MHG1593 - Nybster Broch - Roundhouse and settlement, Canisbay


A broch settlement situated on a cliff promontory with an enclosing rampart. The site consists of an Atlantic roundhouse with numerous external outbuildings.

Type and Period (1)

  • BROCH (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD) + Sci.Date

Protected Status

Full Description

RCAHMS Canmore description:
Nybster Broch was excavated by Sir Francis Tress Barry about 1900, revealing neither guard chamber nor mural cells. It has in internal diameter of 23ft and a wall thickness of 14ft. In 1910 the max height of the walls was 5ft 3ins. The broch is defended by a possibly later forework and the whole is fronted by a ditch about 20ft wide which cuts off the promontory on which the broch stands. To seaward of the broch practically the whole promontory is covered by well-built out-buildings, oblong, circular, and irregular in plan. Finds include a fragment of 2nd century Samian ware, as well as the more usual bone and stone objects. <1> <2> <3>

Nybster Broch is as described and planned above. Although there is no trace of a ditch cutting off promontory, there are remains of secondary defensive banks and walls, probably contemporary with the broch forework. A modern monument to Sir Francis Tress Barry has been constructed immediately E of the broch, destroying several outbuildings. Two mounds at seaward end of the promontory are probably excavation spoil heaps. Resurveyed at 1:2500. Visited by OS (R D) 14 September 1965
Roman Samian ware was discovered at Nybster Broch. It was believed to have been in the style of Prisus or Clemens c.170-200. <4>

Second-century Roman finds were recorded at Nybster Broch including pieces of decorated bowls. <5>

Photographs of the site were taken by R Gourlay of the Highland Regional Council during the 1970’s and the 1980’s. <6> <7>

A site of major significance in study of development of broch in that it comprises the ground-galleried block-house of a pre-broch promontory fort, a solid-based broch, and a post-broch settlement. The block-house, which displays broch-like features, including a passage checked for two doors, is probably to be dated not much before the first century BC if not within it. <8>

Nybster Broch is generally as described and planned by the previous authorities. The excavations were not backfilled and most of the walling is exposed, albeit heavily overgrown. The previous field investigator noted 'secondary defensive banks and walls' immediately W of forework. These have been completely levelled, but they were almost certainly fairly modern, perhaps spoil heaps, as RCAHMS did not plan them, and they formed no logical pattern with the broch and its outer defences.
Revised at 1:2500. Visited by OS (N K B) 22 July 1982.

Several sherds of 'broch' pottery were recovered from the upcast from illicit digging within broch interior. Finds with investigator. <9>

A promontory broch with a ditch. In good condition due to recent renovation. <10>

In late April 1987, Mervyn’s Tower, the monument built by John Nicholson in memory of Sir Francis Tress Barry was moved from within the site's interior and relocated on the western side of the site as part of a job creation scheme (see MHG29316). Three photographs were taken at the time. One of these photographs showed the Nybster broch car park. <11> (Note: these photographs are curently missinbg from the Highland HER collections)

A site visit was carried out by Historic Scotland in August 1997 to assess the condition of the site and the need for management and conservation.

Two photographs were taken of the site, showing the roundhouse structure and facing east, in or prior to 1998. <12> <13>

Photographs were taken of the site in 2000 by John Wood of the Highland Council for the SCRAN project. <14> <15> <16> <17> <18> <19> <20> <21> <22> <23> <24> <25> <26> <27> <28> <29> <30> <31>

Substantial remains of a broch which had not been backfilled since excavation. Two large spoil heaps lie between the broch & the sea. Although overgrown, the main tower and ancillary chambers around are visible, and the walls are several metres high. The Nicholson Memorial now lies inland from the broch. - HAW 9/2002

Application for Scheduled Monument Consent letter received from HS dated 2/9/04. See Assoc. Docs. File J Aitken: 2/9/04

Nybster broch, sitting on a high, narrow promontory above the sea is one of the most impressive brochs in Caithness. It is surrounded by buildings, some of which have now tumbled over the edge of the cliff. A monument to its excavator, Sir Francis Tress Barry, sits on the landward side of the broch. (54)
[SMR: ND36SE0049 = child record] - no 51 (HAW)

