1. Bronze & Iron Age Britain
Written for Scottishweb by Angus Macdonald
Prehistoric Scotland - Souterrains and Brochs
Published 15 February 2008
English Heritage have confirmed Open Access for Stonehenge on the Spring Equinox 2012 will be dawn on the 20th of March.
Expect a short period of access, from approximately 5.45am to 8.00am.
This is the second of the four ‘sky points’ in our Wheel of the Year and it is when the sun does a perfect balancing act in the heavens.
At the Spring (or Vernal) Equinox the sun rises exactly in the east, travels through the sky for 12 hours and then sets exactly in the west. So all over the world, at this special moment, day and night are of equal length hence the word equinox which means ‘equal night’.
Of course, for those of us here in the northern hemisphere it is this equinox that brings us out of our winter.
For those in the southern hemisphere, this time is the autumnal equinox that is
The purpose of this trip was to have a look at the souterrain on the side of Loch Erribol and then the Iron Age broch at the foot of Ben Hope, pictured here to the right. It was such a beautiful day I decided to camp for the night beside the souterrain, on the side of Loch Erribol, and to begin looking around in the morning. The setting sun lit up the clouds bright red and orange over Ben Hope as I looked to the east, and the heather covered moors displayed a warm, rusty colour all around. With a good nights sleep ahead, I was looking forward to the morning and hopefully another beautiful day.
Now for the burning question - what is a souterrain? Well, it means 'under ground' or 'below ground', and is a word used to describe a structure that dates back some 2000 years. Sometimes called an earth-house, souterrains usually consist of an entrance followed by a curved corridor or tunnel, about 15-20 feet long, and quite often a small chamber at the end. Nobody knows what they were used for, as there has been no evidence of habitation or storage found within them.
taking you in to your winter. And this is very much how I think of the equinoxes – as the ‘edges’ of winter. This is why they can be quite hard on our bodies as it is a major climatic shift, so it is a good time to give a boost to your immune system with natural remedies and cleansing foods.
Here in Wiltshire (as with the rest of rural Britain), it was traditional to drink dandelion and burdock cordials at this time as these herbs help to cleanse the blood and are a good tonic for the body after its winter hardships.
As the Vernal Equinox heralds the arrival of spring, it is a time of renewal in both nature and the home, so time for some spring-cleaning!
This is more than just a physical activity, it also helps to remove any old or negative energies accumulated over the dark, heavy winter months preparing the way for the positive growing energy of spring and summer.
As with all the other key festivals of the year, there are both Pagan and Christian associations with the Spring Equinox.To Pagans, this is the time of the ancient Saxon goddess, Eostre, who stands for new beginnings and fertility.
This is why she is symbolized by eggs (new life) and rabbits/hares (fertility).
Her name is also the root of the term we give to the female hormone, oestrogen.By now, you may be beginning to see the Christian celebration derived from this festival – Easter.
And this is the reason why the ‘Easter Bunny’ brings us coloured eggs (and if you’re lucky chocolate ones!) at this time of year.
So, as nature starts to sprout the seeds that have been gestating in her belly throughout the winter, maybe you can start to think about what you want to ‘sprout’ in your life now and start to take action.
Our sponsors ‘The Stonehenge Tour Company’ are offering transport from London. They have been offering ‘non obtrusive’ small group guided tours of the solstice and equinox events for many years and we welcome their approach and ‘thought provoking’ trips. It works out much cheaper and certainly easier at that time of the morning.
Merlin says “See you there and remember – RESPECT THE STONES!”
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Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle website
Some people, including myself, subscribe to the belief that there must have been another structure at ground level, perhaps even over the top of the entrance hole. This could mean that the souterrain was only used as a last resort, in time of attack, or perhaps in severe weather conditions, or perhaps simply as a cellar. It seems strange, on the one hand, to think that the people who built these structures would not live in them, considering they feel so solid and warm compared to any surface structure. On the other hand, and as I said earlier, no evidence of habitation has ever been found inside a Scottish souterrain. It remains a mystery, and for me only adds to the allure of these amazing structures.
I descended into the souterrain on step at a time, only to find that it was full of water. I remembered this from a time my father took me here as a boy, and since the souterrain is dug into what is now peat moorland, it is bound to fill with water. I could, however, admire the excellent stonework and the time taken to carefully position the steps leading down to the entrance. To think that the very structure I was in had been built 2000 years ago was truly amazing. The stonework was pretty much as they left it. If you plan to enter the souterrain, take great care, wellington boots and a torch are strongly recommended! The location of the souterrain is marked by two stone cairns, about 3 feet high, by the side of the road on the west side of Loch Erribol.
After a quick look at the souterrains, I decided to head for the broch at Loch Hope. The day had turned wet and I was doubtful if I could get any decent pictures in such conditions, but off I went towards the Hope road and the broch. Known as Dundornagail, or locally as Dundornadilla, this broch is an excellent example of a defensive structure in a dramatic location, and also dates back some 2000 years.
The broch looks fantastic, and when its age is taken into consideration, it is truly a marvel that it has survived. The work involved must have been immense, and the original shape of the structure can be appriciated by the curve of the surviving walls. I can imagine the struggle that must have been to manipulate the huge triangular lintel that rests above the entrance.
Brochs are unique to Scotland, and some 500 broch sites have been identified, with many of these in fairly good condition. This one near Ben Hope is one of the better ones, but the best preserved is Mousa Broch in Shetland, with walls some 13 meters high, and because of its isolated location it has remained almost intact. I have been told by many tourists that Dundornagail broch surprises them. The Hope road is a quiet, single-track road, with much open moorland and vast areas of peat and heather landscape. To come round the corner and see this sight is definitely a "must stop and look" for the tourist! Indeed, many locals have come here to marvel at the builders of the past, and wonder of the life they must have led.
The brochs consisted of two walls, one within the other. It is thought that the people would have lived between the walls, and fire hearts have been found in the centre. There is no evidence to determine if the brochs were roofed or not, but it seems natural that the sleeping area would be roofed. It should be noted, however, that there is a severe lack of trees in North Sutherland, and wood may have been scarce in the time of the broch builders. Some people suggest that the brochs were not lived in at all, but were used as defensive structures only in time of attack.
The drawing above shows outer huts where the people live, and two 'look-outs' pacing the top of the tower, keeping an eye open for approaching invaders. It is even suggested that the brochs in Scotland were built by a group of tradesmen, specialising in brochs, who travelled around building for communities that would pay them, and passing on their skills to their kin. We'll never really know, but just to stand and marvel at this broch and imagine the centre of life it must have been is well worth the visit.