The Iron Age
Orkney’s Iron Age is dominated by the monumental stone towers known as brochs but they only tell part of the story of this highly sophisticated and varied period.
During the first millennium BC, massive stone towers known as brochs began to be built throughout Atlantic Scotland. There are over a hundred known in Orkney, with several on South Ronaldsay and Burray (Borgorey, or Broch Island). Recent excavations at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay have uncovered a huge broch site which may yet prove to be one of the largest sites discovered.
Small villages are often clustered around Orkney’s brochs such as at The Skeo on Brims peninsula in South Walls. However, brochs only tell part of the Iron Age story. Many other types of sites are also known from this time, such as souterrains, underground passages and chambers. The function of these is still the subject of much debate. Once thought to be mere isolated grain stores or refuges, they are now known to have been associated with above ground buildings and are thought to have played a crucial role in ritual life. One such souterrain was recently excavated at Windwick in South Ronaldsay, just a short distance from the broch at The Cairns.
The Iron Age also sees promontory forts, such as the Castle of Burwick and artificial islands known as crannogs often built in lochs. Unlike in southern Britain, there was no Roman settlement in Orkney and so the Iron Age extends all the way through the Pictish period until the arrival of the Vikings.