A Brief History of Brochel Castle

Brochel Castle sits on Raasay’s north eastern shore, plainly visible and overlooking the beginning of Calum’s Road, that winds over a 2-mile course towards Arnish. There is ample parking, as well as paths that lead around the base of the castle and down towards the shore. The castle itself is fenced and access discouraged due to the advanced and dangerous state of disrepair. 

A reconstruction of Brochel Castle by David L. Roberts.
A reconstruction of Brochel Castle by David L. Roberts.

With little information or development around the site of Brochel, it would be easy to mistake it as a mere footnote in the litany of castles and Duns on the west coast, an interesting but unremarkable fortification in the backwaters of what was once Clan MacLeod territory. This is not the case, however, as few buildings in Scotland or the British Isles show such a level of ingenuity or design that Brochel clearly displays, even in its current state of disrepair. The castle is an ingenious fusion of natural rock and masonry, intricate brickwork and lime-mortar, rising sheer out of a stack-like volcanic plug some 15 metres high and commanding a position over the coastline. Brochel Castle would have been an intimidating sight to anyone passing or approaching the castle from either land or sea, a near impervious fortification with many defensive advantages. The fact that such a place could be built as to integrate every irregularity in the rock and draw upon the stepped plateau it sits on to form this formidable complex is a triumph of design, construction, and execution.

Mysterious Origins

It is a matter of some debate as to who first built and possessed Brochel Castle. Early history is hard is often mixed in myth and folklore, and although there is little solid evidence, local legend maintains that Raasay was originally owned by the MacSweens. Well known for castle building, The MacSweens had a hand in many early castles along the west coast. In 1841, there were still 56 MacSweens on Raasay, one of whom was said to have descended directly from the last MacSween to own the island. While the exact date of Brochel’s construction is not clear, it is possible that a fortification predating the construction we see today existed at one time in the area. It can be estimated based on records and the architecture that the current castle was built around the late 15th to early 16th century, and occupied until circa 1671. Brochel Castle was most likely built by Raasay’s first Macleod chief Calum Garbh (later known as Calum MacGilleChaluim), who had been bestowed Raasay and Rona by his father, Calum MacLeod, the 9th Chief of Lewis.

At this time Raasay and the surrounding islands had become a notorious refuge for pirates, and their actions threatened the busy and profitable sea-going routes of the inner sound. It can be assumed therefore that the castle was built in the years after MacGilleChaluim became chief in 1518, probably as his main residence on the island. Rather than being the remote, uninhabited area that Brochel has now become, the place at that point was a crucial vantage point, key to guarding the valuable sea routes that made the islands and coastlines so important. Coupled with a sheltered natural harbour that allowed boats to be pulled up the shoreline, Brochel would have provided a strategic base for the Macleods to control their mainland possessions such as Trotternish, Vaternish and Assynt.

Brochel is first mentioned by Dean Munro in 1549, and referred to as one of ‘twa castellis’ on the island, the other being what would eventually become the chiefs residence at Raasay House in Clachan. The impressive position and construction of Brochel was highlighted by a military survey undertaken between 1577 and 1595, which describes the castle as ‘ane strong little castell in this ile, biggit on the hied of ane heich craig, and is callit Prokill’. Martin Martin, who toured the Hebrides in the 1690s, makes mention of a ‘Castle Vreokle’, which he describes as ‘an Artificial Fort, three Stories high’.

The existing levels of Brochel castle.
The existing levels of Brochel castle, adapted from a CANMORE Plan.

The castle complex was comprised of four discrete ‘towers’. Each one was linked by short stretches of the outer wall or rock face itself, with access on the coastal side through a deep and well-guarded gatehouse. This entrance contained both a sentry post, still visible in the courtyard today, and a projection over the gate that would have allowed for a formidable defence to be mounted. Entering through the gate, the castle opened into a small courtyard, which was flanked on one side by the bedrock and by the curtain wall on the other, stretching up at least two stories. This cramped and claustrophobic space provided access to the kitchen tower on the southwest side and sea facing tower to the southeast. It could also have acted as yet another highly defensible ‘trap’ for any would-be attackers who got past the gatehouse. Looking up, those in the courtyard would be able to see the tallest tower stretching up on the North Western side. While all that remains of this tower now is just an outline on the highest rock plateau, illustrations in the early 19th-century show this three-story tower still standing, complete with battlements, crenelations, and windows. The final tower is on the north-western side, now the tallest and most complete structure on the rock. This, according to accounts, was referred to as the ‘nursery’, a room which may have occupied the second floor.  On the lowest point of the tower, evidence points to a privy or garderobe (toilet) being built into the side of the tower.

