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Jarlshof – One of Shetland’s ‘Must-Sees’

As a tourist guide, I am often asked by visitors about the ‘must-sees and must-dos’ of Shetland. Of course, much depends on what someone is interested in and we try to ensure that all our tailor-made tours are just that – tailor-made to the individual. However, there are certain sites that I would recommend to everyone, and one such place is Jarlshof.

When I first moved to Shetland over 15 years ago, I visited the complex and was amazed by it. For anyone visiting Shetland, especially with limited time here, it’s one of the best places to get an understanding of our history from pre-historic times through to the 1700’s. It is a complex, multi-period archaeological site at the southern tip of Shetland, with evidence of almost continuous occupation for over 4000 years. I am aware that some visitors are perhaps not too keen to look at ‘a pile of old rocks’ (I have heard archaeological sites described that way), but most of our visitors are fascinated by the multi-layered stories and how such a small site can tell us so much about Shetland’s history. I admit to understanding the ‘pile of old rocks’ attitude, as archaeology was a subject I had only a passing interest in until I visited Jarlshof. It was bought to life for me by an excellent guide. I am very grateful to both that guide and Jarlshof itself, for making me realise how fascinating archaeology can be. My description of Jarlshof below is therefore as an interested amateur: I am definitely not an archaeologist. It includes the highlights of the site and I hope it encourages you to visit.

Jarlshof visitors can use the car park at the adjacent Sumburgh Hotel, or perhaps arrive by bike. You can also catch the number 6 bus from Lerwick. As you walk the short distance to the small visitor reception, there appears little to see except a tall ruin, but once you get onto the site it starts to release its secrets. The scene would have been much less impressive before storms in the 1890s began to expose structures beneath the tall building.…………

The site is right on the coastal edge and violent storms over 120 years ago uncovered remains under the tall ruin and grassy mound. Newer buildings had been built on top of earlier structures, which had been abandoned and smothered by sand blown from the nearby beach. The local landowner started to dig, but soon realised that he was dealing with a significant find and archaeological teams then worked on and off until 1952, deciding what to remove and what to leave. Purposely removing newer buildings destroyed them but revealed older structures below. Where later buildings remain today, no-one is sure what lies beneath. When occupied, the sea was further away from the site than today, but rising sea levels meant some of the structures were already lost before the storms of the 1890s. Excavations and analysis showed that Neolithic people lived at Jarlshof about 4500 years ago, (at a similar time to the completion of Stonehenge) with evidence of almost continuous occupation from then until the late 1600s. The layout left after the excavations means we can now walk through 4500 years of time, following a short circular route through the structures in chronological order. There has been no reconstruction, so everything on view is what remains from the periods of use.

Prehistoric people arrived by sea, probably navigating via visible lands. From Northern Scotland, Orkney and Fair Isle act as visible ‘stepping-stones’ to Shetland. On arrival, they found everything they needed: a sheltered landing site, fertile ground for grazing and crops, nearby freshwater springs, local stone for building houses and plentiful supplies of fish, shellfish, birds and seals for food or other uses.

The earliest known dwelling at Jarlshof (about 4500 years old) is a simple oval structure with a central hearth, a simple trough quern for grinding grain and a midden (rubbish-heap). Middens show us what people ate and how they may have lived. Neolithic evidence shows they grew bere - a traditional type of barley suited to growing in high latitudes. They introduced cattle and sheep, and probably dogs to assist with the livestock. They used simple stone tools and pottery. The Neolithic excavation is the lowest structure on site: it is believed there are many more Neolithic structures under the other buildings, but they have not been excavated. It is known that there were people in Shetland in the Mesolithic period (before the Neolithic), but it is believed they were seasonal visitors and that the first settlers were the Neolithic people. Jarlshof therefore gives us a glimpse of the life of the first ‘Shetlanders’.

The Neolithic era transitioned into the Bronze Age about 4000 years ago, then into Early Iron Age about 2500 years ago. Evidence suggests slow evolution throughout this period, as technologies developed. Buildings remained oval-circular, with limited segregation of internal space via buttresses projecting from the exterior wall. They were low, solid stone structures, with roofs possibly of turf or wood, and were modified many times. Each new generation often re-used the stones from older buildings, leading to a complex series of structures.

In addition to their crops and livestock, the people may have utilised fish, shellfish, birds and seals as food and as other items for daily living. Ponies were introduced by the Bronze Age; pigs, oats and cats are seen from the Iron Age onwards. Spindle whorls and weaving tools were not found until the Iron Age, suggesting textile production started then, before which clothes were possibly of leather. Excavations of Iron Age structures exposed a large souterrain (underground passage and chamber) over 6m long, demonstrating significant engineering skill. It was probably used for storage of next year’s seed-corn and cold storage of perishable food.

