Scotland Day 20 Orkney: Broch of Gurness, Burgar Hill Hide, Black Knowe, and Hobister Hill

Birds sighted: Hen Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Stonechat, Twite, Black Guillemot, Artic Skua, Skua/Bonxie, Hooded Crows, Red-throated Divers, Redshank, wigeon
Mammals: Gray Seal

Eynhollow Sound

The Broch of Gurness
Situated on Eynhollow Sound by the beautiful sands of Evie, on the northeast coast of the Orkney mainland stands the Broch of Gurness.

The broch surrounded by three circular ditches

What in the world is a broch, you ask? A typical broch is a circular, two- story, dry stone, double walled tower, accessible by a single door. These huge towers are unique to the north and west of Scotland. At least 700 brochs existed across the northern reaches of Scotland. There were at least 50 in Orkney alone. Possible uses were as fortification and defense as well as symbols of status and power. Many of Orkney’s brochs have an underground chamber accessible by a stone stairway. These may have been used to access to a well, used for ritual purposes, or both.

The dwellings outside of the broch

The Broch of Gurness was built between 200 BC and 100 BC. The broch (tower) was surrounded by many smaller stone dwellings -- an entire village really -- with the settlement encircled by a band of three ditches and ramparts. It is estimated that at least 40 families could have dwelt at the broch in its heyday. Around 100 AD the site was abandoned. There is some evidence of the surrounding area being used by the Picts a few hundred years later, and more recently the Norse also used the site. There is as at least one Viking burial found on the site, dug into one of the outer ramparts.

Dwelling outside of broch

Our next stop was the Burgar Hill bird hide. Here a small lochan hosts at least two breeding pairs of Red-throated Divers. These birds are a close relative of the Loon, familiar to North Americans.

We then headed out to the Dale bird hide for some serious views of Hen Harriers. North Americans know this bird as the Northern Harrier (of which I am very familiar, having a female fond of lurking near my bird feeder during snow storms). We watched a mid-air food exchange by the resident nesting pair. The male caught something and brought it toward where the female was nesting on the ground. The female met him in mid-air, near the nest, and very quickly, still flying the exchange took place. She then brought the food back to the young. The male continued hunting.

Cliffs where the Peregrines were nesting

We then walked the Hobister Hill nature reserve. Along the cliff side part of the walk we had the chance to observe a breeding pair of Peregrine falcons showing off their diving and flying skills.