A massive wall cuts across the promontory. The entrance through this is in the centre, but to actually enter the broch tower, the visitor would have to walk around almost its entire circumference, through the narrow spaces between the associated buildings, to reach the doorway. (45)

A topographic survey was carried out in 2004 by students from the University of Nottingham in conjunction with AOC Archaeology Group and Caithness Archaeological Trust. This was carried out using a total station. Relationships in visible walls were drawn by hand, and interiors of buildings excavated by Tress Barry were also planned by hand. Photographs were also taken of the site. <32> (Awaiting report but see also <35>)

Trial trenching on the broch and outbuilding complex was carried out in 2005 by the University of Nottingham as part of a wider study of Iron Age Caithness. Trenches were confined to the roundhouse interior, two of the cellular outbuildings and the rectilinear outbuilding to investigate whether any archaeological deposits survived following the original excavations by Tress Barry. <33> (Awaiting report but see also <34> and <35>)

A condition survey of the site was carried out in 2011 by AOC Archaeology Group as part of the preparation of a Conservation Management Plan. This concluded that although comparison of photos from 2004 and 2011 indicated there had been little recent change, several key areas could be considered fragile and at risk of further degradation. These included the broch wall and several of the best-preserved buildings. The threats to stability ranged from minor (missing stones from wall faces etc.) to severe (loss of structures to coastal erosion). <34>

A laser scan of the site was carried out in 2011 by AOC archaeology. <35>

The broch was the focus of a programme of community archaeological research organised by Caithness Archaeological Trust working with AOC Archaeology Group in 2011. Excavations were undertaken in spring and summer from 26 April to 8 May and again from 1-13 August. The excavations focused on the enclosing outworks and the cellular buildings at the eastern end of the promontory. Radiocarbon dating suggested that the promontory had become a complex cellular village by the first century AD. The excavations were productive in terms of material culture, with a sizeable stone tool, bone and ceramic assemblage, including mould and crucible fragments indicating metalworking on site. A Roman melon bead was thought to signify long distance trade and complements previously discovered Roman artefacts. <35> <36> <37>

A further two radiocarbon dates from long handled combs of antler, found at the site during 19th century, were published in 2017 as part of the National Museum of Scotland's radiocarbon dating programme of items from their collections. These provided Late Iron Age dates of 49 BC-AD 120 and AD 27-126, calibrated to 1 sigma. <38>

This site is included in the Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland online database. See link below for site entry. <39>

Finds from the c.1900 excavations aquired by the NMSin 1908 include: bone awls, weaving combs, bone tools, bone bead, antler, ox skull, hammerstones, stone vessels, stone disc, spindle whorl, whetstone, Samian pottery sherds, ceramic cup, spelt grains and a polished pebble (GA 651-GA 86, GA 857h). <40>

There are finds from Nybster Broch listed in the Caithness Horizons accession catalogue. These include pounders (ARC145), a possible whetstone (ARC 147) and pottery (ARC157, 867). <41>

This site was included in Mackie's 2007 'The Roundhouses, Brochs and Wheelhouses of Atlantic Scotland c.700 BC - AD 500: Architecture and material culture'. See link below to HES Canmore record which includes the chapter on this site.<42>

Nybster or Mervyn Tower, ND36SW0004 (see MHG29316)

Note: OS Mastermap appears to be incorrect for this area. GIS data as supplied: larger season 2 shape does not match site plan.

Sources/Archives (42)



Grid reference Centred ND 3701 6314 (50m by 45m) (3 map features)
Map sheet ND36SE
Civil Parish CANISBAY
Geographical Area CAITHNESS

Finds (20)

  • AWL (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • WEAVING COMB (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • BEAD (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • ANIMAL REMAINS (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • HAMMERSTONE (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • VESSEL (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • DISC (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • SPINDLE WHORL (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • WHETSTONE (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • CUP (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • CEREAL GRAIN (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • CRUCIBLE (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • SHERD (Roman - 79 AD to 409 AD)
  • WORKED OBJECT (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • ANIMAL REMAINS (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • POUNDER (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • WHETSTONE? (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • SHERD (Iron Age - 550 BC to 560 AD)
  • VESSEL (Roman - 100 AD to 199 AD)
  • VESSEL (Roman - 100 AD to 199 AD)

Related Monuments/Buildings (1)

Related Investigations/Events (4)

External Links (5)

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