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The Broch of Mousa in the Shetland Islands in Scotland is estimated to be 2,000 years old. At one time, there were more than 700 of these distinctive forts throughout Scotland. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
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Hit the Road: Broch of Mousa a sight to behold in the Shetlands fog

We step off the gangway and into the waiting Zodiac raft, much as we have done and will do throughout our voyage through the Scottish Isles. The raft tosses us about like so many rubber duckies in a turbulent bathtub. Our driver, Ian Tamblyn, looks through the mist and declares, “This is the Scotland I know.”

The 10 passengers aboard understand why he says this.

This last week in the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland Islands have been, except for a bit of mist or fog, generous with the sunshine. We’ve lucked out; the weeks previous to our visit were nothing but rain. 

This morning, we are still without rain, but our Zodiac is cutting through wet fog, and our ship disappears when we are about a thousand feet out. Eventually, the island of Mousa, at the southern end of the Shetlands, emerges through the mist.

View from the top of the Broch of Mousa, a 44-foot-high, circular fort in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Our 7 a.m. start was worth it.

This is Day 10 of our trip with Adventure Canada, a family-owned, Toronto-based company that brings visitors to the less-traveled areas in the upper Northern Hemisphere. We’re cruising aboard the Ocean Endeavour, a 190-passenger converted Russian ferry. Our manifest lists 170 passengers.

After landing onshore in the Zodiac, we follow a squishy trail that circumnavigates Mousa, and though the island is uninhabited by humans, there are plenty of noisy birds that are not pleased by our presence. The preceding evening aboard ship, our guide warned us about the dive-bombing birds who want to protect their nests.

“Don’t run if this happens,” we were told. “Stay still and put your hiking pole in the air.”

That works, perhaps, if you have one, and as we move along the trail, I’m wishing I’d brought my pole. It isn’t long before it’s clear that the Northern gannets who claim these cliffs as home are not thrilled with our presence and start to get aggressive. One swoops in just a couple of feet above my head, and on reflex, I duck. Fortunately, this bird realizes that I’m not that much of a threat and moves on — or up — continuing to circle, but at a distance.

Eventually the trail brings us to an ancient broch (fort), a circular stone tower or roundhouse built, scientists theorize, between 100 B.B and 100 A.D. At one time, there were 700-plus brochs scattered across Scotland. The Broch of Mousa has one of the smallest diameters, but at 44 feet high, is the tallest, still-standing broch. It’s also the best preserved.

And unlike most 2,000-year-old national treasures, we are allowed to enter and climb to the top. Before we ascend, we sit for a while on the circular stone bench that hugs the inside wall and listen to our native-Scot guides debate the whys and wherefores of the broch.

We marvel at the construction — flat stones with no mortar. I’m wondering why the entire structure doesn’t just topple, then quit thinking about this because, if this fort has been standing for 2000-plus years, why would it fall apart today?

Also, I want to reach the top.

The diameter of the corkscrew stairway is narrow and the so are individual steps. Two millenniums ago, the broch’s residents obviously were smaller in every way and the steps were not meant to accommodate clunky, chunky hiking boots. I step carefully and purposefully until I reach the top. The absence of a roof allows us to walk on a ledge most of the way around the circular tower and take in the expansive view of the rolling emerald landscape, the ocean and the shore. 

The mist has cleared for the most part, and I realize that my view is probably the same one that the broch’s residents had more than two millenniums ago. 

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Top: The Broch of Mousa in the Shetland Islands in Scotland is estimated to be 2,000 years old. At one time, there were more than 700 of these distinctive forts throughout Scotland. Photo by E’Louise Ondash