A record of our ancient Brochs, Hill-forts and Sculptured Stones of Scotland

Origins of the Broch


The title ‘Broch’ is thought to derive from Old Norse with the root word ‘Borg’ meaning a strong edifice and derivations give such words as ‘Burg’, ‘Borough’, ‘Burra’ - as in the Shetland Island Burra Isle - and ‘Borve’.

With the gaelic language dominating northern Scotland in later medieval times, the word borg altered to broch.

Confusion is added with the class of  structure called ‘duns’. Duns fill similar places in the landscape as brochs and are generally mutually exclusive to the area of brochs and are usually to be found in territories south of those of the brochs.

To add to this confusion many of the brochs have the celtic word dun in their name as in Dun Beag ( Little Fort) on Skye.

The structure of a dun is usually simpler compared to that of a broch having thinner walls and with a footprint which often fits the topography of the site instead of being circular like the broch.

On early O.S. maps brochs were often referred to as ‘Pict’s Houses’ or ‘Viking Forts’, there being no written records for the enquiring Victorian to consult.

The Norse Orkneyinga Sagas do have two mentions of the Broch of Mousa (Mouse Isle) which they called Moseyjar-borg.

Later names may well be Victorian constructions or inventions as at the Jarlshof site on Shetland.

Several books have been written about brochs and are a must-read for the enthusiast. ‘Towers in the North’ by Ian Armit and ‘In the Shadow of the Brochs’, edited by Beverly Ballin Smith and Iain Banks are particularly recommended, giving excellent bibliographies.

A Google search will also give plenty of information and diverse opinions.
A new ‘Broch Centre’ has recently opened at Nybster in Caithness, just south of John O’ Groats. It has more than 10 viewable brochs in its immediate neighbourhood and is well worth visiting.