One of Raasay’s more overlooked but nevertheless fascinating and important sites is Dun Borodale or “The Broch” as it’s commonly referred to. Located only a short walk from the village or the Home Loch, it sits exposed on the skyline overlooking the Free Church and Inverarish.
It’s difficult to overstate the technological sophistication of brochs: they are some of the most intricate and well-advanced examples of drystone building in the world. Some such as the broch of Mousa or the broch at Dun Telve stand to this day. Whether Raasay’s Dun Borodale can be compared to such structures is a matter of some debate. What makes a broch? Massive circular structures? Hollow walls? The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHM) listed over 500 possible broch sites in Scotland, including Dun Borodale. However, some argue the figure of true broch sites in a stricter definition to be around 100.
It’s not even clear exactly what Brochs were used for. The locations and sizes and apparent purpose of brochs are inconsistent and vary from place to place. Some are built amid great earthworks and defensive locations, others near rivers or along the sides and mouths to valleys. Some brochs in Orkney show signs of villages and other structures around them, unlike more solitary examples in the Western Isles. Until the 19th century the accepted purposes of brochs were that of agriculture- large structures for keeping animals and food supplies safe, with many proposing they were built by the Picts or Danes. From the 1930’s, many thought they represented military structures- used by landowners to hold sway over local populations. However, these claims are hard to support with hard archaeological evidence. Some suggest they were status symbols- the ‘stately manors’ of their time, but the sheer amount of sites make this unlikely. Modern research has focused more on considering each broch site individually, and it seems increasingly clear that there was never a single common purpose for which every broch was constructed.
What we can be certain of, however, is that Dun Borodale and similar sites fall under the broader classification of Atlantic Roundhouses, and were generally built in the Iron Age and occupied from around 800BC to the second century AD. Brochs, duns and roundhouses fall into the broad classification of complex roundhouses, and are commonly defined by their hollow walls, drystone construction and evidence of multiple floors. Many also show examples of galleries that look in upon the hollow central courtyard. Most importantly and obvious in recognising brochs and roundhouses is the circular construction. Dun Borodale is quite unique in this regard, as its foundations and historical descriptions describe it as not cylindrical but rather ‘sub-circular’ if not elliptical. A plan from 1926 describes it as ‘Pear-Shaped’, and surveys in 1971 showed that the central court fits an ellipse accurately. The reasons for this are probably based on location. In some regards Dun Borodale shares similar traits to Brochel Castle in the north. It stands upon a vantage point providing a commanding view over the coastline and sound, described by sources as ‘a position of great natural strength’. Much like the ingenious construction of Brochel, so too did the builders of Dun Borodale utilise the steep slopes and natural defences presented to them, integrating the irregularity and shape of the rock into the structure of the Broch itself. The sea facing wall has foundations that extend down beneath the hill, presumably to create a more even structure, and the axis of the broch is aligned along the spine of the ridge, creating the unusual oval shape.
What’s interesting and quite sad to note about Dun Borodale is the apparent deterioration of the site in only the last few centuries. A site visit in 1874 mentions “Wall Chambers” (presumably a stairway with the walls to upper galleries) that could be entered. It also notes the west wall rising to almost 20ft above the ground- the present height is no more than 8ft. Some books and sources have pointed to a possible description of Borodale from Martin Martin, who visited the island in the 1690s. His account is vague and whether he mentions Dun Borodale at all is unclear. Martin makes mention of ‘Some forts in the Isle’, one of which is most likely to be Brochel castle (‘Castle Vreokle’):
“There are some forts in this isle, the highest is in the south end; it is a natural strength, and in form like the crown of a hat; it is called Dun-Cann, which the natives will needs have to be from one Canne, cousin to the king of Denmark. The other lies on the side, is an artificial fort, three stories high, and is called Castle Vreokle.”
It seems obvious, with the mention of the name ‘Dun-Cann’, that Martin is referencing Raasay’s tallest point, but it’s unclear why he would be referring to it as a fort, or list it to be in the south of the island, as well as his somewhat cryptic mention of the King of Denmark. However, our most complete and tantalizing description of what Dun Borodale may have looked like up until relatively recently comes from James Boswell. During their tour of the Hebrides in 1773, Boswell explored Raasay, and was shown the ruins of Dun Borodale. He mistakingly believes is a Danish fortification, but describes Dun Borodale with the perfect features of what we would call a broch. Boswell writes:
“About a quarter of a mile or more from [Raasay House] is what is called a Danish Fortification. It could not be a watch tower, for on the land side it is covered by rising ground, close to it, so could not communicate intelligence by signals. It has been a pretty high circular wall built double, so as that there was a spiral passage, like that of pipes in a hothouse, to the top, roofed all along with flag stones, as they were called, or long pieces of freestone. In this space in the middle were the huts for the people, who were there safe, and could steal under cover to the top to explore. The middle of this was much filled up by stones havign tumbled from the wall. So tis’ very imperfect.”
It seems that when Boswell visited, the Dun Borodale was remarkably complete, with high galleried walls and even the remains of a roof Could it be that Martin also spotted this ‘Danish Fortification’ some 70 years earlier, confusing its name with that of Dun Caan? Certainly, both a broch and Dun Caan could both be loosely compared to the ‘crown of a hat’. Perhaps we’ll never know. Even if the broch was significantly more complete in Martin or Boswell’s time, there are few references as to how it deteriorated to the sorry state that it is in today. The only indication comes from local tradition, were some stories claim that parts of Dun Borodale were taken away as building materials over the years, with some of them now lying in foundations of Raasay Primary School.