Site in Focus - The Broch of Burra Ness
On the east coast of Yell and at the toe of a boot-shaped spit of fine pasture, just south of North Sandwick, are the remains of the Broch of Burra Ness (HU 55727 95720). An impressive sight as you approach, the broch is still standing to a height of 4.27m on its eastern side with an 18.3m diameter and 4.6m thick walls. There are still tantalizing impressions of cells and outbuildings within and without the broch though the entrance can no longer be determined. A later oval structure has been built or rebuilt atop the broch.
There are slightly nebulous remains of ramparts and ditches that can be seen when standing above, particularly south and southwest. However, they become more clear if you carefully move to the eastern coastal edge where you can glimpse the remains of a nice ditch cut evidenced by a soil and debris change. From here you can also see the ever so slight remains of the ramparts closer to the coast as trace bulges in the land. The absence of stone would give the appearance they may never have been reveted though this is unclear with such scant remains and robbing of stone.
To be sure, when the Reverend George Low visited the site in 1774 the walls stood to 6.1m. Yet, by 1822 when Samuel Hibbert visited he described them in compare to Low’s account as being ‘now much lower’ due to what he called ‘subsequent dilapidation’. Although we have no sense of how much lower the walls were, it very well could be an indication they weren’t too far from what we see today. The exceptionally large enclosures and buildings to the south of the broch are almost certainly where the stone went and sheer size would indicate a substantial razing of what may have once been rather grand broch remains.
Comparing the sketch from Low’s 1774 account and images of its current state seem to show it is the northwestern section that has been lost. There are indications of collapse on this side, again as seen in the photographs, but this could also be the result of the work put into removing the stone. Also interesting is the missing stone in the outer portion of the wall in the sketch as it compares to similar missing stone today.
If you do decide to visit, you will also find a heel-shaped chambered cairn some 650m southwest of the broch in addition to the variety of crofting remains dominating the vicinity. One walk suggestion by Dr Val Turner, Regional Archaeologist for the Shetland Amenity Trust, can be found here or you may want to take in a slightly wider regional walk suggested by Walk Highlands found here.
Do keep your eyes open for the abundant otters playing in the area, the cuteness factor, and the abundant arctic terns defensing the area, the terrifying flying dinosaur factor.