The Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age broch village on the northwest coast of Mainland Orkney in Scotland overlooking Eynhallow Sound, about 15 miles north-west of Kirkwall. It once housed a substantial community. A broch is an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure. Brochs are unique to Scotland. There are more than 500 of them, mostly in the northern and western Highlands and the islands. Many brochs stood alone, but sizeable villages often surrounded those in Orkney. The broch village at Gurness is one of the most impressive. It has also been excavated and so gives a more vivid impression of life in the Middle Iron Age than similar sites.
Archaeological excavations in the early 20th century showed that the village began between 500 BC and 200 BC. Deep ditches and ramparts defined a large area roughly 45m across. An entrance causeway was later added on the east side and a circular broch tower built in the west half. A settlement of small stone houses with yards and sheds grew up around the broch tower. The broch was abandoned and the ditches filled in sometime after AD 100. The site was then a single farmstead until around the 8th century. Next to the visitor centre are the relocated remains of a late Iron Age or Pictish house. The last activity here took place in the 9th century, when a Viking woman was buried with her grave-goods.
At the centre of the settlement is a stone tower or broch, which once probably reached a height of around 10 metres. Its interior is divided into sections by upright slabs. The tower features two skins of drystone walls, with stone-floored galleries in between. These are accessed by steps. Stone ledges suggest that there was once an upper storey with a timber floor. The roof would have been thatched, surrounded by a wall walk linked by stairs to the ground floor. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it (resembling the set-up at Mine Howe). It is thought to have some religious significance, relating to an Iron Age cult of the underground. The remains of the central tower are up to 3.6 metres (11.8 feet) high, and the stone walls are up to 4.1 metres (13.5 feet) thick. The roof probably was conical or mildly hyperbolic. The tower was likely inhabited by the principal family or clan of the area but also served as a last resort for the village in case of an attack. The broch continued to be inhabited while it began to collapse and the original structures were altered. The cistern was filled in and the interior was repartitioned. The ruin visible today reflects this secondary phase of the broch's use. The site is surrounded by three ditches cut out of the rock with stone ramparts, encircling an area of around 45 metres diameter. The remains of numerous small stone dwellings with small yards and sheds can be found between the inner ditch and the tower. These were built after the tower, but were a part of the settlement's initial conception. A "main street" connects the outer entrance to the broch. The settlement is the best-preserved of all broch villages. Pieces of a Roman amphora dating to before 60 AD were found here, lending weight to the record that a "King of Orkney" submitted to Emperor Claudius at Colchester in 43 AD.
The village at Gurness is the best-preserved of all broch villages. There are numerous houses. The entrance of each led to a large living and sleeping room, off which were smaller side rooms. The main room had a hearth, a large tank set into the floor, cupboards and sleeping spaces. Some houses had a yard, which was open to the sky, and a shed. The Vikings who settled in Orkney from about AD 800 often used the mounds of earlier settlement sites as burial places. The grave of a Viking woman was found at Gurness, along with some grave-goods – a sickle blade and a pair of ‘tortoise’ brooches. Human bones and Viking objects such as shield bosses have also been found, suggesting that others were buried here too. Eynhallow Sound, between the Orkney mainland and the island of Rousay, would have been a vital resource for the early inhabitants. Archaeology has shown that cod, whale and seal were part of the diet, and sources of skins and oil as well. Orca and minke whales are still seen in the sound.
The large car park is level gravel. Approach to site - The broch is 180m along a gravel path and through a kissing gate. This can be opened to allow wheelchair users entry to the site. There is a single step into the visitor centre. The site has uneven ground, which is mostly grass. The broch ruins have numerous steps and level changes. Some of the paths between buildings can be narrow. Visitors must also navigate a great deal of protruding archaeology. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Broch of Gurness, Aikerness, Evie, Orkney, KW17 2NH
Transport: Inverness (National Rail) then bus (X99) then ferry then bus (6). Bus Routes : 6 and 442 stop 2 miles away (taxi available).
Opening Times : 1st April to 30th September, Daily, 09:30 to 17:30
Tickets : Adults £5.50; Concessions £4.40; Children (5 - 15) £3.30
Tel. : 01856 751 414