History

Tirefuir broch on the Isle of Lismore

We’ve had three days of pretty much constant rain and wind, and I’m trying to tell myself that this will feed the lichens and the mosses. I always knew there’d be a perfect moment to re-visit a baking hot afternoon on the Isle of Lismore, and this is it!

On a blissful blue-sky morning in midsummer we took the ferry from Oban over to Achnacroish, a breezy trip of just under an hour. Colin wanted to go looking for alpine plants down in the south of the island, so we explored the limestone crags until lunchtime and then meandered up towards the north, stopping for a look inside St Moluag’s Cathedral and to examine the stone ‘chair’ on the hillside where the saint himself is supposed to have rested. Such is the timeless atmosphere on Lismore that you could easily convince yourself he’s just popped indoors for a cup of tea.

Above:  St Moluag’s cathedral and (below) his chair

I’ve written about Scotland’s brochs in a previous post. Dating back to the Iron Age, the remains of these enigmatic stone-built structures are dotted across Scotland, with a large concentration in the far north and east. Often constructed with a massive double-layered wall that had a staircase in between, they resembled cooling towers in shape and must have been an imposing sight, especially as they were often situated on higher ground with sweeping views across land and sea. Whether they were designed for habitation, status, defence, or some other more obscure purpose is still really open to speculation. I’ve visited several, including Dun Beag on Skye and Dun Carloway on Lewis, and they never fail to impress you with their sense of enduring strength.

Lismore has its own broch, which has been variously called Tirefuir, Tirfuir, Tirefour and Tirfuar, sometimes with the addition of ‘castle’. We’ve seen it from a distance on many occasions, but until now we’d never actually walked up to it. The cool sea breezes of the morning had dropped, and the afternoon was one of intense heat: the cattle were seeking the shade, and even the short walk up to the ridge was enough to break out a sweat.

While the land slopes gently up to the broch from the west, on the seaward-facing side the ground drops away steeply to the shore. The circular space in the centre is about 40 feet in diameter; because so much stone has fallen from the walls over the centuries, the ground here is lumpy with rocks and overgrown with vegetation. The entrance is in the south-west;  part of the wall is still standing to such a height that you can peer into the space between the two layers, although it is precarious and has been fenced off against inquisitive visitors.

Above:  entrance and (below) cavity in the wall

In its heyday, around two thousand years ago, the broch may have stood between 40 and 50 feet high, with walls that were at least 10 feet thick at the base.  Brochs have been associated with the Picts or their ancestors, but the truth is that we know very little about who actually built them.  An information board explains that a Roman enamelled brooch was discovered in the foundations – presumed to be an offering to the gods, as it would have been placed there when the building work began. From the additional discoveries of Norse pins and boat rivets, and traces of a nearby building of Norse origin, it is believed that Tirefuir was occupied into the 11th or 12th century. After that time, “the seat of power shifted to the Clan MacDougall castles on the west side of the island, and the broch fell into ruin.” (Historic Scotland)

The Canmore database describes ‘protective outworks’ to the north-east and south-west, consisting of walls running transversely across the ridge. These survive in a ruined state as stony, grass-grown banks.

I’m intrigued to know the derivation of ‘Tirefour’ or ‘Tirfuar’. I know that in Gaelic, ‘tir’ means ‘land’, and it seems that ‘fuar’ or ‘fhuar’ mean ‘cold’. If anyone has any insights or suggestions, you’re welcome to add them!

It was hard to imagine Tirefuir being a ‘cold land’ as we picked our way carefully around the stones and gazed out across the Firth of Lorn. To the south-west, the hills of Mull were shimmering in a blue haze, and there was that wonderful feeling of drowsiness that sometimes comes over the landscape on a hot summer day. Even though we knew that we had to get back to the ferry (or we’d be stuck on Lismore for the night, which isn’t really a horrible fate), we just couldn’t summon up the energy to hurry.

If Tirefuir was constructed about two thousand years ago, by my reckoning St Moluag would have seen it occupied during his lifetime (he arrived on Lismore in 562 AD and founded a monastic community here). Like St Columba, St Moluag is known for converting the Picts to Christianity. Some of his first candidates might therefore have inhabited Tirefuir broch, and I’d love to know what they thought about him; likewise, I’d love to know what he discovered about their lifestyle and their beliefs (and why they built a staircase between the walls). I’m inclined to think that if I go and sit in his chair again, he might tell me.

Reference & further reading:

Photos © Jo & Colin Woolf

9 Comments

  • Helen McKay

    The word broch is a Norse word, and when Gaelic once more takes hold in the Western Isles they are usually called dun, which is a very broad general term for ‘hill, ridge, fort’, and it seems disappointing to think of the great brochs without a special term for them in the language of their builders. But the presence of all these massive brochs, such a prominent statement in their land, must surely find some trace within the Old Irish texts, and from these we should learn what they were called. There seems to be one good answer to that: tur/tuir, ‘tower’. For instance, the island of Tiree has the remains of at least six identified brochs and several ‘forts’. Legend relates that Labraid Loingsech, king of Leinster, ort ocht turu Tīri iath, ‘destroyed eight towers in Tiree’. There seems little doubt that the ‘towers’ in question were the brochs of Tiree.

    The tower word also occurs in names of a few other ‘broch-y’ places, and they feature in a number of myths of legendary founders. So I suspect that this Lismore broch is another instance of a trace of the ‘tur/tuir’, tower, word which has survived the ravages of time. And sorry I’m not sure what the second element is, as there are several possibilities, we’d need to look at older forms.

    • Jo Woolf

      Oh, that’s interesting! Thank you very much, Helen! I’m interested to know of the occurrence in Old Irish texts. ‘Destroyed eight towers in Tiree’ – crikey – that’s a lot for a smallish island. I wonder if there is anything left of them! I’m glad to think that the ‘Tir’ element may preserve a memory of the name of these places as they were known by their builders. Much to ponder on – thanks again!

  • Mary Smith

    I really enjoyed this post. We have an example of a broch or dun in Dumfries & Galloway on the shore near a village called Borgue. The dun was referred to as borg. It’s unusual as they are mainly found much further to the north. Not a lot is known about it.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Mary! I was reading that ‘broch’ is thought to come from the Norse ‘borg’ which may be where ‘Borgue’ comes from. I didn’t know that there was one in D&G! They’re always such intriguing places. We have a ‘dun’ fairly close to us here in Craignish and it has the most stunning views. A bit overgrown with bracken so it’s best visited in winter. PS – sorry you had trouble with commenting! I had a few issues with the site yesterday, so that could be the reason. Glad it came through OK!

    • Jim

      I have worked a bit on the pronunciation consonant/vowel R in English, so it is interesting to come across this example of “metathesis” where the R and the vowel appear to switch position (cf burgh, Borough)… I experienced something similar with the mis-perception of the name Kirsten/Kirsten etc as Kristen/ Christen / Christeen etc. Depending on the accent mix, it is surprisingly easy for the consonant to appear to move, and I think this is pretty common historically.

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