Thoughts

Over the years while visiting brochs, I've had a few thoughts. When you spend time around the Picts and their brochs, sometimes it's easy to envision life with them and understand why they did things, but at other times it isn't. As I've documented each broch here on the website, I've often written my thoughts and musings on the broch pages. Some of my musings are probably not worth reading, but perhaps some of them are. I've encapsulated these thoughts here all on one page with a note of which broch I was visiting at the time.

Achavar

During my second visit, I looked around the countryside and scratched my head because I could see no logical reason for the broch to be there. It had no outer defences so it wasn't a military defensive structure like Baile Mhargaite or Kilphedir, and it was rather small so wouldn't have housed many people. As there are so many brochs around the area for people to take refuge in, this one didn't make much sense to me. I asked a friend who was with me if he could see any reason for the broch being there. He looked around, pointed out that we were on an elevated rock on a flat plain and could see for miles in every direction, so it was likely a strategic broch placed for line of sight communications. That stunned me as I then realised that brochs had differing reasons for their construction and were not all built the same. Military and architectural genius working together again.

Castle Spynie

An interesting broch indeed. It is built on high ground along with two forts which together form all round defence over the high ground. I visited both fort sites as well, and between the three sites there are commanding views north over the Beauly Firth, east to Inverness, and south and west over the countryside. There are also other forts and many cairns and duns within marching distance east, west and north. What I found particularly interesting was that from this major defensive position south there isn't much in the way of brochs at all anywhere, and I couldn't help thinking that perhaps this was the fortified southern border of Pictland.


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The three fortified positions not only serve to cover the high ground, but they are all sited on rocky outcrops making them formidable fortresses to assault, while they cover each others backs and serve as fall back positions should one position be overrun. With the sheer numbers of cairns nearby, there could have been hundreds of Picts manning these positions, while thousands more were within easy marching distance.

While pondering all this, I realised more than ever how important communications must have been to the Picts. As brochs, duns, forts and cairns are in line of sight up the east coast and probably to the north and west coast of Sutherland, communications could have been sent quickly around the Highlands. However, these communications would have been limited to perhaps word of Roman sightings or landings. It was while looking out over the Beauly Firth from one of the Forts that I began to think in terms of far more detailed communications. Horses perhaps? I didn't like that idea as horses would have required stables sited around the Highlands so word could travel quickly. That didn't make sense to me really, and there are no indications of any stables around broch sites. Then it occurred to me that it wouldn't take long at all for runners to sprint from broch to broch carrying news, somewhat like a relay race, passing the baton to another runner at the next broch. Word could probably have gone from Inverness to Wick in 6 or 7 hours with men sprinting in relays, which is probably just as fast as horses could manage. This all points to a headquarters where military decisions were made and from where orders were sent. Should Roman galleys be sighted off the Caithness coast, word would reach Inverness in hours, orders could then have been sent out around the Highlands and the PIcts could have marched to the North coast in their thousands within a day or two. It's all conjecture, yes, but it makes sense. How else do you communicate over long distances without internet, radio or phone?

An Dun broch, Clachtoll

There is a rather intriguing architectural feature in this broch, a feature I've seen elsewhere, but which I've never commented on. This is my 106th broch bagged over a good number of years, but until now I've never commented on the pyramid stone lintels above the entrances of a few brochs. I've kept my thoughts to myself, and with each passing broch I've thought more about them, and now I feel confident enough to put forward a theory on how they came to be there. You see, I don't think the Picts built brochs with pyramid lintels, I think they were added later. Here is the lintel of Carn Liath broch, near Brora. Note that if fits the broch perfectly, with no loose stones jammed in anywhere, with the orginal walls built around the lintel. The stonework is perfect.

Here is the entrance to Dun Dornaigil. Does the stone fit the broch exactly? No it doesn't. Were the walls of the broch built around this stone? No, they were not. This is a bodge job by someone who moved in long after the PIcts and had the broch altered. The lintel stone doesn't even look contemporary with the rest of the broch.

This is the lintel above the entrance to Caisteal na Colle, or Castle Cole as it's also known, in Strath Brora. Look how perfectly the lintel fits the broch stonework. The walls were obviously built around the lintel. Look at the two stones to the right. Look how perfectly the stonework fits. This is an original lintel.

Here is the lintel above the entrance to the Ousdale Burn broch. Again, see how perfectly the stone matches the broch, and how perfectly the walls have been built around it.

Here is the pyramid lintel above the entrance to Clachtoll broch. Talk about a bodge job? Seems there have been freemasons and cowboy builders around since forever. I do not believe this is the original lintel.

