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Replica broch can be 'a real icon' for Caithness by taking visitors back 2000 years


By Alan Hendry

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Ousdale broch after access and conservation improvements were carried out by the Caithness Broch Project team. Picture: Angus Mackay
Ousdale broch after access and conservation improvements were carried out by the Caithness Broch Project team. Picture: Angus Mackay

A replica broch in Caithness would be an "unmissable" attraction and "a real icon" for the county, according to one of the leading volunteers behind the idea.

Kenneth McElroy, director and co-founder of Caithness Broch Project, believes the proposed 40ft structure, constructed using traditional methods, would be a focal point for the ancient history of the area and "a source of pride" for years to come.

He talks about the work carried out so far by the archaeological charity, and the plans for its "flagship" broch-building project, in a new interview for Wick Voices, the Wick Society's online oral history project.

He explains that brochs are double-walled, multi-floored structures that are unique to Scotland.

“We are aiming to build a broch for the first time in around 2000 years," Kenneth says in the recording.

“Their importance to Caithness is that we have more brochs than anywhere else. This could be a real icon, a totem for Caithness.

“Not only are we building a broch, we are building a kind of tourist experience. We want to transport them back to the Iron Age, we want to take them back 2000 years, but we also want to make sure that this is a sustainable and successful business model.

“We're looking to the future of Caithness as well, and Caithness has to now consider its future post-Dounreay.

Caithness Broch Project co-directors Kenneth McElroy and Iain Maclean surveying the Ousdale broch before its restoration. Picture: Jim Richardson
Caithness Broch Project co-directors Kenneth McElroy and Iain Maclean surveying the Ousdale broch before its restoration. Picture: Jim Richardson

“We've always thought that heritage and archaeology really shows off some of the best in Caithness. It has some of the best castles, it has amazing cairns, it has beautiful brochs and there is a whole raft of other things that you do and see in Caithness.

“We think that providing something as unique and as special and as visually impressive as a 40ft drystone tower, constructed using traditional methods, looking out across the amazing Caithness landscape, would give people an unmissable site to come and visit and a real icon for Caithness.

“Not only are we promoting this site to people from outwith Caithness but we are promoting Caithness to Caithness as well. Hopefully our broch will be a source of pride for years to come.”

Kenneth recalls how his interest in history and heritage began at school in Thurso. His first encounter with archaeology came when he attended an excavation organised by Caithness Archaeological Trust at Nybster in 2011: “This was the first part of my love story with brochs.”

An £180,000 project to safeguard and showcase Ousdsale broch, just north of the Ord, is the biggest task undertaken to date by the charity. Work involved establishing an accessible trail from the A9, creating a parking area and installing interpretation panels as well as conservation of the broch itself.

Kenneth McElroy working at the Swartigill site on Thrumster Estate as part of his archaeology degree. Picture: DGS
Kenneth McElroy working at the Swartigill site on Thrumster Estate as part of his archaeology degree. Picture: DGS

"It was such a testing, challenging project," Kenneth says.

“It was not quite our first endeavour into broch conservation because we had previously helped to improve access and stability at Achvarasdal broch which was overrun by giant hogweed. We managed to clear that and that gave us more incentive to continue to do these sorts of things.

“This was a big deal for us. But we knew that if we were able to pull this off then our flagship project would seem a lot more achievable and it would certainly give our group some credibility.

“It was a long, arduous, difficult project but hugely rewarding and satisfying to complete it in the end.

“It's at the doorstep of Caithness – it's one of the first things you would see if you were travelling north. I really like it because it serves as a brilliant introduction to what I think is the home of the broch.”

Meanwhile, Kenneth says good progress is being made on the vision to create a replica broch.

“It's difficult when you are such a grassroots organisation to kick-start these sorts of projects," he says. "But in the last few years I really feel that the team has grown and developed to such an extent that we have a real variety of skills and abilities and the enthusiasm to really pull it off.”

After studying archaeology at Glasgow University, Kenneth took up the post of education and volunteer officer at Kilmartin Museum in Argyll but continues in his role as a Caithness Broch Project director.

A path provides much better access to the Ousdale site. Picture: Angus Mackay
A path provides much better access to the Ousdale site. Picture: Angus Mackay

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