Artefacts found in one house show it was used as Bronze Age smithy from about 2800 years ago. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin: while copper is available in Shetland, the nearest tin deposits are in Cornwall, about 900 miles sailing away. This clearly demonstrates the inhabitants of Jarlshof had trading links, enabling bronze objects or raw materials to reach Shetland, and so were not as remote and isolated from the world as we might have imagined. More evidence of Shetland being linked to other communities in the British Isles and perhaps beyond is seen in a small brooch pin, very similar to one found near Dublin from the same period.

About 2400 years ago, the architecture changed dramatically. For reasons not understood, the population (or at least some members of it) decided they needed to build massive stone towers – brochs. Brochs are unique to Scotland and are double walled, with an apparent staircase to the top between the walls. There are hundreds of broch sites known around Scotland. They vary in size, but the one at Jarlshof is thought to have been over 10m tall when it was built, with a diameter of around 25m – massive compared to the buildings that preceded it and a major undertaking for the population to construct. Brochs usually have a single ground floor entrance and no windows. The central ground floor was possibly the living quarters with a central hearth. Alternatively, the ground floor possibly housed livestock. Above the central space, there were probably timber galleries and internal floors for living areas or storage. It is thought brochs probably had roofs. Why brochs were built is much debated - there is no consensus amongst archaeologists as to their exact purpose - but they may have been semi-fortified farmsteads, belonging to important families. Their size was possibly both a status symbol and a means of defence. Over 120 broch sites are already known throughout Shetland and they continue to be discovered. Each new discovery contributes to the understanding of these enigmatic buildings, whilst often also questioning what we thought we already knew. The most famous broch (and definitely worth a visit) is on Mousa - a small island off the east coast of Shetland. Mousa broch is over 13m tall and visitors can still climb the stairs between its walls. The Jarlshof broch is now about 2.5m tall, and only half of it stands; the rest lost to the rising sea.

About 1900 years ago, as the era of broch-building receded, another new architecture began to appear: the wheelhouse. It is a design unique to the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland. Looking like wheels from above (hence the name), they consisted of large alcoves between stone piers, with a central living area and hearth. The stone walls and piers lean in towards the top, stone lintels link the fronts of the piers, then stone slabs create a corbelled roof over each alcove – each looking a little like a beehive. It is assumed turf would then have covered the stones. Wood was therefore only required to fill the central section. This was a clever adaptation to the changing conditions, as wood was increasingly scarce in Shetland. At Jarlshof there are wonderful examples of wheelhouses, almost complete apart from the central roof section. They give us a real sense of how the structure would have provided protection from the worst of the weather - even on a stormy day. The interior would have been dark and smoky, with a faint glow from the central fire and the seal oil burning in primitive stone lamps. Diets were similar to the previous eras: the population were essentially still farmers. It is unclear how the space in these houses was used: maybe it was one extended family starting to live in segregated spaces – kitchen, bedrooms, weaving room, etc. or it may have been several families living together, each with an alcove and sharing the central space.

All the architecture explored so far on the site has one thing in common – it is essentially ‘round’. About 1200 years ago (about 800AD), corners were introduced by an invading people – the Norse colonisers, or Vikings. The terms Norse and Viking are often used interchangeably, but ‘Viking’ was essentially a Norse job description. When the Norse went raiding, they went ‘Viking’, but once they settled in new lands they are usually referred to as Norse. They arrived here looking for new lands, as life was getting tougher in their homelands. They settled here for the same reasons as those Neolithic people millennia before; it was a good place to live, with everything they needed – sheltered landing site, good farmland, fresh water, plentiful food and building materials. They imported their rectilinear building-style - Norse long-houses - which they adapted to suit their new environment, simply using stone walls to substitute for their traditional timber. There was a long fire central in the living area flanked by stone benches or platforms. The living quarters were at one end of the building, with the animals housed at other end and a slight slope for drainage of effluent. The long, low rectangular shape is nowadays still seen in the traditional Shetland croft houses. Shetland (and not just its architecture) was changed forever by the arrival of the Vikings. As well as their house style, the Norse introduced many skills and technologies – boat-building and supreme seamanship, new farming practices, as well as their language, traditions, and culture. They grew flax, and over time, carrots and hens appear in their diet. Fish formed a significant part of their diet too. Their influence is still very much in evidence today in the islands. It is unclear what happened to the previous occupants of Jarlshof and the rest of Shetland. Descendants of the wheelhouse people perhaps became Viking slaves, or they may have been wiped-out. Alternatively, Norse settlers may have co-existed with previous populations. However, little culture or tradition from pre-Norse periods remain, suggesting a complete take-over of some kind. The Norse settlement was occupied until the 1500s, rebuilt and modified many times by several generations. It was then abandoned and covered by sand-blow during storms.