Dun Beag broch, Skye

I've had a question in my head about brochs for years and I could never come up with a reasonable explanation that would solve the mystery. It's the stairs. They're tiny. And it's the same in every broch. The steps are all so small I can only get the toe of my boot onto them unless I turn my foot sideways. This has always made me scratch my head. Were the Picts midgets or something? Of course, they weren't, so why build such small steps? There was plenty of big stone around. You can see that in the walls. When looking at the stairs in this broch I suddenly realised that they were not built for men, they were built for families. The stairs were built so children could use them. The more I learn about the Picts, the more I love them.

Ach An Fhionnfuraidh

There is some conjecture over whether or not Ach An Fhionnfhuraidh is actually a broch. Some have suggested it is a dun or even a homestead consisting of two hut circles. Without an archaeological excavation any further discussion is pointless, however, I would like to add something for consideration - line of sight! Is Ach An Fhionnfhuraidh an integral link in line of sight communications up and down the Strath of Kildonan? If it isn't, I can see no reason for a broch to be there. If for instance there is direct line of sight between Learable broch and Carn Nam Buth, then why would the PIcts build a broch there? If there is no direct line of sight between Learable and Carn Nam Buth, bearing in mind that the Highlands was a huge natural forest at the time, then Ach An Fhionnfhuraidh simply cannot be relegated to homestead status owing to its important military strategic position.

Baile Mhargaite

On my third visit to Baile Mhargaite, with my thoughts on Castle Spynie still fresh in my mind, a friend mentioned that the Picts were probably seafarers. Of course! If they were European refugees they would have been seafarers and would have used boats to get here. They would have also used boats around the coast for transport, trade and passing communications. Rather than travel overland, they could have sailed from here along the coast to Wick, then down to Helmsdale, then across to Tarbat Ness and it isn't far from there to Inverness. With good winds, they could probably make the trip from the North coast to Inverness in a day. Transporting troops around the Highlands by boat would also have ensured men turned up for battle fresh and ready to fight. They may even have been capable of engaging Roman galleons at sea, which would account for why the Romans never established any beachheads in the Highlands. The more time I spend with the Picts and their brochs, the more the big picture comes into view.

Dun Mhaigh

The last broch I visited was Baile Mhargaite, and not long before that Castle Spynie, and for these last few weeks my mind has been absorbed with the Inverness area perhaps being the southern border of Pictland. Since my visit to Baile Mhargaite I've also been preoccupied with the Picts possibly being a seafaring people. Then last week I learned from a friend in Australia that the Picts had constructed a settlement and a harbour at Burghead. Then I learned that the largest Pictish fort yet uncovered is at Burghead. Archealogists from Aberdeen University have recently been excavating this PIctish settlement and have offered this as a detailed representation of what they have so far pieced together.

Then I remembered that Warren MacLeod's brilliant analysis of The Agricola included compelling evidence pointing to Forres as the site of the battle of Mons Graupius, and as Burghead is only a few miles from Forres, I was overwhelmed with a clarity that stunned me. Here is Burghead in relation to Forres.


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Piecing everything together from the last 15 years while spending time with the Picts and their brochs, this is how I see things currently. Agricola was marching along the Moray coast towards Inverness from Aberdeen. If Inverness fell, the Romans would have taken Scotland. The Picts would have known the Romans were marching from Aberdeen and would have chosen the site for their last stand against them, which I believe is very likely to be the site at Forres indicated by Warren MacLeod.

The settlement at Burghead therefore, would have been needed to cater for the tens of thousands of Picts prepared for war sailing into the harbour from Orkney, Shetland, Skye and the other islands in the Hebrides, as well as the west, north and east coasts. When the Romans marched on Forres, the Picts were dug in on the high ground and were ready for them. This was their Alamo, their last stand. If they fell, Scotland would have been taken by the Romans. Their lives, the lives of their wives and children, and their very way of life would have weighed heavily on them as they faced the Romans across the battlefield. It must have been a ferocious fight with no quarter given on either side.

According to Tacitus the Roman historian, the battle of Mons Graupius was a decisive Roman victory in which the Caledonii army was destroyed and scattered. According to Tacitus, over 10,000 Caledonii were killed in battle for the loss of only 360 Romans. That's what Tacitus claims. Let's look at the facts. After the battle of Mons Graupius, Agricola built no fortresses to consolidate his gains, but instead retreated quickly to his established forts south of Aberdeen. That same year, Agricola was recalled to Rome and was poisoned by the Emperor. Two to six years later, the Romans retreated further south to their fortresses along the Clyde/ Forth isthmus. Not long after that the Romans retreated out of Scotland and cowered behind Hadrian's wall. In 367 AD, the Picts with the help of the Irish invaded England and together they pushed the Romans back from their last defensive positions at Hadrian's wall. Not long after that, the Romans left Britain. The facts speak clearly for themselves. The Picts resoundingly defeated the Romans at the battle of Mons Graupius, and all the evidence points to the high ground between Forres and Burghead as the site of the battle.