Perched high up on an eroding cliff that will no-doubt dash the entire structure into the sea before too many more decades pass (barring, of course, some modern intervention), this modestly sized dry-stone structure has stood watch over this dramatic landscape for perhaps close to 3,000 years.
What the heck is a broch, anyhow?
Brochs are, for those unfamiliar with the unique aspects of Scotland's archaeological past, are hollow-walled, dry stone Iron Age structures. They're located throughout Scotland, and nowhere else. In fact, of the more than 500 known broch sites, the vast majority are found to the north and east of Loch Shin, with at least 50 in Orkney alone.
The term broch derives from the Lowland Scots word “'brough,” or fort (also similar to the Old Norse “borg,” which also means fort). But despite the beliefs of early Victorian antiquarians, there’s little indication that most—or at least all—brochs were primarily defensive structures. Rather than the precursors to later-day castles, modern evidence shows that some were likely primarily farmhouses, which may have become increasingly fortified over time. Others appear to be the mansions or estate homes of their day, housing powerful families, with villages of smaller, cruder structures cropping up around them.
The original purpose of brochs in general is probably a mix of the above assumptions and more. Because the structures are located in vastly different types of terrain and landscapes, and evidence suggests they were built primarily between 300 BC and 200 AD. Over those 500 or so years, the height of construction varied dramatically, as well.
Some still stand taller than 13 meters (Mousa in Shetland stands 13.3 meters, or nearly 45 feet high), with stone stairs built into the walls, clearly leading to what were upper levels, while others seem to be single-story structures. Again, having been built over a time span of 500-plus years, with many brochs clearly added to after the initial construction, these structures likely served different purposes in different places. That was probably true both for the people who built them, but it was certainly the case for those who occupied the circular stone buildings for centuries or millennia after their initial construction.
The Broch o' Borwick was first excavated in 1881. At the time the remains of a long defensive wall and various smaller buildings between the wall and the broch were also present. So it seems this broch was indeed at least partially used for defense. Today, what remains is mostly the front of the structure, the long, low entranceway, and part of an internal chamber with a lookout that archeologists think may have served as a guardroom.
The back of the Broch o' Borwick has been lost to erosion, and perhaps also in part to quarrying after the original excavation. Many brochs today have been partially pilfered over the centuries to build churches, stone walls, and other structures.
It’s easy to cast derision down the centuries to local laborers and landowners for effectively stealing bits of culture and history from the present day. But try to imagine how difficult quarrying for stone was before modern mechanical tools. And also remember that many of these brochs were covered in dirt and grass for centuries before being excavated. They must have looked for all the world like small hills that just happened to be made up primarily of stones that were conveniently sized and shaped for building.
Regardless of the reasoning, it’s likely that the Broch o' Borwick suffered at least partially from a stone-stealing fate. Reports at the time of excavation had the structure at nearly 5 meters tall at its highest point; today it struggles to reach three.
As far as brochs go, Borwick is far from the grandest. The Broch of Gurness, also on Orkney, had its own surrounding village, and was occupied—or at least used—after its initial habitation period, first by Picts and then by Vikings. The Norse may have used the area primarily as a burial ground. Nor is Borwick the most well-preserved broch. That title lies with the previously mentioned tower on Mousa in Shetland, which remarkably stands 13.3 meters high to this day.
But despite being modest as these structures go, the Brock o' Borwick still cuts a commanding figure, high-up on its slowly-vanishing headland. It's tough to beat the views from the surrounding cliffs, including the thrift-covered sea stack (known as Borwick Castle) that stands just a few hundred feet away.
As noted up top, this area is densely packed with important ancient sites. But if you've been to the standing stones, and were chased away from Skara Brae by the seemingly unending crowds arriving via tour bus, Borwick is well worth a visit. If you’re adventurous and the weather is nice, you can get there by walking the five miles along the coastal cliffs from Skara Brae. Or you can drive to Yesnaby and walk the tundra-like path from there, guided by helpfully placed standing stones that add to the area’s ancient ambiance.
Either way, the Broch o’ Borwick is a bit further from the car park than many of Orkney's more well-known prehistoric sites. But its atmosphere, isolated location, and surrounding views are quite unique. This site really deserves some more of the attention paid to sites like the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe—but then with more foot traffic, the spot wouldn’t feel as special.
Once you've finished exploring and found your way back to your vehicle, the excellent Orkney Brewery is just six miles away along the B9056. I recommend the Raven Ale, along with a slow lunch to make sure you're sober enough to safely continue on to your next adventure.
But don't sit idle too long. There's so much of Orkney that needs seeing, and never enough time. I suspect that's true whether you're visiting for a few days, or you're lucky enough to live there your whole life.