Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Broch of Gurness

For years historians debated if it was a transcription error. The 'King of Orkney' who attended a meeting with Roman Emperor Claudius at Colchester surely didn't refer to the remote Orkneys. The unsophisticated, illiterate Caledonians always had been Rome's enemies. It was absurd to believe the remotest of them had been plugged into mainstream Mediterranean politics. And if it wasn't a transcription error, it was probably just Roman lies about their reach stretching to the farthest corners of Britain.

Broch of Gurness:


And so matters lay until pottery from Claudius' reign was unearthed at the Broch of Gurness. This was the most complex broch on Orkney and home of a chief. Historians started to put the evidence together and a story emerged.

Gurness ramparts - old as Rome:


Roman emissaries had arrived at the King of Orkney's broch at Gurness and made the appropriate noises. Emperor Claudius was coming to conquer Britain they said, and it would be in Orkney's interests to submit. They brought gifts and tributes to sweeten the deal. Thus it was that the King of Orkney - alone amongst the Caledonians - was one of the eleven kings of Britain who paid homage to Claudius during his triumphal visit to Colchester in AD43. Most intriguingly, Claudius only spent two weeks in Britain. Given the travelling times involved, the King of Orkney must have had advance notice and planned accordingly.

Entrance ruins:


The currents of world affairs may have ebbed from Gurness, but the riptide of Eynhallow Sound is eternal, a north wind battering us and sanderlings companionably scavenging at the tide edge, a seal watching just offshore. Gurness is a fascinating place. The socket for the door pivot can still be seen next to the anterooms where the guard dogs lived, and there are stone beds, a grinding stone, a stone basin inside. For all that it must have seemed a dirty and uncouth place for a Roman more used to villas in the sunshine. I shivered in the wind and thought that I would accept a little dirtiness in exchange for a roof and a warm fire.

Outside, the broch is surrounded by rings of ramparts and an Iron Age village complex. In winter the site is closed. What this means is that there is nobody to take money. But the gate is unlocked, and visitors can walk around alone with just their imagination and the wind for company.



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