On the small island of Mousa just off the east coast of the southern island of Mainland in the Shetland Islands, stands the world’s only intact broch. Well, it is nearly complete. The thirteen-metre high stonewalls have survived the centuries without too much desecration. The other, possibly more transient or portable parts, have gone. Astonishingly, what remains is all dry stonework, stones stacked on top of one another without any cementing infill. It has been constructed using the same techniques as those that build the dykes, the stone walls that surround the fields and jigsaw the hillsides. Stone sits on stone, holding stone with stone, interlocked with the skillful organisation of the ad hoc geometry and form of stones found nearby. The dry stone waller’s rule is: once picked up, a place - the right place - has to be found for the stone selected. That any smooth surface can be created out of a heap of rubble is always astonishing - more so with Mousa because of its’ size: its’ diameter and height.
How was this space used? This void is so small, yet so large. It has the same puzzling reading inside as the outside form of the broch has in the landscape, where the simple shape of the mass belies its’ true scale in a constant ambivalence of belief and doubt as to its’ real size. The theory tells of timber structures in this central void that is surrounded by the patterning of rock recesses. Timber is scarce in Shetland, with marine debris from wrecks having being collected for structures and furnishings in the past. Older pasts must have known trees, as the islands have their peat beds, but this possibility of forested hills is now difficult to recreate in the mind's eye with today’s naked Shetland - treeless. Was there really such an interior structure?
The rock recesses that make dark patches on the inner curved surface, enhance the reading of the height of this pace with their articulate, tapering stacks stretching to the circle of light above. Their pattern surprises. It steps up to the opening over with a self-consciously organised proportional reduction in size that looks familiar to the post-modern eye. Evidence of timber supports is not immediately obvious. One moves carefully across the rough and uneven pavement of this central court - was there a reservoir, or a fire pit here? - a little lost, until what looks like a crude stair that can be discerned in the disorganisation of the rubble, beckons one into a larger void that eventually becomes a doorway. After stepping up into this opening opposite the tunnel entrance, with a questioning intrigue, rising stairs between walls materialise in the torchlight and confirm the guess of the purposeful approach. A handrail rope is felt as one fumbles and gropes carelessly - tentatively - for some stability on the uneven stones set between the twin layers of questionable wall - unseen but felt as cold, rough and solid.
Retreating back through the door flap into the dim of the stair, making sure that the door was closed to prevent the entry of birds eager to use the place as shelter, one manoeuvred carefully backwards down the shambles of the spiral rock steps. Now, with one’s attention able to notice matters other than how one might negotiate the height of the black path to the top, the eye was attracted to the glimpses of the central court through the openings in the inner stair wall. The walls increased in thickness as they got closer to the ground, making spaces of various sizes in their width on various levels. What were these used for? Strangely, these openings did not offer much luminance for the interior of the stair. When the fine drizzle of the day came with the frequent adjustment of the weather once the centre court had been reached, these edge spaces proved to be good shelters from the rain, offering height sufficient for one to sit in, very comfortably.
Those stairs had seen many a movement; been touched by many a foot - the walls by many a hand. The broch of Mousa’s power gives it a certainty and mystique that one accepts because it is there. As one walks away from it, one is constantly turning around to see it - to see how its’ scale and size is transformed from the known and sensed massive walls into the Legoland model on the slopes. Then Lot’s wife’s view slowly becomes only glimpses of parts - still very interesting parts - until the whole is lost behind hills. It says something of the scenery of Shetland that what appear as gentle undulations in the landscape can hide such a huge mass so quickly. Scale is disguised in the bareness of this weathered land, where even the huge development of the oil terminal at Sullom Voe appears from the distance as child’s trinkets scattered around a croft.