Aside from mentions by Munro and the military survey, few other references to Brochel during its occupation exist. By the time Martin Martin visited in the late 17th century, the Macleods had relocated to their more modern and comfortable residence in Clachan, and Brochel began the slow decline into disrepair and ruin that most sources and accounts describe.

Ruined

"Castle Broichin on the Isle of Raasay" By William Daniell
Castle Broichin on the Isle of Raasay” By William Daniell. While one of the earliest and most accurate depictions, the castle is derelict and ruined by this time, as evidenced by the roofless kitchen tower.

The two main sources of information on Brochel’s layout and appearance come from painter William Daniell and the writer James Boswell. Daniell painted his now famous depiction of Brochel on a visit to Raasay in 1819. Though long since abandoned, the impressive battlements and main tower were still relatively intact and Daniell’s illustration shows us just how much architectural detail has been lost in the intervening years. Forty-six years earlier, Dr. Johnson and James Boswell had also visited Raasay and Brochel as part of their tour of the Hebrides. Boswell’s description provides a precious and fascinating picture of the castle, which had most likely only been fully abandoned by the Macleods a few decades previously. Boswell writes:

The old castle is situated upon a rock very near the sea. The rock is not only one mass of stone, but a concretion of pebbles and earth; but so firm that it does not appear to have mouldered. I perceived no pieces of it fallen off. The entry was by steep stair from the quarter next to the sea, of which stair only three or four steps are remaining, all at the top of it. Above them the castle projects, and there is an openng in the wall from which hot water or stones could be thrown upon an invader. Upon entering the gate or door, there was what I never saw before: a sentry box or alcove in the wall on your right hand. The man placed there could only watch in case of noise. He could see nothing. The next advance was to a court or close as it was called, in the centre of four towers, and open above just like any other court of an old castle in the square form. Only that this seemed extraordinary, as you came to it after ascending a stair and entering a gate; but as Mr Johnson observed, it was just an ordinary court, with the difference that the rock here was as the ground in others. The court here was very small. There was a fine well just a spring in the rock but it was now filled up with rubbish. One could distinguish tolerably that there has been four towers, but time and storms had left little but ruinous fragments: pieces of wall, pieces of stairs, a part of the battlement in the sea.

There was one small room in the one of the towers quite entire. It was a little confined triangular place, vaulted as in the ancient manner. In a corner of it was a square freestone in which was cut an exact circular opening such as in every temple of Cloacina, and from it there appears a clear communication to the bottom. They call this room the nursery, and say the hole was for the children. But I take it to have been the necessary-house of the castle. It was much to find such a convenience in an old tower. I did not imagine that the invention has been introduced into Scotland till in very modern days, from our connexion with England. But it seems we have forgotten something of civilized life that out ancestors knew.

The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson 1936 edition
3 views of brochel castle. Centre (1921) shows the eastern wall that has sence fallen away. (note the parapet details on the top of the southern facing wall)
Three views of Brochel castle. Centre (1921) shows the eastern wall that has since fallen away (note the parapet details on the top of the southern facing wall).

By the time we reach present day, Brochel’s once imposing shape has been greatly reduced by the effects of time, erosion and weather. Nothing remains of the tallest tower, nor much of the imposing gatehouse or stairway that once led into the courtyard. The site itself it has a more gentle slope on the sea facing side, due in part to the build-up of rocks and masonry that has fallen from the walls. Similarly, the interior courtyard and lower towers have been much filled in by debris and fallen brickwork to the extent that the original floor level is far below what it is now. When the newly formed Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) surveyed the castle in 1921, a sea facing wall was still standing, as can be seen in photographs taken at the time, but this has since collapsed.

While the vestiges of Brochel Castle still cling onto its impressive volcanic perch, the remains of this ancient Macleod seat are nonetheless in an advanced state of ruin. The structure and craftsmanship are still something to marvel at, however, and the ruins still hold intriguing mysteries: the basement room, for example. On Daniels illustration is the clear inclusion of a window on the lower levels of the kitchen tower, and what even appears to be a ramp leading up to it. This window is no longer present, but was it ever? It certainly seems like areas of the brickwork have been altered, and what could be the outline of a bricked up window is still visible on this west-facing wall. Could it be that a room remains, trapped under the debris and ruin of the courtyard and kitchen tower? Perhaps one day a more extensive excavation or preservation of the castle will turn up some answers to this and shed light on this incredible fortification.

WARNING: Moreso than any other building on Raasay, Brochel castle is in an extremely precarious and dangerous state of dereliction. It is highly advised, for both your own safety and for the continued preservation of such a unique structure, not to enter under any circumstances.

Brochel Castle, as seen from above Dun Caan. From here, it becomes clear the commanding position the castle controlled.
A distant Brochel Castle, as seen from above Dun Caan. From here the commanding position the castle once controlled becomes clear.