Jarlshof is an archaeological site located near the southern tip of the Shetland Mainland. It offers not just a glimpse back into prehistoric life as Skara Brae in Orkney does, but shows a settlement shaped by 4000 years of human occupation.
The very first people to reach Shetland probably landed not far from Jarlshof 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. The South Mainland proved to be a popular part of Shetland to stay in – many prehistoric settlements can be found in the surrounding area – due to the greater amount of arable land. Jarlshof itself became an attractive place to settle due to the nearby freshwater springs and building materials easily available on the beach.
During the Bronze Age, buildings in Jarlshof included houses and a smithy. These buildings were partly subterranean, a technique that provided both structural stability and insulation. In the Iron Age, defensive brochs and roundhouses were built. Though much of the structure has been lost to coastal erosion, the broch tower was originally 13 metres high – with views of the surrounding seas. Pictish painted stones were left on the site and a complex of wheelhouses. From the 9th to the 14th centuries Vikings inhabited the site – with rectangular buildings covering most of the site. There were seven Norse houses, a longhouse, several outbuildings for sheltering domesticated animals, and a small square building with a large hearth – a sauna where water would be thrown on hot stones to create steam. Many Norse artifacts were uncovered, giving clues to life at Jarlshof, including line weights for deep water fishing and 150 loom weights for creating wool.
Built last and the most visible amongst the buildings of Jarlshof is a medieval stone farmhouse, which was converted into a fortified house by Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney, and modernised in the early 17th century by his son Patrick Stewart, who renamed it the “Old House of Sumburgh”. By the late 17th century it was abandoned. The name ‘Jarlshof’ (meaning earl’s house) was given to the site by Sir Walter Scott, in his novel The Pirate. The proper name for the site is Sumburgh, derived from the Old Norse borg, ‘fort’. When Sir Walter Scott visited, the house was in ruins and the site was almost all covered with dunes.
In 1897 a storm washed away part of the shore and revealed evidence of these ancient buildings. Serious archaeological excavation started in 1925. The excavations found a wonderful array of artifacts some of which can be found in the Shetland Museum. Jarlshof now has a small visitor’s centre which is well worth a look!