Home Sweet Home…or was it?


Nancy Jardine

This post is by Nancy Jardine.

You’ll find a multitude of sayings about ‘home’ on the internet. These few are particularly useful for my topic today.  Home is where the heart is.  Pliny the Elder; He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; A man’s home is his castle. Proverb

We all know of the huge variety of domiciles that we could call home, nowadays, but an assortment of architectural house styles wasn’t always the norm. As a hobby historian, I’m quite fascinated by the earliest types of habitation and the effort it took to create them. (Admittedly, I’m more familiar with the most primitive dwellings in my homeland area of Scotland than those in other parts of the globe.)

Skara Brae

Skara Brae 1989

I’ve crawled into a reconstruction of a Hunter Gatherer’s hide but that’s not quite the same as walking your way around someone’s home that’s connected to others, making them into a tiny communal hamlet. Probably the earliest type of collective living I’ve wandered around were the homes of Stone Age Neolithic people on the island of Orkney at Skara BraeWhat remains of these stone dwellings from c. 5000 years ago is totally remarkable, though only because they lay under sand dunes for millennia before the wind and waves uncovered them in the mid 19th century.

skara Brae 2

Skara Brae 1989

At Skara Brae we can envisage a day in the life of the people. The delineated areas of the homes (minus original roofs) are easily visible as in a ‘bird’s eye view’. Their cupboards are built into the wall, the fireplace is central and their sleeping cots are blocked off with large slabs. There is even a built-in channel that is essentially primitive drainage, as in for toilet use: functional but effective buildings.

Were the Skara Brae houses fortified in any way? It doesn’t seem the case but there are some new theories going around (resulting from recent excavation) that the nearby timber/standing stone circles in the Orkney Isles may have had a community aspect to their construction.

Ring of Brodgar wiki

Ring of Brodgar

It’s now believed by some current archaeologists that the earliest of these stone henges at the Ness of Brodgar pre-date that of Stonehenge in England and that the culture of building such henges may have travelled southwards, rather than northwards. Regardless of the direction of architectural influence, the massive wooden and stone circles were most likely built for religious observance and for people to congregate for positive reasons without the need for defence from outside entities, as in human raiders. Some archaeologists now think there was a religious community living alongside the henge monument at the Ring of Brodgar, though the type of dwelling is unknown, as is any need for defence. (A recent BBC programme covered the issues-albeit a little dramatically and some critics might say fancifully. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08819tl )

On mainland Scotland, Bronze Age and Iron Age tribes seemed to have mainly lived in Hut Circles, some with stone foundations (probably where wood was less available) and the bulk in wooden ‘Celtic’ Roundhouses. There’s sufficient evidence around Scotland for some variety in shape – some were oval though most were circular.  Some individual roundhouse dwellings have been found but it was more common for them to have been erected in a small cluster situated near strip- field farms.


Crannog- Nancy Jardine

Crannog dwellings, similar to roundhouse construction, though built on wooden platforms are a fine example of Bronze and Iron Age living. By the time crannogs were erected out over the water of inland lochs they were probably fortifying themselves mainly from marauding wild animals rather then marauding tribesmen. However, along with the Bronze Age and Iron Age technology—effective weaponry in particular—there came a greater need for tribespeople to defend themselves.


Mousa shetlands wiki

Broch of Mousa, Shetland Isles – Wikimedia commons

I’m currently very interested in a type of dwelling that’s almost exclusively found in Scotland – the Broch. But was it Home Sweet Home or not? Broch building is very difficult to define. Until recently not enough time or effort was given to investigating this unique style of building. Broch remains are found in southern Scotland but the bulk are to be found in northern Scotland, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.


So how does a Broch differ from a Celtic roundhouse, or from a crannog? A Broch is a massive drystone built hollow-walled tower. Some of these towers were thought to have been as high as 50 feet with walls of around 4 feet thick- like the Broch of Mousa in Shetland. Staircases wind their way up the hollow wall structure to give access to upper levels and some of the evidence shows there could have been multiple platforms, circular balconies or partial floors, inside a broch.