Our walk through Jarlshof has already explored some significant changes over a period of about 4000 years, but in 1469 a wedding hundreds of miles away would alter the course of the islands’ history significantly. Princess Margaret of Denmark and Norway married King James III of Scotland and as was traditional at the time, her father was required to offer a large wedding gift – a dowry. Her father, King Christian I, ruled many lands but was famously short of cash and could not raise the money. Instead he pawned (or mortgaged) the Shetland Islands to Scotland. The value was set at 8,000 gold Rheingulden (gold florins of Rhineland, the currency used by Denmark at time). The pawn was never redeemed, and Shetland became part of Scotland. It was a slow transition to Scottish laws and customs. Much Scandinavian influence remained, and the islands were still ruled by Norse Law until 1611.

By the 2nd half of the 1500s, the ruling classes in Edinburgh were increasingly keen to exert their authority over the islands and in 1581, Robert Stewart (an illegitimate son of King James V and half-brother to Mary Queen of Scots) was made Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland. Spending most of his time in Orkney, Robert built a modest summerhouse (the New Hall) at Jarlshof. By now, the older structures on the site were covered by sand and it is thought Robert was unaware of the prehistoric remains beneath.

When Robert died, his son Earl Patrick Stewart took over. Patrick thought Robert’s house did not reflect his status, so he commissioned the ‘Laird’s House’ (the tallest structure at Jarlshof, also known as the ‘Old House of Sumburgh’) and converted his father’s house into kitchens and servants’ quarters. The Laird’s House was still relatively modest compared to his main Shetland residence - the grand Scalloway Castle - and his Palace in Kirkwall, Orkney. Patrick had a reputation as a harsh ruler, for treating the locals dreadfully and taxing them heavily to fund a lavish lifestyle. He upset local landowners, appeared to consider himself above the law and did not pay his dues to the King. He made himself many enemies. Eventually he was arrested for treason and guillotined in Edinburgh in 1615. It is thought that Earl Patrick did not use the house at Jarlshof much himself during his lifetime, but leased it to a wealthy landowner, William Bruce. There was a violent dispute between them, the reasons for which are unclear. Patrick and his men broke into the House one night and ransacked it. The Bruces left and the house was ruined before the end of the century. The Bruce family moved nearby, and it was one of their descendants, John Bruce, who started the Jarlshof excavations early in the 20th Century. There is a wonderful view of the whole Jarlshof site and the surrounding area from the top of the ‘Laird’s House’ ruin, accessed by a new spiral staircase.

Until the 1800s, the whole area was known as Sumburgh. In 1814, Sir Walter Scott visited Shetland with his friend Robert Stevenson, who was in the area planning the construction of the nearby Sumburgh lighthouse. He saw the ruined Laird’s House (which was the only structure visible) and it became the inspiration for Scott’s book, ‘The Pirate’. In the book, he named the ruins ‘Jarlshof’ - ‘Jarl’ meaning Earl and ‘Hof’, German for farmhouse. ‘Jarlshof’ later became the accepted name for the whole site.

The small visitor centre has a gift shop and an exhibition of artefacts from the site, although most of the important items are in the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, or the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The site is now managed by Historic Environment Scotland. They have produced a brilliant, short 3-minute video that can be viewed at the centre. It is also available on YouTube. It provides an excellent interpretation of how the site may have looked at different time periods throughout its history and can be viewed here, or by searching for ‘Jarlshof video’.

There is much more to see at Jarlshof than I have covered in this short blog. It is a site of international significance and understandably one of Shetland’s most popular visitor attractions. Not only does it have so much to tell us, but it does so in a wonderful location – right on the coast with views to Sumburgh Head, Scatness and Fitful Head. On a clear day, you can also see Fair Isle on the horizon to the south. Look closely at the structures too – they are covered with the most beautiful displays of lichen and if you are quiet, you might be joined in a wheelhouse by a Shetland wren, darting in and out between the stones. Seabirds will be constantly circling overhead and you may spot seals in the bay.

Visitors experience Jarlshof in many ways. Some choose to wander and simply absorb the atmosphere; others rush around taking photos and are quickly off to their next destination. I would urge you to spend a little time understanding the significance and history of the site – it really is worth it. The level of access allowed on the site is a surprise to many visitors, who are often used to fences and no-go zones at many tourist attractions. You are free to wander almost everywhere at Jarlshof, but you are requested to be responsible by respecting the structures and not walking, sitting or climbing on them. There are interpretation boards at significant points around the site as well as an excellent guidebook and a great audio-guide available from the reception. Of course, the other option would be a guided tour – myself and all the tourist guides in Shetland love guiding guests at Jarlshof, helping to bring its fascinating stories to life.

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