The Caithness Broch Project look back at everything that has been achieved in 2017.

This year signalled the Scottish Government’s ‘Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology’, a year of special events and projects celebrating Scotland’s fascinating past.

We wanted to make a real show of who we are and what we are capable of doing, and I think we have done just that. Looking back at the past year, I am very pleased with the progress being made by the Caithness Broch Project.

So what did we do this year? Well, every day we were hard at work organising something broch-related, and, nineteen days into 2017, we made a trip across to BBC Radio Orkney to contribute to a fantastic programme for BBC Radio Shetland about the brochs of Scotland, featuring a number of notable archaeologists and academic speakers. It was rather humbling to be invited to the conversation – we are not ‘experts’ on the subject, after all.

The National:

In May we were able to organise our first ever archaeological event! Working alongside Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Programme, (SCHARP) we ran ‘Between the Brochs’ – a community-based archaeological walk-over survey along a stretch of Caithness coast, between the brochs of Skirza and Nybster. SCHARP’s mission is to record, investigate and in some cases rescue or protect sites across Scotland before they are lost to the sea, so we invited them to Caithness to admire our own fantastic coastal heritage, and help get the local community involved. Around 50 volunteers – from across Scotland- joined us across 4 days of fairly decent weather and intriguing archaeology, investigating sites including mills, crofts, fishing huts, carved stones, fossils, harbours, monuments, tangs, kilns, forts, tank traps, Viking settlements, castles and of course, our favourite, brochs! Of particular interest was the discovery of a sculptured stone, most likely by the farmer / artist / sculptor John Nicolson, who accompanied famous (or infamous) antiquarian Sir Frances Tress Barry on his numerous broch excavations. The event was a great success and we hope to see SCHARP in Caithness again soon.

Also in May Iain Maclean spoke with the BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Out of Doors’ team down at Ousdale Broch, discussing our plans to hep ‘save’ this broch. If you follow our newsletters or social media posts then you’ll know Ousdale Broch is one of our prime concerns – it is undoubtedly one of Caithness’ finest brochs, but has recently suffered a fair amount of collapse and damage. All of this started in 2016 when we discovered that the broch had fallen into disrepair. We spoke with Historic Environment Scotland who agreed to fund an ‘initial assessment’. HES also advised to tender for a ‘prioritised scheme of works’ – that is, a detailed plan as to how the broch will be consolidated and conserved, and how much it should cost. I am pleased to announce that HES were very recently (so recently, in fact, that I had to re-write this paragraph to announce the good news!) able to provide us with funding to go towards this report.

The National:

In June, after working with local artist Kerrie Moncur, we were able to unveil our new Caithness Broch Trail leaflets, featuring a map of all the (known) brochs of Caithness. These leaflets act as an accompaniment to ‘standing stone’-style interpretive panels at 3 broch sites located at Achvarasdal, Keiss and Thing’s Va. The stones feature exclusive artwork by renowned archaeological illustrator Alan Braby as well as art by Caithness Horizons’ ‘Peter’s Pals’ Youth Group, and, earlier in August, we were able to erect our first stone panel at Achvarasdal, and last week we were able to install the stone at Keiss shoreline. It’s well worth visiting these amazing sites!

Last year we were awarded £10,000 from Big Lottery Fund Scotland and £2,000 from Highland Council towards the creation of a business case and feasibility study for our ‘ultimate aim’, the construction of a replica broch. This piece of work was undertaken by Alan Jones Associates, and, in June 2017, this body of work was completed. This was an important step in realising our vision, and understanding the mechanics of how the broch would fare as a business. Would it work? Is this something worth investing in? Good news – the report states that our broch would be a sustainable venture! One of the most important aspects of this project was understanding where we should build the broch. This was, for us and for many others, the burning question! We were offered 5 sites, all along the east coast of Caithness, and by the ‘North Coast 500’ route. After many discussions we decided on a site at John O’Groats, beside to the John O’Groats Mill. A huge step forward in realising our ambitions!