Dun Carloway steps wiki

Dun Carloway -Wikimedia Commons

Many brochs are thought to be from the Neolithic period but intriguingly others situated towards the south of Scotland have been dated to 1st century AD, during the Roman occupation.  Brochs have no windows and only one low entrance way so the interior would have been extremely dark. How damp they were inside, I don’t even want to imagine! What the roofs were constructed of is a matter of interpretation: possibly thatched like roundhouses. A corbelled stone roof is thought to be less likely, though that would have been a remarkable feat of engineering and the technique not unknown because Neolithic people used it in structures like the Maes Howe chambered cairn on Orkney.

Earliest archaeological thinking was that Brochs were built as a defensive structure but that’s hard to believe since there were no windows to give access for repelling invaders. Some experts then thought they were built more as a status symbol by the local chief to show his superiority in the region. However, some recent archaeologists aren’t ruling out the idea that people maybe ‘holed up’ in them like in a self-sufficient ‘siege’ when invaders threatened the area, and that they normally lived outwith the broch in some other form of dwelling house. I’m not sure I’d want to be inside one for months on end.

The theories are all fascinating conjecture! I’ve been following a Facebook page named the Caithness Broch Project which has an aim of properly identifying the multitude of Brochs that litter Caithness. They also intend to build a replica Broch to satisfy the curiosity of tourists like me. I’m eagerly waiting for that to be built so that I can pop up and visit it though that’s likely to mean a 400 mile round trip for me. https://www.facebook.com/CaithnessBrochProject/

That’s enough on brochs from me- What is your favourite ‘Home Sweet Home’?


Nancy Jardine writes historical and contemporary novels. Find her at the following:

Blog: http://nancyjardine.blogspot.co.uk  Website: http://nancyjardineauthor.com/   Facebook: http://on.fb.me/XeQdkG & http://on.fb.me/1Kaeh5G

email: nan_jar@btinternet.com  Twitter @nansjar

Amazon Author page http://viewauthor.at/mybooksandnewspagehere Her novels are also available via Smashwords, B&N, KOBO, AppleItunes and other ebook stores.

multiple new TE




This entry was posted in ancient monuments, neolithic, Scotland, unique and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Home Sweet Home…or was it?

  1. Nancy, this is interesting. My favorite saying about home comes from both a Steven Foster song and The Wizare of Oz. “There’s no place like home.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Staton says:

    Fascinating read. Our distant relatives really built some weird structures. A Broch looks a bit like a defensive tower. A day before I read this post I saw a link on my timeline about a controversial historian who contends that there was an advanced civilization 11,000 years ago, probably destroyed by the last ice age or another major natural disaster. I’m highly skeptical.


    • Nancy Jardine says:

      They are quite forbidding, defensive or not. What’s for sure is that they were built to last, unlike the wooden buildings of the times.


  3. Wranglers says:

    You have made architecture so interesting. Thanks for this detailed blog. The more I read your blogs the more I want to explore Scotland. Even more so since I got my DNA results and found I have such strong roots there. Thanks. Cher’ley


  4. I see those pictures of how and where the people used to live, and I saw for myself when I was in Ireland a few years ago. It’s amazing and a wonder that they could manage. Very interesting.


    • Nancy Jardine says:

      Barb- They had sufficient technological expertise to build them though, I’m sure, not as quickly as houses are thrown up today! There have been a few brochs identified in Ireland but more of them in Scotland. I’ve so far only been to southern Ireland and there’s so much more for me to explore.


  5. Neva Bodin says:

    That was very interesting. Had no idea such things existed or in such variety. Bet there were no obese people in that era! Sounds like a dreary home if no windows and stones around, like you said, dampness must have been a constant. What rich history you are uncovering. Thanks for the great read.


  6. Doris says:

    Oh, I do love this type of history. Prehistory, early history it all draws me and hangs on. Thank you! Doris


  7. Gayle Irwin says:

    Very interesting, Nancy! As I read, I thought of the different style of homes Native Americans had, from tipis that were meant to be moved quickly to the pueblos of the southwestern tribes — nomadic or stationary. My “home sweet home?” My mountain cabin!! I’m heading there this weekend, and I’m excited!! Thank you for an educational read!


    • Nancy Jardine says:

      Enjoy your cabin! Years ago I bought a book in Canada that was about First Nations habitats and i was fascinated. I probably still have it somewhere upstairs in my boxroom bookcases.


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