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Burrian Broch

The broch is thought to date from the first or second centuries BC although there is some evidence of earlier habitation.

Visitors to Howar can walk past the herd of alpacas who often expect visitors to have food for them. Don't offer them any treats, if you wish, June or Gerry will give you and handful of their special food.

Continue to the tide roosts beyond the small gate to the shore. As the tide comes in so the fishing machines that are the cormorant and shag gather on rocky out-crops above the waves. Approach the gateway slowly and not too close and watch cormorants doing their "cormorant thing" with wings outstretched.

Just before the  last gateway to the broch look over the sea dyke for seals sunbathing on the rocks. Towards evening more and more seals haul out onto the slabs of rock around the broch to catch the last rays of the sun.

On the approaches to the broch see if you can make out the lines of the the four defensive ditches. There were probably a number of Celtic dwellings  beyond the broch. A geophysics survey, in 2005, by Orkney College Geophysics Unit identified the remains of structures outside the ramparts. The survey extended to the site of the medieval farmstead of Burrigar, east of the broch, where more structural anomalies were located.

Inside the broch there is what was described as a well or chamber by the 1870 Trail excavation. Comparison with Minehowe might suggest that it was the beginning of stairs to a series of underground chambers. What do you think? On the right as you face  away from the sea is the remains of a storage cist. A mixture of ash and grain were found here in 1870, possibly a way of preserving food.

The most significant find in 1870 was a stone slab 686mm long engraved with a cross and Ogham script. The Burrian Cross has since become one of the symbols of Orkney. It is now displayed in the National Museum of Scotland.
Did the inhabitants of the broch speak Welsh? The Pictish Ogham script has yet to be satisfactorily translated although there have been several attempts. Current thinking is that the language spoken by the Picts, was a form of British similar to P-Celtic Welsh rather than Q-Celtic Irish. Evidenced by Irish speaking Columba taking a translator to communicate with the Picts.

The original entrance was from the shore. Perhaps the best perspective of the broch is gained from the shore. I like to sit on the rocky slabs and contemplate what it must have been like when the peace of the island was broken by the arrival of the Vikings around 800AD. The culture of the Picts was eradicated from North Ronaldsay with perhaps one or two place names having Celtic roots.

Do not be tempted to climb over the sea dyke. The inevitable loosening of the stones will allow the sheep to invade the island and the islanders will be very angry. Retrace your steps a little way to the gateway to the shore and walk along the shore back to the broch. You will be rewarded by pretty little rocky bays and to your left the burnt layers of an exposed iron age midden. Do not poke into it. You may destroy evidence of iron age life.


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