Jarlshof, sitting at the southernmost point of Mainland Shetland, is a fascinating archaeological site spanning some 5,000 years, outlining the various stages of human habitation in the islands.
The site is complicated and complex, yet fascinating and awe-inspiring – in fact, this is my favourite site on the Mainland to guide visitors around.
Jarlshof is mind-blowing. It's a site that will immediately put you in your place. It has the power to ground you and make you feel like an insignificant speck in a moment in time.
I've picked out a few fun facts to help you understand the site on a visit – some of these are more serious than others! And, for ease, I'll present them chronologically!
The site was discovered following violent storms in the 1890s.
Following a succession of severe storms over the winter of 1896/97 parts of the site were exposed by coastal erosion. Landowner, John Bruce of Sumburgh, undertook preliminary excavations and, recognising the importance of the site, handed it over to the state in 1925, who carried out systematic excavations for the next 50 years – only breaking for war. Archaeologist J.R.C Hamilton mainly excavated the site, and his work has added significantly to our knowledge of how past societies lived, worked and ate.
Archaeologists took great care in deciding how many layers to peel back
The varying depths of the site demonstrate how the layers were peeled back. Observing the site from the Visitor Centre, the different levels are evident. Archaeologists took important decisions on how much to excavate – and, importantly, how much to leave in the ground – this has allowed a clear and defined chronology that enhances our understanding and the visitor experience today. More buildings and artefacts likely remain buried beneath the layers, but to expose them would destroy later layers. It's important to remember that archaeology is always a destructive process and that many of the more recent layers of occupation sit directly on top of the earlier ones.
Jarlshof takes its name from The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott
The name Jarlshof was coined by the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who visited the area in 1814 with the famous Stevenson brothers who were planning the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head. Scott later wrote the novel, The Pirate, inspired by the rugged seascapes and the ruined Laird's house at Sumburgh. Scott named the house – that still stands in ruin – Jarlshof, meaning 'the Earl's House'.
The site spans around 5,000 years
One of the fascinating things about Jarlshof is that there are around 5,000 years of almost uninterrupted occupation, from the earliest remains dating to c. 2,500 BC to the Laird's House, dating back to about 1600, giving us a clear picture of settlement in Shetland through the years. Chronologically, the site walks us through a journey of discovery from the first farmers of the Neolithic, through the Bronze Age, early, middle and late-Iron Age, towards the arrival of the Vikings. Following a period of Norse rule, Shetland passes over to Scottish control, heralding the arrival of Scottish Lairds. No other site in Shetland can give such a clear, uninterrupted settlement pattern.
Settlers arrived in small skin boats
The first hunter-gatherers arrived in Shetland from the north of Scotland, crossing the Pentland Firth and the North Sea using open boats made of skin. These simple boats were formed by stretching animal skins over simple wooden frames. Evidence of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers was uncovered in shell middens at West Voe Beach, dating back some 6,000 years. Navigating by sight, these early foragers would have kept land in view, island hopping north towards Shetland. It sounds simple: from the North of Scotland, Orkney is visible, and from North Ronaldsay in Orkney, Fair Isle is visible, before the cliffs of Sumburgh and Fitful Head come into view. However, the waters in and around Orkney and Shetland are treacherous, even to modern seafarers in ocean-going crafts. These journeys would have been filled with peril and uncertainty as unfamiliar tidal patterns, and changeable weather systems waged war on the small, open vessels.
Neolithic people wore fashionable jewellery too
If you thought fashionable accessories and eye-catching jewellery were things introduced with modernity, you'd be wrong. Some of the more exciting finds from the Neolithic trenches at Jarlshof include an eagle's talon with a pierced hole – possibly for stringing around your neck – and a beautiful decorative carved bone plaque.
Shetland ponies are known to have been here since at least the Bronze Age
Shetland ponies are synonymous with Shetland and a much-loved part of our island landscape and culture. But where did they come from, and how long have they been here? To answer this, we need to look to the Bronze Age layers at Jarlshof, where the first evidence of Shetland ponies was unearthed. The discovery of a leg bone in excavations within these Bronze Age layers demonstrates that ponies have been here for 3,000-4,000 years.
