The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist

Jarlshof: Archaeological Jewel of Shetland

And so, onwards in our catch-up cruise to the Scottish islands and beyond.  It’s almost  midsummer, and so the days are long – long enough indeed to read by daylight at 3am.

And the North Sea is uncannily calm with hardly a ripple.  Shetland looms out of the earl morning stillness and there is Mousa Broch, the most complete broch (renovated) in Scotland and therefore in the world.  It’s barely a shadowy smudge in the mist today.  No matter, we shall see the broch of Jarlshof close up later.

Our journey down from Lerwick takes us past another broch on the outskirts of town.  Nestling on the loch side, these towers of stone dominate the shores here.  Windowless, with stone staircases between double-skinned walls, they are a symptom of the pressures of Iron Age life, two thousand years ago.  Defensible, ‘in-your-face’ status, the numerous pirates must have thought twice about landing near one of these – there were easier picking elsewhere.

On we went, past Shetland ponies, sandy bays and seals.

Then past St.Ninian’s Island, joined to Shetland by an impressive sand bank called a tombolo.  Here on this island, an excavation at a monastery dating back to the AD 1100s turned up a Pictish hoardnear one of these – there were easier  of 28 stunning silver pieces; the bowls and brooches and other items date back to AD c.800.  The craftsmanship is exquisite, the art beautiful, and the wealth involved staggering.  Several pieces are displayed in Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland’s ‘Celts: Art & Identity’ exhibition which has transferred fresh from the British Museum.

Then to Jarlshof.  Named by Sir Walter Scott in his fictional tale ‘The Pirate’, Jarlshof means ‘Earl’s House’, referring to the great house that was built here in the 1600s.  But the history of this amazing place begins much earlier and the archaeology here is a microcosm of eras.  Neolithic houses were built here, on the lower, well-drained soil by the sea in c.2,500 BC.  As at Skara Brae, we saw signs of the ancient sea shell middens (rubbish tips) that the houses were dug into and the homes focussed on the central hearths here too.  You only have to look at the nearby beach to see where the excellent building stone was taken from.

Folk continued to live here in the Bronze Age.  There were few differences in the archaeology except that tell-tale moulds for bronze axes were found in these later  houses.  Stone boxes containing animal bones (but for what use?) provided more archaeological evidence.

The Iron Age followed and people now built roundhouses over the old, disused Bronze Age homes.  New features appeared, including souterrains (or Earth houses as at Rennibister on Orkney, or in Cornwall ‘fogous’); these underground stone-lined tunnels lead to (or from?) the houses and theories have included defence, ritual and storage.  One here has evidence of metal-working.  The mystery continues.

Very close by is the Iron Age broch.  Half of it has eroded into the sea in past times, but enough remains to provide a sense of massiveness and solid structure.  You can squeeze between the twin walls, peer down into the well, and notice how that 1600s great house was built on top of the extremely well built truncated tower – and it remains supported by it even today.

A stone-lined storage box reveals that some things had hardly changed since the Neolithic times.  However, the grinding stones that were found here do show how the old saddle querns requiring back-breaking back and forth effort with a grinding stone while kneeling were replaced by rotary querns.  A much welcomed technological advance, I’m sure.

With no Roman occupation this far north, the Iron Age is followed by the Pictish era.  Here, their great buildings were the Wheelhouses.  Similar to the brochs, these windowless towers had stone spars built inwards from the walls, creating chambers.  At Jarlshof  you can really experience the amazing corbelled engineering used in their construction, but  you can also feel the darkness and sense of enclosure inside these amazing buildings.  A reconstruction just down the road at Old Scatness does add home comforts – as any human does – and with a peat fire scenting and lighting the building, it does feel more like a home.

From AD c.850, the Vikings arrived.  Their  homes were very different.  Their rectangular homes and long houses were built further back from the shore.  A settlement flourished here until the 1300s.  Farming, iron-working, weaving and grain drying all went on here and the buildings were adapted for different uses over the generations.

In c.1300 though, all this was abandoned in favour of a medieval farmhouse with a grain drying kiln.

In 1472, Shetland formally became part of Scotland under King James III.  Later one of the illegitimate sons of James V, Earl Robert Stewart, became Lord of Shetland.  His son, Earl Patrick Stewart, would build an impressive house here in 1604.  But it would soon be ruins and it became part of the history and archaeology of this superb site that we know as Jarlshof.


We sail on from here, in the fresh air (lichens flourish in Shetland) across the North Sea, very much in the Wake of the Vikings.



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