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Towers In The North: The Brochs Of Scotland By IAN ARMIT
Tempus, 2003. 159 pages, 53 illustrations and 23 colour plates. ISBN 0 7524 1932 3 (£15.99)

Brochs are one of the ultimate expressions of regional diversity in the British Iron Age, a geographically restricted, monumental and complex variant of the roundhouse. They are the best-preserved Iron Age dwellings in Britain if not Europe, often requiring the visitor to duck to avoid the lintel as they enter the building, and yet too often they have been sidelined as local curiosities in wider narratives of the period. This trend has been bucked in recent years in the specialist literature, with more theoretically-informed interpretations; here Armit sets out to place broch studies before a wider audience.

The seven chapters move logically through the subject, synthesising a tremendous amount of the specialist and often obscure literature in readily-digestible form. After a useful consideration of the history of broch studies, Armit looks at brochs within wider roundhouse traditions, describing the key developments of the 1970s and 1980s when the local lineage of the brochs was first demonstrated at Bu on Orkney with its massive-walled early Iron Age roundhouse, followed by the first modern disentangling of the full sequence from roundhouse to broch tower at Howe, also on Orkney. This introduces something of the diversity of structures subsumed under the ‘broch’ category. Chapter 3 looks in detail at the most dramatic manifestations of the tradition, the ‘broch towers’ which form the main popular image of the broch, dominating the surrounding landscape. Here their various architectural features are described and the various theories put forward with their pros and cons assessed. There is a valuable presentation of the architect John Hope’s hitherto-unpublished thoughts on how the sites may have worked in architectural terms, a useful basis for further argument.

Armit is steadfastly even-handed in the assessment of debates which have often proved vitriolic, such as the nature of roofs, the significance of ground-galleried versus solid-based walls, and the typology of brochs; having been central to many of the discussions in the 1980s and 1990s, this hindsight is valuable in showing where some progress has been made (as in the consensus now that brochs must have been roofed) and where the evidence can still be explained in different ways; for instance, the ground-galleried versus solid-based argument can as easily be regional variants as chronologically-significant forms. The debates are rarely exhausted, but this work provides a springboard into them for those who have not followed the twists and turns of the detailed argument.

Chapter four considers the lifestyles of the people and how they used the landscape around them. Specialists will doubtless consider that the plant / animal / find evidence (delete as appropriate) could have been treated with the same detail as the architecture, but Armit summarises most of the key debates (such as the debated topic of dairying, p86) with further references to guide the enthusiast. One area where he slips slightly is in downplaying the evidence for contacts within the Atlantic region (p92). Aside for the shared elements of broch architecture itself, there is evidence of social interaction not just in exotic goods (a subject requiring renewed study, as there is more evidence of local- and regional-scale movements than has been realised) but also in artefact styles shared across the Atlantic and beyond. Here perhaps we see echoes of the discipline’s history: the heated debates between diffusionists and local evolutionists over broch origins have left a scar which has made the study of contacts an unfavoured topic, and one now requiring more theoretically-nuanced attention.

In the wider picture Armit makes a strong case that the typical broch was not an elite residence but the ubiquitous local farmhouse for those who owned the land, another topic which has seen much recent debate; it seems any hierarchies in this area were relatively shallow, with a strong degree of autonomy for the individual households. The exception to this, the broch villages which developed in Orkney and Caithness, are considered in chapter five. These clusters of smaller settlement units enclosed under the shadow of the broch tower appear to form nucleated hierarchical settlements, but his summary of the very varied possible interpretations of this (pp97-9, 117-8) emphasises how far we have to go in understanding them.

Few aspects of broch studies have been uncontroversial, and chapter six considers another thorny topic, the appearance of broch-type structures south of the Highland Line. Recently published excavations have allowed a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon, and it is clear that a direct correlation with the waves of Roman advance and withdrawal is now unsustainable. A connection with Rome is indeed likely, given the wealth of Roman finds from many of the sites, but it seems better to see this, following Lesley Macinnes (1984), as reflecting various social strategies of an existing or emergent elite, drawing on artefactual and architectural exotica to create or sustain their control. Here the recent work at the classic southern broch of Edinshall has been a valuable case study, suggesting in this instance that the power and wealth which allowed the building of the broch arose not from connections with Rome but control of the local copper supplies.

The final chapter looks beyond the brochs, at the architectural forms which succeeded them and the implications of this. In particular Armit considers the development of wheelhouses, another roundhouse variant, less monumental externally but with dramatically-disposed internal space. Finally he considers the reuse of broch sites and their continuing role in the landscape.

The book is well-written, with Armit offering both succinct site summaries and some powerful evocations of broch life: the conjuring of the past from the bare foundations of the Gurness broch village, for instance (pp105-6), makes you look at the site anew. The production is good from a publisher who is often rather variable, and typographic errors are few (with BC for AD on p124 perhaps the only one likely to mislead); the annotated bibliography at the end provides the reader with no excuse for continuing ignorance of the literature, a resource again often lacking in Tempus publications. There is also a repeated concern to engage in the wider implications of the topic, with attempts to look beyond the impressive stonework to the social motives. Topics such as the adoption of roundhouses (a late event here in British terms, appearing only at the start of the Iron Age), the nature of landholding and the impact of Rome are touched on. Here Armit is often not just summarising but developing the debate, and it is to be hoped that these flashes of ideas will be given fuller treatment than the constraints of a synthetic book allow, before they acquire the status of hallowed factoids for undergraduate essays.

The one area which feels weak is the ending. The reader is left rather tamely with a description of post-medieval reuse of brochs. Where is the excitement, to leave them thirsting for more? Where are the avenues for further work? Broch studies are alive and kicking, not least in the studies emerging from the Old Scatness project on Shetland (e.g. Dockrill 2002; Bond 2002), while the first volume of Euan Mackie’s broch corpus (Mackie 2002, too late for Armit’s bibliography) starts to provide the raw data for much further work. Yet although Armit discusses this in the body of the text, he lacks the final few paragraphs to draw it all together, point to key topics and send the reader forth enthused for the debate to come. It is the only serious concern with this valuable book: Armit successfully makes brochs interesting for the wider audience, not a purely Scottish topic but one which no-one with an interest in the British Iron Age dare now see as peripheral or irrelevant.

Fraser Hunter,
National Museums of Scotland

Ballin Smith, B & Banks, I. (eds), 2002. In the shadow of the brochs. Stroud: Tempus
Bond, J., 2002. Pictish pigs and Celtic cowboys: food and farming in the Atlantic Iron Age’, in Ballin Smith and Banks (eds), 177-184
Dockrill, S., 2002. Brochs, economy and power, in Ballin Smith and Banks (eds), 153-162
Macinnes, L., 1984. Brochs and the Roman occupation of lowland Scotland, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 114, 235-249
Mackie, E.W., 2002. The roundhouses, brochs and wheelhouses of Atlantic Scotland c. 700 BC – AD 500: architecture and material culture. Part 1: the Orkney and Shetland Isles. Oxford: BAR (Brit Ser 342)

Review Submitted: August 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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