Shetland maintained trade links throughout prehistory
Far from being an isolated and rural backwater and contrary to what people may be inclined to believe, Shetland remained connected to Mainland Britain throughout prehistoric times. This link is demonstrated in Jarlshof's Bronze Age, where a skilled metalsmith produced bronze. To make bronze, two raw materials are needed – copper and tin. Copper is found locally, but the nearest outcrop of tin is found in Cornwall, England – some 900 miles away – demonstrating that the Bronze Age community maintained trade links through the country and north to Jarlshof following the settlement of the islands in the Neolithic.
Bacon roll, anyone?
The early Iron Age is fascinating, with numerous changes in how society is organised. There's a 'coming together' of communities as land pressures push people from their traditional homes, forcing them away from the sea and down from higher ground as sea levels rise and peat begins to encroach on the arable land. The style of roundhouses continues to develop at Jarlshof, and their diet is also changing as we see pigs' introduction into the diet. Dietary changes throughout history are fascinating. We know from an excavated midden at West Voe that the diet of the Mesolithic was predominantly shellfish, and the first Neolithic settlers brought cattle and sheep with them to Jarlshof. We see ponies in the Bronze Age, and by the early Iron Age – around 2,500 years ago – we've added dogs and pigs to the domestic setup. But, it won't be until the Viking and Norse period that we see chicken and carrots introduced – and potatoes don't arrive in Shetland – or Scotland – until the 18th century!
Jarlshof only has half a broch
Jarlshof only has half a broch – the other half has been lost to the sea due to coastal erosion and rising sea levels. Since the last Ice Age, Shetland has been slowly sinking. As a result, Shetland's land area is much reduced, and the coastline is much changed from what it would have been 2,000 years ago when the broch stood tall and proud. Although how tall, we'll likely never know! Nevertheless, this slice through the broch gives a clear picture of the distinctive construction of this mid-Iron Age round tower. Brochs, unique to the north and west of Scotland, were cleverly engineered using long stone slabs laid between the inner and outer walls, allowing a greater height without the risk of building collapse.
Wheelhouses are architecturally astounding!
By the late Iron Age, the community at Jarlshof had moved away from the large round towers – or brochs – of the mid-Iron Age and were, once again, building sensible-sized homes. Wheelhouse – so-called as they resemble the wheel of a bike when viewed from above – were impressively engineered to require minimal amounts of timber for roofing. Shetland is not known for its trees, and communities relied on driftwood for roofing. Wheelhouses use one natural material found in abundance – stone. The building's interior corbelled cells were built using overlapping stones that curved up to meet at the top, creating a roofed cell. This building technique was ingenious as it halved the timber requirements required for roofing.
The Vikings brought wholescale change
Viking assimilation was a wholescale obliteration of the pre-Norse, Iron Age culture. It wasn't just introducing a new architectural style – moving away from roundhouses and towards the favoured rectangular longhouses – that made the Viking and Norse culture distinctive. We know nothing about what the language sounded like or the place names in Shetland. Other than a few Ogham inscriptions and pieces of decorative Pictish stone carvings, the population of the later Iron Age remains in the shadows of our understanding. Today, 95 per cent of Shetland place names are of Norse origin, and we don't know the place names preceding those used today. Norse settlement changed how we built our homes, farmed the land and governed society. But more than this, their sure and capable boat-building and seamanship skills opened up new horizons for fishing and trading. Much of what we remember as 'traditional life in Shetland' was heavily influenced by – or introduced by – the early influences of these Norse settlers.
Tyrant Black Patie had a house at Jarlshof too
Before excavations at Jarlshof, all that would have been visible were the remains of the ruinous Laird's house. Along with the New Hall, this grand house represents the Stewart Earl's short-lived but tyrannical involvement in Shetland. Following the annexation of Shetland to Scotland in 1469, wealthy Scottish landowners began to migrate north in search of new lands and riches. The period of the Stewart Earls is perhaps one of the most unpleasant periods in Shetland's history, and it did little to endear native Shetlanders towards their new ruler, Scotland. The Stewart Earls – Patrick in particular – are quite possibly the most infamous figures – or villains – in Shetland's history and probably the most hated. Earl Patrick built the large Laird's house to represent his power and as a show of wealth – this was just one of several grand properties he enjoyed across Orkney and Shetland – Scalloway Castle being his most famous residence in Shetland.
** My diary for 2022 is pretty full, however there are a few spaces that I could squeeze in a Jarlshof tour (1/2 day). Email for any booking queries.
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