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Scotland Jarlshof, Shetland - over 4000 years of human settlement

Jarlshof at the southernmost tip of Mainland Shetland is possibly one of the most significant archaeological sites in Britain, having been in continuous settlement from the late stone age to the C16th.


The site was well chosen, overlooking the sheltered waters of West Voe with their sandy beaches suitable for launching boat for fishing or trading.


It was surrounded by flat fertile land suitable for animals or growing crops. There was also a plentiful, supply of fresh water.

The site has been in almost constant use for four thousand years; with later developments being built upon and around the older structures. There are late Neolithic houses, a Bronze Age village, an Iron Age broch and wheelhouse, a large Norse house, a medieval farm, and a 16th century laird’s house. The picture showing the layout of the settlement is taken from the Historic Scotland Magazine, Spring 2023

HS jarlshof.jpg

The aerial photograph, showing the different settlement areas, is from the European Heritage days website.


Little remains of the Neolithic settlement - a few stones marking huts in a corner of the site.

The remains of the adjacent Bronze Age settlement are more extensive with several oval houses with a central open hearth and also a smithy. As well as fishing and seal hunting. sheep and cattle were grazed and barley cultivated.



There was an extensive Iron Age settlement and the earliest round houses partially covered the earlier Bronze Age settlement. These were large complex structures, partially built underground with side chambers off. Two of the houses had souterrains, underground passages, which may have been used to store food.




A broch was built in the later Iron Age, along with large aisled wheelhouses. Only part of the broch remains as the rest has been lost by coastal erosion. The wheelhouses are very distinctive buildings only found in the Northern and Western Isles with tall radial stone piers dividing the building into different areas. The piers also help support the roof of turf or thatch.





Norse settlers arrived in the C9th and occupied much of the site away from the sea. Buildings were traditionally oblong with a central hearth and timber posts supporting the roof. The inhabitants kept sheep, cattle, pigs and ponies in separate byres.


By the C14th, a medieval farmhouse had been built to the east of the Viking settlement with barn and drying kilns. This seems to have been inhabited until the C15th.


In the C16th, Shetland came under the control of Earl Robert Stewart, the illegitimate son of James V. His son, Earl Patrick was responsible for building the Lairds hose which dominates the site today. It was a substantial building with two upper storeys as well as domestic buildings. It was abandoned by the C17th.


Over the years the remains of the older settlements were covered by coastal dunes and layers of sand blown by the wind. They were only revealed after a series of violent storms at the end of the C19th.

Jarlshof is now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and there is a small Visitor Centre with finds from round the site. The name of Jarlshof (Earl’s House) is attributed to Sir Walter Scott who visited Shetland and used the location as the inspiration for his novel ‘The Pirate’.

(The photographs have been scanned from slides, which explains the poor quality and slight colour cast in some of them.)
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