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A journey from prehistory into historyAt the end of the 19th century, storms ripped open the low cliffs at Jarlshof, near the southern tip of Shetland. They revealed an extraordinary settlement site embracing 4,000 years of human history. Upon excavation, the site was found to contain a remarkable sequence of stone structures – late Neolithic houses, Bronze-Age village, Iron-Age broch and wheelhouses, Norse longhouse, medieval farmstead, and 16th-century laird’s house. The excavations also produced a wonderful array of artefacts.
Remote ancestorsThe first people to reach Shetland probably landed not far from Jarlshof some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Visible remains from this first settlement include a Bronze-Age smithy, built around 800 BC, and houses with distinctive cells formed by buttresses extending into the living space.
The Iron-Age village
The brochAfter an apparent break-in occupation, a broch was built at the site. Standing now to a height of 2.4m, it was probably much higher; Mousa Broch, 10 miles to the north, still stands 13m high. The broch was soon joined by other dwellings, including a large aisled ‘roundhouse’ and a byre.
A Pictish villageDuring the first centuries AD, the broch collapsed and was abandoned. New structures replaced it, called wheelhouses because their roofs were supported on radial piers, like spokes in a wheel. This was a time when Shetland was probably being occupied by the Picts, Scotland’s oldest indigenous people.
Coming of the NorsemenVikings from Norway settled at Jarlshof in the 9th century. The longhouse forming the heart of the farm is still clearly visible. The farmstead expanded and contracted over time – some 12 to 16 generations. By the 13th century, this had been replaced by a farmhouse, with barn and corn kilns attached.
A Scottish laird’s houseShetland passed from Norway to Scotland in 1469, and came under the control of Earl Robert Stewart, illegitimate son of James V. His son, the tyrant Earl Patrick, built ‘the Old House of Sumburgh’ that today dominates the site. The name ‘Jarlshof’ (earl’s house), though it sounds archaic, was actually bestowed on 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’.