A broch built for bears does not sound the most obvious of architectural concepts, but nonetheless such a structure exists on the north side of Dundee.
This building – Bear Broch – is a functional art installation from the artist Mark Dion which sits beside the bear compound in Camperdown Country Park, a rather tired looking zoo. (In the news at the time of writing as it happens for a controversial story involving its wolf pack.) It was developed in 2005 in collaboration with wildlife centre staff Kevin Gosling and Aileen Whitelaw from the Wildlife Centre and Duncan Myers, an architect. The work was commissioned by Dundee Contemporary Arts around the time that a new compound was being created for a pair of European brown bears.
Situated beside the current residence of these fully institutionalised brown bears, Dion saw this as a chance to make deep time connections with these animals whilst creating a new space for visitors.
My interest is primarily in the conceptualisation of the human element of the project—not bear space but people space. In exploring architectural models, I am interested in looking at structural forms that existed when brown bears were still native in Scotland, sometime in the tenth century. The circular dry-stone broch of ancient Scotland offers a remarkably adaptable platform for a viewing experience of the bears as well as a site to investigate the natural history and ever-changing cultural meaning of brown bears.
The Bear Broch was constructed to act not just as a viewing area to watch the bears, but also as a repository of information. As a plaque beside the broch suggests, it ‘provides a record of the hopes, fears and fantasies projected by human society onto Ursus Actos‘. So exhibited inside the structure was standard bear information through to curated bear-associated things. Dion told MAP magazine, ‘Within the broch installation, sculptures, collections and images will replace the standard didactic zoological text panels’.
In plan, this is very much an archaeological monument, and Dion’s archaeological sensibilities come to the fore in this wonderful image.
This shows the internal arrangement of the Bear Broch and some of the exhibits on show such as a lurking small bear skeleton inside what looks like a fireplace, the sort of space within the wall that one would expect to see inside a broch. The walling is not drystone, but evokes that style: thick, and in places hollow, walls are classic broch.
You can see a great range of photos of the interior of this broch – perhaps how it was rather than how it now is as we shall see – at the Public Art Dundee website.
Jan and I paid a visit to the Bear Broch in January 2023 during a visit to the city to see the Plastic: Remaking our World exhibition being held at the V&A. Going on rather vague location information found online, we headed to the zoo, having no conception that there was a zoo in Dundee. We parked and asked a staff member where the Bear Broch might be found. After some confusion about what we were even talking about, we were given directions, paid an entrance fee, and went to find the tower – number 40 on this abstract location map.
We wandered around the perimeter pathway on the southside of the wildlife park, pausing from time to time to peer through the window of a hut to see sleeping creature of some kind or other, as most of the animals did not seem to be keen to be seen outside on a Sunday morning in January in Dundee, a sentiment I could understand. The pack of wolves swaggered around their compound, unaware of their impending sad fate, while in some other large caged areas, assorted birds sat on branches and feeding platforms, peering pensively at the grey skies, and jealously at wild birds taunting them from the other side of the mesh fence.
We passed through a gap in one of the old estate walls dotted around the park, this ghostly grandeur at odds with the shabby and far from chic set-up for the docile wildlife now residing here, a sad parody of the comfortable vibrancy that must have occupied these spaces in the past.
Then ahead of us we say, being at that very moment started towards by a large European brown bear, the Bear Broch.
The bear was squatting with violent intensity, looking from the broch, to a couple of park visitors gawking at this mighty creature from behind layers of green fence.
There is no doubt that this construction, despite being a scaled down version of the Iron Age original prototypes, was superficially a very brochy looking building.
However, to my great disappointment, the broch was locked up, and there was no way of accessing the interior which had been so lovingly curated by Mark Dion. The rather drab and weather-beaten wooden door was barred and locked shut, it’s girder runner red with rust. A green bin sat beside the entrance open-mouthed. Some rudimentary investigation of the doorway suggested it had not been open for quite some time.
This was confirmed by images captured when I stuck my phone through a narrow gap in the door to have a peek inside. There was not much inside there except some leaves, a blue bin, and a rather brutal looking piece of wood. The interior arrangement was hinted at, with an unpadlocked door to the left, which in the Iron Age would have led to a so-called ‘guard chamber’. Ahead was the viewing window to get a better view of the sad bears, but it seemed most of the contents had been removed.
In many ways, this replicated visits I have made to ruinous brochs in northern Scotland and the Western Isles – there is a recognisable geometry and architecture to what remains, and hints of rubbish deposition, but none of the good stuff has been left lying about.
I am intrigued by the choice of broch for this small building, something that Dion explicitly connected to a version of Scotland where bears once roamed the earth. Research by Hannah O’Regan has suggested that brown bears may not have become extinct in the wild in places like Yorkshire until 425 to 594 AD and so it is feasible that Iron Age folk may have come across these hairy beasts although their numbers would have been low at that time. O’Regan’s research shows that direct evidence for bears in Scotland during the Iron Age was vanishingly rare, but (from the caption for the map below), the ‘specimen from Bear Cave, Inchnadamph, Sutherland, Scotland, which is dated to the cusp of the Bronze Age and Iron Age, is included in the Bronze Age’. And absence of evidence need not be evidence of absence.
Bears continued to live in Britain beyond these dates but in states of forced domesticity, and more recently, in zoos and safari parks. The two brown bears that reside in this corner of Dundee fit that bill and looked suitably miserable about the experience.
A plaque to accompany the broch, which I somehow missed and so did not photograph, adds some rather unhelpful chronological information: ‘….when brown bears last roamed the Scottish countryside, sometime in the tenth century’. Regardless of whether this is meant to be AD or BC, this is not the Iron Age – first century AD would work though.
There are some misunderstandings here, and perhaps a mis-alignment with the data and the reality. However, by evoking prehistory, so Dion and the wildlife park have drawn attention to the lengthy but contested relationship we have with animals that sit on the cusp of domestic and wild. This was starkly illustrated after our visit, with the recent sad euthanising of the Camperdown wolf pack reminding me of the old (mythical?) story that the last wild wolf in Scotland was shot in AD 1680. Bears and wolves still live amongst us, but like prehistory, their freedom is a thing of the past.
Sources and references: firstly I would like to thank Gavin MacGregor who drew my attention to the broch in the first place, and the helpful staff at Camperdown.
Hannah O’Regan 2018 The presence of the brown bear Ursus arctos in Holocene Britain: a review of the evidence. Mammal Review 48.4, 229-44.