The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Howe Broch, Stromness

Overlooking the Bay of Ireland is the farm of Howe. There was once a large mound here, which had been recognised as a probable archaeology site due to its size and location.

Wishing to remove the mound, the farmer allowed archaeologists to investigate the site and seasonal excavations were carried out from 1978 until 1982. The structures were removed to their very basic level and this led to some wonderful discoveries. Not only was there a large broch, excavations revealed it had a complex history and was a multi-period site dating from the Neolithic to the late Iron Age.

The earliest structure was a pit setting for a very large standing stone. The pit was oval in shape, flat bottomed and filled with rubble chippings and clay. The pit was 3 x 2 metres and a metre deep and it is thought that the standing stone it held would have been 3 to 4 metres high. This would have been very visible and there are some interesting theories about how it was aligned and its possible relationship to other standing stones in the area.

Near the pit was a ‘mortuary house’ as well as the partial remains of what was identified as a stalled cairn. These structures were levelled and covered with clay prior to the construction of a Maeshowe-type tomb. Two stone axes were found at this level.

A Maeshowe-type tomb was discovered. The tomb was round with vertical sides. It had a central chamber and three side cells as well as an underground cell and a long entrance passage.

The tomb faced the saddle between Ward Hill and Mid Hill in Orphir. Although the entrance passage was incomplete because of plough damage, it is believed that towards the beginning of the spring the sun rising between these two hills would shine down the entrance of the tomb. This lighting of the passage happens at a number of burial sites, most notably Maeshowe and New Grange in Ireland.

Sometime in the 3rd or 4th Century BC, the old tomb was used as an underground store room (soutterain or earth house).

A free-standing retaining wall was built around the tomb and clay was then placed on the top, creating a massive clay mound which covered the structure. In addition, a shallow ditch 7 metres wide and 1 metre deep surrounded this tomb.

Interestingly, there were no finds of bone within the mortuary house, the stalled cairn or the tomb. Perhaps they were never used, or it may be that the site was completely cleared before the building of the roundhouse or Broch One, as it was called.

Originally a Neolithic tomb stood here. Some time in the 3rd or 4th Century BC the site was flattened and the old tomb was used as an underground store room (souterrain). This was capped with a thick layer of clay and a large roundhouse was then built on top.

Some time later this building (the roundhouse) was in a state of collapse and the first of the two brochs referred to as Broch One was erected. It was encircled by a prominent clay rampart which showed it to be contemporary with the roundhouse. The walls were 3.5 metres thick and two small guard cells at either side of the entrance and two opposing intramural staircases with landings were associated with this broch. It is possible that this was too ambitious a project, as it appears to have weakened the building and it collapsed.

Aerial view of Howe which clearly shows the two brochs. (c) Charles Tait

A second broch was then erected. This one was low and squat and had no intra-mural gallery, no well and no scarcement. Its outer wall was 5.5 metres thick and was a much stronger building. The entrance passage was an impressive 5.5. metres long with door jambs around a metre and a half . This time there were no guard cells.

The interior was around 4 metres wide and was divided into three main areas by the use of upright slabs of sandstone. It was fitted with three two-storeyed cupboards divided by partitions. An intermural cell, which was above the floor, contained a set of stairs.

A new set of ramparts were built to surround this broch and within these were six houses. These were neatly arranged with three on each side of the entrance passage and access was controlled by gates set along each branch of the narrow lane. Each house was a different shape.

Often, settlements surround brochs as can be seen at Gurness in Evie and Midhowe in Rousay. This was also the case at Howe. A new set of ramparts built to surround the broch contained six houses, each of which contained a hearth, an oven and a stone-lined tank.
Partitions of flagstone were used to separate the living area from the storage areas and cupboards. Each house also had some open space with roofed storage space.
Other Iron Age structures lay beyond these defences, but unfortunately, ploughing had destroyed them.

Interior showing flag stone partitions. (c) Charles Tait

Bones from domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, goat and pig were found as well as fish bones. Bird bones, including those from the Great Auk were recovered, as well as bones from red deer. The bone and antler were valued as raw materials to be used for making everyday items. Some items like toggles for clothing would have needed little work. These came from small bones of the animals. Others, such as pins, awls and tools, would have taken much longer to fashion. Vertabrae from whales were hollowed out and used as containers and a chopping block.

Many wonderful artefacts were recovered from the site and these are on permanent display in The Orkney Museum, Kirkwall. You can see some of them on the right. The brooches from the site have inspired local jewellers who have turned these Iron Age treasures into modern day fashion items.

Today nothing can be seen of this site. Archaeologists removed by hand all of the Iron Age structures. Being able to do so uncovered much more than just the two brochs and a great deal was learnt about this site. It shows that it is quite possible that other broch sites have a long and detailed history but excavations done by antiquarians in the past have usually ceased when they reached the floor levels.

If you would like to read more about this interesting site, then try to get a copy of HOWE, Four millennia of Orkney Prehistory by Beverley Ballin Smith, one of the dig supervisors.

On the right you can see just some of the artefacts which were recovered on the site. All photographs are copyright of the Orkney Library & Archive.

 Ways With Weeds website

The Howe Environmental project enabled Orkney Museum to catalogue the environmental remains from the Howe excavation and provide public access to the data. As part of this project,‘ Ways with Weeds; the forgotten plant uses of Howe, a searchable website, takes the opportunity to look at the plants found at an archaeological site in a different way. Instead of discussing the cultivated crop plants such as wheat barley, oats or flax, it looks at the ways that the other plants identified at the site could have been used.

There are more than 70 of these plants at Howe, and they comprise flowering plants, mosses and seaweed. They include a number of plants which have often been referred to in archaeological reporting as ‘weeds of cultivation’, ‘settlement weeds’ or discussed elsewhere in terms of how they contribute to the understanding of soil conditions or land use. Often they are ignored altogether. Visit the site at