Ousdale Broch - The Story so Far!

Well, our first blog post in about 3 years. But there's been a bit of a 'lull' in activity recently around the world - perhaps you've noticed?

Let's not dwell on these matters, and, instead, use this as an opportunity to recap what has happened at Ousdale Burn Broch, also known as 'Allt a'Bhurg Broch'.

We've been interested in this broch for a number of years now. Don't believe us? Check our our appearance on BBC Landward all the way back in 2016:

(And check out the fear in Dougie Vipond's eyes around the 2:00 mark)

The Locale:

The Broch is located just barely a mile north of the Caithness/Sutherland border, just south of the quaint village of Berriedale. Situated at the bottom of a hill which overlooks the Ousdale Burn and the Allt a''Bhurg (which translated to 'Stream of the Fort'. 'Bhurg' is a derivation of 'Borg' which is old Norse for 'fort'...more on this later!), it is an impressive location, and the broch itself is quite possibly the 'best' broch in Caithness. It is now a prominent feature in the John O'Groats trail, which we highly recommend you check out.

Above: Map of the general area

Below: The broch in the landscape. Photo by National Geographic photographer, Jim Henderson, whom we invited around Caithness in early 2019

If your computer is up to it, then Merlinworks also produced this rather lovely 3D model of Ousdale Broch - so why not have a wee whizz around?

The Norse and Ousdale

This area is dense with archaeological remains: at Berriedale there are the traces of brochs, castles, standing stones; the Strath of Kildonan which runs through Helmsdale is littered with souterrains, hut circles and stone rows. Close to the broch are the remains of Badbae Clearance Village, but, lying even closer are the scant remains of 'Borg', a post-Medieval clearance village, but which likely goes back even further: the name 'Borg' is indeed a Norse name, and so may date back over 1,000 years.

Above: The remains of Borg village - the broch can just be seen in the background: follow the fenceline!

Below: One of the longhouses at Borg

There is plenty more archaeological evidence for Norse occupation can be found across the east coast of Caithness and Sutherland. At Huna the remains of a Viking Boat was discovered, and at Freswick Links there is evidence for Norse occupation - perhaps a fish-processing factory of sorts!

Above: Tiny lil' bit of fish bone of some desciption, plucked off the dunes at Freswick Links. See our blogs on the coastal archaeology survey with SCAPE for more!

Certainly the place-names near to here would indicate a Norse presence: the 'dale' of Helmsdale and Berriedale, for instance, is a derivation of 'dalr', Norse for 'open valley'. Helmsdale, in this case, comes from Hjalmundal - 'Dale of the Helmet'.

At Ousdale, however, there is a fascinating historical account of Norse doing what the do best. And that of course, is: being dastardly.

The Wicked Earl Harald

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Ousdale - known as Eysteinsdal by the Norse - was the scene of a confrontation between the William the Lion, King of Scotland, and Harald the Elder (Harald Maddadson), a Norse Jarl, who ruled over Caithness and Orkney.

Harald had asserted his rule over the area after defeating Harold the Younger (Harald Eiríksson)at the Battle of Clardon Hill near Thurso in 1198 and went on to fine, imprison and even hang the inhabitants of Thurso who opposed his rule. Bishop John of Caithness tried to plead for mercy but, cruelly, Harald had the Bishop's tongue cut off and his eyes put out!

Above: Harold's (or Harald's) Tower, near Thurso. A mausoleum for the Sinclairs of Ulbster family, it is reputedly built on top of the site of the Battle of Clardon Hill. Image and more information found at https://thefollyflaneuse.com/harolds-tower-thurso-caithness-scotland/

Upon hearing this, King William sent an army north to keep Harold in line, eventually meeting at Ousdale in 1201, where Harald realised his army was vastly outnumbered by Williams, and sued for peace.It seems 'Wicked Earl Harald', as he is known in Caithness, never met an end befitting of his nature - he died peacefully in 1206, aged 73.

Anyway - enough of those Vikings...