The National:

Arguably our most exciting project came to fruition in July – the Brick to the Past Lego Broch. The Broch was built by Dan Harris and James Pegrum of ‘Brick to the Past’, who specialise in making epic Lego sets, inspired by historical events – they’ve built sections of Hadrian’s Wall, castles, even Medieval towns – but the broch would be their biggest challenge yet. The broch was delivered intact (one Lego man fell out during the journey) and on time, so special thanks to Dan and James of Brick to the Past for their amazing Lego Broch construction.

Our aim was to use the Lego broch as a way to introduce brochs to children (and us big kids too…) with schools in the area, as well as create a broch exhibition to introduce the general public to the ‘Home of the Broch’. Though we lacked in broch ‘finds’ – something we hope to remedy in the coming years with excavations of broch sites– we were still able to create an engaging an interesting exhibition, featuring an extremely popular ‘Iron Age Burial’ sandpit.

The National:

The exhibition itself was a real group effort, and I’d like to thank Iain Maclean, Lisa Poulsen and Joanne Howdle especially for their energies and efforts in bringing it all together. Of course we would also like to thank Tamara Hicks for her amazing broch map mural! We were able to show children the 10,000-piece Lego broch, before working with ImmersiveMinds to get the children to build a digital broch on laptops - funded by the Spirit of Caithness and the Dounreay Communities Fund - using Minecraft, a popular digital building game. In all, we talked to over 750 pupils about brochs, and there were over 4,000 visitors to the Broch Exhibition.

In August we commenced with the Caithness Broch Festival, a series of archaeological investigations at two broch sites in Caithness – Bruan Broch, just south of Whaligoe; and Thing’s Va Broch, a little west of Thurso. These brochs were chosen so that the festival had a ‘pan-Caithness’ feel, and would allow different part of the community to get involved. The festival was funded by Baillie Community Wind Farm Fund, Tannach and Camster Windfarm Fund and the Caithness North Sutherland Fund (NDA), allowing us to put together a number of events and activities alongside the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeological Institute.

Throughout 2017 we provided several talks across Caithness and Scotland. In April we made the journey to Anstruther, 270 miles away, to provied a talk for Anstruther Rotary Club. In November Iain provided a talk for Wick Girl Guides whilst on the same day Kenneth provided a talk in Mull for Mull Archaeology and History Society and Mull Museum – two talks at the same time, 225 miles apart! In July, Kenneth and Iain spoke to an Icelandic tour group, our most international talk to date, whilst in August Kenneth spoke to several groups in a day – children from a number of schools, before chatting to the ladies of West Church - we are delighted to speak to people of all ages and interests, to groups large and small.

The National:

We decided to go out with a flourish and organise a number of events (including the ‘Caithness Broch Festival’ excavations) in October. Our month of activities kicked off with a Highland Council Ranger-guided walked across Westerdale, which features surely one of the highest concentrations of brochs anywhere in Scotland. Following on from last year’s ‘Brochtoberfest’ in Orkney, we decided to cap off a fantastic year by organising a day of academic and archaeological guest speakers, hailing from all over Scotland – and even one from Bradford – to talk about brochs at Caithness Horizons, on the 21st October. The day was a sell-out and so it was great to see such an interest in the academic research into the brochs of Scotland.

We simply wouldn’t get very far without support from the local community. And that includes local businesses who have been so helpful and supportive to our cause. Special thanks must go to JA Mackays and Coo’s Tail Gallery, who stock our various items at no profit to themselves and at no cost to us. Additionally, we’d like to especially thank local crafter Kelly Munro of Kelly Munro Jewellery for her super kind venture earlier in the year. Kelly made an exclusive range of brooches with £15 from each pin going to us – a fabulous gesture! Kelly had this to say about her wee project: At the heart of our 2017 events programme was a celebration of Caithness’ rich heritage and archaeological landscape. However, we were really eager to create events which would involve the community – we cannot hope to inspire tourists from across the world to visit here, without having at least an awareness of our own past. I believe that the heritage and archaeology of Caithness can be used to stimulate growth and success. There are already other groups out there doing sterling work – Dunbeath Heritage, Castlehill Heritage Centre, Caithness Horizons, Thurso Heritage Society and Wick Heritage Society, Yarrows Heritage Trust – and together, we can make Caithness an exciting place to visit and live – so here’s to an even more exciting 2018!