed,” he says.
In addition, it is hoped that the construction project will help preserve local skills – in drystone wall building, for example – while it should also create a tourist attraction for Caithness.
“The region faces a real problem in terms of the population decline that is predicted for the coming decade. This could reach 20%, and that would have a pretty grim impact.
“We need to provide reasons for people to come here, and the broch project should play a key role in boosting tourism and employment,” he adds.
McElroy – who co-founded the Caithness Broch Project with fellow archaeologist Iain Maclean – likened the broch scheme to the construction of Guédelon Castle, which is currently taking place near Treigny, France, with the aim of recreating a 13th-century castle using period techniques, dress and materials. “Like Guédelon, the Caithness broch would be a focus of interest while it was being built and also a place to visit once it had been completed.”
The first brochs were constructed more than 2,500 years ago at the end of the bronze age and the beginning of the iron age in Britain.
“The climate began to get a bit cooler around 900BC and the struggle for resources would have got harder,” says McElroy. “Tribes and bands of people began teaming up, leading to the formation of kingdoms as the iron age went on.
“I think brochs reflect these changes in which expanding groups wanted to show off their power, and they did that through constructing these highly sophisticated buildings. They were status symbols.”
The Caithness Broch Project began operations several years ago and is now closing in on a construction site that McElroy and his colleagues hope to buy before the end of the year. It is estimated that it will then take at least three or four more years to build the broch with money coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund, crowdfunding and other sources to enable the building of the £1m-£3m structure.
The project certainly offers an intriguing vision of the future at the very northern tip of the British mainland. Other efforts being made in the area to provide skilled jobs for the region include the Sutherland spaceport, which is now under construction on the A’ Mhòine peninsula. It hopes to begin launching satellites next year.
The juxtaposition of recreating ancient buildings while putting probes into space in these neighbouring remote counties suggests an intriguingly rich mix of attractions for the region.
“Rockets and brochs. It just sounds like a lovely combination,” says McElroy. “Who would not be attracted by that?”