Lockdown Walks: Three Brochs

Hurley Hawkin (NO 332327)
Craig Hill (NO 431358)
Laws Hill (NO 491349)

Dundee brochs
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

Maintaining appropriate physical distance in the locked-down urban environment of Dundee has become increasingly difficult with Vaccine Optimism on the rise, and your correspondent has been getting tired of doing the bulk of the work in this regard, endlessly dodging those of his fellow citizens who are blithely distracted by conversations, pets, small children or mobile phones (and sometimes all four simultaneously).

The rules allow us to travel up to five miles beyond the boundaries of our Local Authority Area to “reach a safe non-crowded place” for exercise, and my general habit, pre-Covid, was always to take exercise in locations where I couldn’t even see another human being, which is about as safe and non-crowded as you can get. So that’s how I came up with a plan to visit some lowland broch sites.

Brochs are thick-walled Iron-Age towers of dry-stone construction, largely confined to northern Scotland and the Atlantic coast.

Broch map
Distribution of brochs in Scotland by Anameofmyveryown
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

After two millennia, and extensive stone-robbing for later building, very few are in any sort of good repair. As the map shows, there are a tiny number of broch sites in lowland Scotland, and most of them are mere archaeological traces. Surprisingly, three of these sites are within spitting distance of the Dundee City Local Authority Area—you can see them in a neat little row just north of the Tay estuary on the map above.

One of my very earliest posts in this blog concerned (among other things), the possible broch site at Little Dunsinane in the Sidlaws. It’s so “possible” it doesn’t even merit a red dot on the broch map above, but I’ve plotted it on my own map at the head of this post. All that can be seen nowadays is a suspiciously symmetrical mound in the moorland.

Remains of the broch below Little Dunsinane
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So I didn’t have any great hopes of seeing much at my three broch sites, but I did anticipate being able to spend some time in the open air without having to dodge other people.

Hurley Hawkin

Hurley Hawkins broch location
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

One of the most interesting things about Hurley Hawkin is its name. Andrew Jervise, in his report of excavations at the site back in 1865, had this to say on the topic:

It is known as Hurley Hawkin, a name which suggests an affinity to that of the hill of “Hurly Hackit” at Stirling, which is popularly believed to have originated from it having been the scene of a childish diversion of that name […] It would appear that the sport of “hurlie-hakket” consisted in sliding down a slope or precipice; and as Hurley Hawkin slopes rapidly towards the south, and is otherwise well suited for such an amusement, possibly the name had originated from much the same cause as that ascribed to Hurly Hackit.

The on-line Scottish National Dictionary agrees with Jervise about the nature of hurlie-hacket, and adds the lovely detail that children in Edinburgh, at the end of the eighteenth century, were playing this game using a horse’s skull for a sledge. In Scots, a hurl is (among other things) a ride; a hacket is a particular kind of cow (or sometimes a horse). So hurlie-hacket is a ride on a cow or horse—perhaps a reference to the inverted skull of one of these creatures, which would make a reasonably sized sledge for one small person. And hawkney is one Scots version of the now-disused English word hackney, denoting an ordinary riding horse.* Which makes me wonder if Hawkin is a metathesized version of hawkney.

Anyway, none of that has brought us any closer to the broch site, which sits on a little promontory of land flanked on its west and east by deep clefts, carved by two streams which merge on its southern side in the Gray Den. In a well-ordered world it would be inside the Dundee Local Authority Area, but the boundary takes a bit of a diversion around it, presumably following an old property line, as you can see on my map. What you can’t see on my map is any indication of my route of approach, for reasons that will become painfully clear within the next couple of paragraphs.

There are houses to the north and west of the site, but I stepped from the road on to a low retaining wall and then walked through open woodland to get to the head of Gray Den below the promontory. The Canmore entry for this site describes how there were a succession of structures on top of the promontory, with the broch built on the site of an earlier fort. You can see that it’s a fabulous defensive position. It’s also an ideal location for hurlie-hacket—or would have been, in the days before it was completely overgrown with trees.

Hurley Hawkin broch site promontory from the south
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I scrambled up the steep face, and emerged on the flat surface of the promontory—and within a stone’s throw of the lawn of a house just north of the site, a great deal closer than I had expected. Apart from a raised suggestion of the fort rampart, there’s was no evidence of any structure among the trees. I paused to take a brief panoramic view with my phone—evidence of a lack of evidence, as it were—and then headed back the way I’d come.