Back to Borg. There is unfortunately scant information about the inhabitants of this village. However, thanks to help from the Welbeck Estate, which owns the land, and Christina Baldwin of Grey Hen's Well, we have been able to piece together something of the lives of the people of Borg. The last inhabitants of 'Borg' had left by some point in the early 19th century. We even have a photograph of two of the previous residents!

John Macleod (1795 - 1869) was a shephered who lived at Borg with his parents Donald Macleod and Mary Macleod until 1816. He married Christina Sutherland of Badbea in 1822. Of 5 sons and 6 daughters, 4 sons and 3 daughters emigrated to New Zealand. Here he is below, looking utterly terrified of photography!

Above: John Macleod at some point in the 1860s, when he and Christina moved to Rangag. Funnily enough, it's not far from a broch. But then again, you're never far from a broch in Caithness!

Just to the south of Ousdale, the remains of the 'old road' to Caithness can be seen. This road, which skirts the 'Ord Head', a large geological feature which juts out of the landscape, was once one of the most-feared roads in Scotland: notorious for both the steepness of the cliffs to which it clung to, but also to the robbers and bandits who traversed the Ord. James Calder, the eminent historian of Caithness, remarked that, during the 17th century:

“During all this time the peasantry of the county were in a most wretched condition. Among other evils, Caithness was overrun with thieves. In 1617 a regularly organised band of these vagabonds infested the borders of Sutherland and Caithness, where they waylaid and robbed travellers, and violated every unprotected female that had the misfortune to fall into their hands. Their principal haunt was the Ord of Caithness, a spot peculiarly adapted for their purpose. Scarce a week passed without the commission of some murder, rape, or robbery, in that quarter... A strong posse of armed men were sent out to watch the movements of the gang, and to apprehend them. In a few days nearly the whole of the miscreants were seized and imprisoned, and after a summary trial sentenced to the gallows. A gibbet was erected on the highest part of the Ord, where, without benefit of clergy, they were all hanged as a terror to evil-doers."

(1861, p.156)

There are a couple of place-names relatively nearby which indicate a place of execution and of robbery: Cnoc na Croiche, 3 miles along the coast, translates to 'Gallows Hill'.

The faint outline of the old road to Caithness can still be seen

The 1891 Excavation:

The broch was excavated by Mr James Mackay of Trowbridge in Wiltshire (pictured below). He was the son of Donald Mackay, farmer at Braemore, only a few miles from Ousdale. The excavations were concluded in 1891, and the full report can be read here.

Above: James Mackay in the 'Clan Mackay Society', 1898

Of particular interest was the discovery of a burial close to the stairwell:

"Over the entrance to the stair is a narrow opening in the wall, probably for "the purpose of lighting the stair. In clearing this a human skeleton was discovered, head downwards, roughly built in the aperture, and covered with small stones and a little earth. The cranium is in good preservation, the lower jaw, with teeth in situ, are also well preserved, but the entire right side of the skeleton is considerably decayed"

It would appear that this burial was not from the time of the brochs, however. The Orkney Herald reported, in 1891, that:

"The skeleton, which was examined by Mr Adam Mackay, of Aberdeen University, on Tuesday last week, is of much more recent data than the times of the Picts [brochs were thought to be built and inhabited by Picts], and is probably that of some victim of the clan feuds of last century, who here found a speedy burial."

Just who was this person?

It is fascinating to think that this burial may have had deeper, more tragic connotations. If this were a more modern burial - that is to say, post-Medieval - then this may have been a 'deviant' burial (a technical term for burials found in strange positions): perhaps someone who had taken their own life, or perhaps had been a nasty character - even a murderer. The fact that they were buried 'face-down' suggests something of unseemly end.

There are of course, similar deviant burials from the Iron Age, so the idea that it was an Iron Age burial can't be discounted.

Above: An example of a 'deviant' burial, from History Today

It would be wonderful to know more about this - but sadly the bones appear to be lost. We had contacted the Osteoarchaeology department at the University of Aberdeen but sadly, nothing appears to have survived of this skeleton - as a possible post-Medieval burial, it was likely reburied.

Another interesting point about this broch is that the excavation is the reason why the broch required consolidation and conservation. The excavation had dug so deep and so intrusively, that Mackay felt it necessary to make some modern amendments to the structure to support it: