Brochs and Crannogs, what are they? And what was there purpose? As with the Celtic civilisation, these buildings are not something that many are aware of, or even what these things are. The ancient world is full of incredible developments and innovation but, unfortunately much of the modern studies of history, unless as a university degree is focused largely on much later times, so I understand why; to many these names will be unfamiliar.


In recent decades there has been the building of artificial islands with such things as airports, military establishments and even metropolitan centers built on them, even today many people find these feats incredible and amazing, it is also thought that such innovation is a ‘modern’ achievement. The building in bodies of water though is not modern at all, as building in water has been around since the Neolithic period though the scale is much smaller it has been practiced for millennia.

Crannog 1.jpg

For as long as people have had access to the sea, lakes, or even smaller bodies of water they have always had a close relationship with it, simply because without it people could not survive, many of the ancient people worshiped or revered water or gods that are creators, embodiment’s or gifters of water as part of their religious practices; Celtic civilisations would pay tribute to water by throwing precious metals, jewelry, weapons and deep sentimental valued items in to them. Water has not only supplied an absolute means of survival but it has also provided incredible defenses from invading raiders and armies and later castles even created moats and filled with water limiting any access by land for attacking armies to besiege the castles. But Crannogs are different in that they were built in the body of water for varying purposes.


‘Crannog’, the word Crannogs meaning has been difficult to determine but is thought to mean ‘tree’ with its diminutive ending meaning ‘young’, based off of the old Irish word ‘Crannoc’. Crannogs are dated as far back as the Neolithic period with the oldest crannog being dated back to between 3650-2500 B.C. found in Scotland the Crannog in Loch Olabhat. The purposes of Crannogs are various with some being defensive getaways for royalty, nobles and rich farmers, but some of the larger crannogs supported small settlements, in some cases Crannogs were built for particular societal minorities such as monastic hermits or smiths who could practice their trade in peace and away from the distractions of the everyday running’s of an ancient settlement. Though the defensive properties of the Crannogs are evident and was used at times as a defensive fort, there is little evidence that shows that they were regularly used in such a way as in archaeological finds have produced few weapons and other arms, in the cases of the larger Crannogs, there has been findings of such things built is largely believed that they were built for other purposes.


The construction of Crannogs evolved and developed over time but the base of the construction changed very little, construction was usually built on loch reefs and rises or on already naturally formed islets. The construction site of a Crannog was usually started with the driving of large wooden piles with sharpened bases into the water covered ground; many of the larger Crannogs had specifically shaped holes cut the wooden piles where the carpenters would place special joining wood to provide more stability and support with some of the carpenters placing stone (if it was available) at the base of the piles to provide further stability and in different stages artificial islets could be created by building upon more stone bases. Many of the Crannogs could only be accessed by wooden boats but those that were closer to the land would have small bridges and the main structures on these artificial islets would be built up of a variety of materials that were closely available such as clay, mud, brush; even stone and timber. As people evolved and ways of survival became ever more convenient so too did the use of these Crannogs fall into decline, as settlements grew and became more civilised, more people would travel to these bigger and larger settlements, that is not to say that they were completely left behind as there is evidence of people using them as dwellings until the late 17th century.


Brochs, unlike the Crannogs have only been around as long as late B.C. and early A.D. just like the Crannogs, the Brochs were originally thought of to be castle but the way in which they came to be is still much debated, some historians say that the Brochs were built by immigrants pushed north by the intrusions of the Belgic tribes others claim that it was the occupation of Britain by the Romans, there are also those that argue that it was completely Scottish building. Despite the uncertainty of when they came to be it is agreed that the Brochs are some of the most complex and incredible roundhouses built, Brochs were as high as high as three floors with the small hole in the roof to allow the smoke from cooking to escape, in the same way the smaller roundhouses did. The purpose of the Broch is also debated; originally the Broch was thought to be a castle or fort where the chieftain would reside, but this theory has fallen out of favor.


The fall from favor in the idea that Brochs were castle/forts has been debated extensively as the fact that many Brochs were built in highly defensible positions, in such places as precipitous cliffs where they could easily see any enemy advances and protected by ramparts, artificial and natural, coupled with the fact that many were placed in very strategic positions. The counter argument to the idea of them being military buildings is largely to do with the positions of many of the Brochs being so very close to each other, in which many historians having said that they were likely communal places where families and livestock would live together in the protection of the incredible structures. The idea of the communal Brochs is largely supported by the variety in each Broch and that some positions have no strategic or very little strategic advantage.

As with the Crannogs the building materials of the Brochs had developed over time, the oldest ones were mad of mud, whittle and clay, later advancing to strong stone buildings, the interior walls are supported by timber frames and the different floors are connected via spiral stairs. The builds could not reach more than an average of three floors but the larger ones that reached a higher number are also the ones most well preserved in the modern day, this is largely to do with the advancement of structural building.

Brochs are almost exclusive to Scottish lands and the Orkney Islands, many historians have linked the Brochs to the Picts who are thought to be a people of Celtic heritage, though they spoke a different dialect to that of the Britons and the Irish, there is also little that shows any Norse lineage aside from some names, that are abundant in Scotland particularly the Orkney Islands. Unlike the Crannogs the Brochs fell into misuse much sooner and the peak of Broch buildings was between 200-300 A.D.

Mousa Broch Mousa Broch


Though the exact reasons for the building of the Brochs and Crannogs are still debated, they were innovative, complex and interesting constructs. In particular the Crannogs were arguably the first artificial islands ever created and that the craftsman of the past were incredible when it came to structural engineering. These buildings of ancient times are just an example of how incredible the past is and how much is missed as the present becomes the future and our present becomes the futures past. History has so much to offer and so much can be learned from it, hopefully these interesting buildings will ignite a deeper interest in the past, particularly the ancient past.


{ Images are from google images commons}