Hurley Hawkin broch site
Click to enlarge

As I was picking my way back towards the road, I was hailed by a lady standing on the high ground to the north, and we held a shouted conversation across a ten-metre gap, during which she explained to me, without every using the word “trespassing”, that I was, well, trespassing. The property line around her house encompassed not only the lawn, but the patch of forest I was walking through, as well as the broch site. Picture her surprise, then, when I’d popped up in my bright red jacket at the bottom of her lawn. Oh dear. I offered my apologies and departed, chastened. This was not a good start to the Three Brochs Expedition.

Craig Hill

Route to site of Craig Hill broch
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

Craig Hill, as you can see from my map, is another cracking defensive position, with steep ground on three sides overlooking the line of the Fithie Burn. And again, the Canmore entry for the site describes how the broch was built over the remains of an earlier fort.

There’s a lot of farmland around the site, and I decided to walk in along an avenue of old trees that starts on the road near Houletnook. (Another splendid placename, which can be translated as “Owl Corner”.)

A faint path connected to a farm track, which ended at a broken fence. I stepped over the sagging fence wire, and climbed on to the grassy promontory—to be faced with a wall of spiky gorse bushes.

Approach to Craig Hill from the east
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Ruined fence below Craig Hill
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Summit of Craig Hill
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Circumventing that to the north brought me to a wall of non-spiky broom bushes, which overlooked the western slope of the hill. And that was that—any remnants of the broch and fort are obscured under vegetation. (And the black-and-white aerial photographs at Canmore show there was nothing to see even before the broom and gorse took root.)

Strike two.

Laws Hill

Route to Laws Hill broch
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Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018

Another craggy defensible hill, and another fort-and-broch combination, according to the Canmore entry for the site. The obvious approach on the map is from the east via Laws Farm, but that turns out to be a private driveway belonging to some houses among the farm buildings. So I made my approach from the northwest, following a dog-walkers’ track that begins on the Drumsturdy Road next to Laws Lodge. This eventually arrived at what my untutored eye interpreted as a silage pit. I popped over a metal gate just beyond this, which gave access to the steep open hillside. A bit of zigzagging up around crags and through trees brought me out on the bald summit—and an amazing conglomeration of ruined buildings, spanning millennia of occupation. Including, mirabile dictu, a few courses of stone remaining from the base of the broch:

Broch, Laws Hill
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Perched above the broch is an interesting little turret variously described by Canmore’s documentation as a “summer house” or “charnel house“, which is a combination you don’t often see.

Broch and "charnel house", Laws Hill
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I’m guessing the “charnel house” was at some time used to store bones removed from the prehistoric burial sites recorded on the hill.

The masonry of the fort has been excavated and is still visible in places:

Fort ramparts, Laws Hill
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And there are three ruinous structures of obscure function, described as “follies”:

Folly, Laws Hill
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So the third time was the charm.

You can take a (rather jerky) tour of the area in the YouTube video below.


* Yes, hence the idea of a hackneyed phrase—one that’s been ridden around the block a few too many times, like an old riding horse.

2 thoughts on “Lockdown Walks: Three Brochs”

  1. Good morning Dr. Grant.

    Do you have an idea of who these brochs were designed to check?

    They seem to predate the “undocumented immigration” of the Norse.

    Though round towers were often a development of peoples who faced off against the Romans. (Square towers are more vulnerable to catapult attacks than round towers. Roman siege engineers would often specifically target a square tower’s corners to knock them away.)

    1. The brochs are a bit of mystery. I’ve recently been reading Ian Armit’s Towers in the North, which gives a good outline of how thinking has changed over the years about their date and function.
      The highland brochs date from the last few centuries BC. The most intact ones certainly look defensive. But there’s debate about whether all the thick-walled circular ruins in the Highlands ever rose as high as the few northerly intact versions, or if there was some sort of spectrum of construction linking low Atlantic roundhouses at one extreme with broch towers at the other. So maybe a mix of functions involving prestige and power as much as defence, and the defence would be from other nearby Iron Age settlements, rather than Viking or Roman incursions.
      The lowland brochs, like the sites I visited, are another puzzle again, since they were built centuries later than the highland brochs and have left no remnants beyond their floor plan, much dug over by Victorian antiquarians so often lacking good stratigraphy. There have been suggestions that they were primarily prestige buildings echoing earlier highland culture, or that they represented a transplanted highland culture, or that they had something to do with defensive positions against the periodic incursions of the Romans into lowland Scotland.

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