Jarlshof

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Jarlshof settlement complex
Eastern part of Jarlshof settlement complex (structures 1 in front, 7 to the right and 8 to the left; see above site plan) as seen in 2003
The laird's house (or Stewart Mansion; N°. 7) seen from the west with the outer walls and the entrance to wheelhouse (N°. 3) visible. In front the remaining structures of the earthhouse (N°. 4) dug into the grass covered soil.
Jarlshof - Inside a wheelhouse (middle part of structure 3 in above site plan)
Wheelhouses (structures 3 in above site plan) as seen from the Stewart Mansion in 1989

Jarlshof (Grid reference: HU 398095) is a multi-period settlement complex which was in use from the bronze age until the 19th century.

The ruins of the ancient settlement of Jarlshof were re-discovered after a violent storm in 1897 caused soil erosion, uncovering an ancient wall.

The oldest remains, to the east of the site (N°.1), date back to the bronze age and early iron age period. These houses are smaller than the houses at Skara Brae, Orkney, but they show a similar layout (especially structure 8), and can be compared with the oval house at Pettigarth Field, Whalsay, as well. Some of the houses were linked with underground storage cells (earthhouses) and one of these oldest buildings was used by a bronzesmith around 800 BC. Between these structures and the neighbouring houses can be seen various midden deposits.

Of particular interest are the iron age buildings to the south of the site. Although in part eroded by the sea, they represent a longer period of continuous settlement and the development from the broch (N°. 2) to the "wheelhouses" (N°. 3). These circular stone-built houses represent a type of dwelling in which radial piers not only divided up the internal floorspace of the houses into storage and sleeping areas, but also helped to support the roof. This distinctive type of dwelling was built only in Shetland and the Western Isles.

N°. 4 is a well preserved example of an earthhouse which is probably of Pictish origin.

The biggest part of Jarlshof is covered by a Norse settlement (N°. 5), which was used during the whole Viking period. Some of the earlier buildings were later extended, while others were more or less completely given up and replaced by newer buildings. Some fine items from the Norse settlement are in the care of Shetland Museum.

A Norse Shetland Pony – reconstructed sketch in care of Shetland Museum.

The Norse houses that the excavator Alexander Ormiston Curle discovered in 1934 were the first confirmed Norse longhouses on the British isles. The oldest house, dating from the first part of the 9th century, is a typical Scandinavian longhouse, built of stone and turf. It measures 20 x 7 meters, divided into two rooms - one for cooking and a larger one for living. The livingroom had a longfire at its middle and benches along the walls. Near this house there were several other buildings: a byre, a smithy, and a small square building possibly used as a bath house where the inhabitants threw water on hot stones to make steam, as in a Finnish sauna.

Several finds confirm that the first Shetland Norse settlers were farmers; stone sinkers indicate that they were also fishermen. Dr. Curle also found a slate tablet with a carving of a typical longship, with high bow and stern, a single mast and a steering oar at the left.
In 1951, his successor as excavator John Robertson Campbell Hamilton discovered more of those slate tablets with images of boats and animals, and two with portaits of men - one of a young man with a beard and curly hair and one with an elderly man with a pointed nose and dressed in a high collared tunic.
Only three fragments of weapons were found in the oldest layers.
Many of the other items show a high artistic standard: bone combs and bone needles have beautifully done animal heads and thistle heads carved on them.
During the next 400 years, new buildings were made and the main house was extended and at last totally rebuilt.

Orkneyinga saga tells about a peaceful community on Shetland in the 12th century .
In 1148 Rognvald Kali Kolson, (Rognvald the Crusader ), shipwrecked on Shetland on his way back from a journey to Norway, and the saga tells that he stayed the whole summer in Shetland. In one version of the saga Rognvald is said to have visited the Jarlshof area.
In the last part of the 13th century, the Norse houses were abandoned. Later the buildings were buried in sand and hidden until a storm unveiled the stone walls of the bronze age buildings.

To the east of the Norse settlement there is a medieval farm (N°. 6), comprising two buildings side by side – quite similar to far more modern farmsteads such as The Shetland Croft Museum.

In the centre of structure 6, are the ruins of a 16th/early 17th century laird's house (N°. 7) which was known as Sumburgh. The house overlies part of the prehistoric broch. The northern part with its walls standing up a little higher than 1 metre was a house originally built in Earl Robert's time. It was later superseded by the house on the south side of the courtyard, which was built by Earl Patrick Stewart in 1605. It was flanked by outhouses of which the east block survived to a height of up to 4 meters; the rebuilt north block served as kitchen house. By the end of the 17th century the house was in ruins and when Sir Walter Scott visited the site it was almost all covered with dunes. Scott renamed the house Jarlshof. When Sumburgh was in ruins a modern house of which nothing survives was built nearby but replaced by the 19th century building that is now the Sumburgh Hotel.

At the far east end of the site we find a small modern site museum (N°. 8) with modern interpretation boards, some artefacts on display and a little shop.


The site is now in the care of Historic Scotland

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Inside Jarlshof visitor Centre
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