During my study abroad in Canada a German friend and I explored around the Vancouver Island area as much as we could, frequently having the following conversation…
“Look at that (insert church, building, lighthouse etc), it must be SO old.” – Me
“That’s not old! Wait until you get to Europe.” – Her. Laughing.
How right she was.
When I moved to Edinburgh I began to really understand what “old” means. But even after seeing Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town around the Royal Mile, it took going to the most northerly part of the United Kingdom for me to really get it.
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The Shetland Isles
The Shetland Isles are located off the north east coast of Scotland, and you’d be forgiven (maybe) for thinking they were part of Norway given that’s the country they’re closest too. There’s extensive history of inhabitation and the landscape is just beautiful, so I think Shetland is seriously underrated! I’ve been to some stunning historical sites, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is just one, and Ephesus in Turkey another, but there’s one that really fascinated me.
So what is the most amazing historical site I’ve ever seen?
At the bottom of the mainland of Shetland is a site called Jarlshof, and it’s 4000 year old history visible in the present day. It can’t be missed in the top things to do in the Shetland Isles!
Jarlshof ranks so highly in this list of amazing historical places because of it’s unassuming nature. This is just a normal place where people started living 4000 years ago. It could be my house in 4000 years (probably need to own one first!).
Why they chose this particular beach, on this particular island I don’t know, but they all built there, one settlement on top of the other.
After visiting the Shetland Museum & Archive in Lerwick, I knew that Shetland had been home to so many different people over time, including the Picts, Vikings and Scots, but instead of only reading about it and seeing some artifacts far removed from their original home, at Jarlshof you can touch and see this history, be inside of it.
I couldn’t get over how much they could discern from this site about the people who lived there, and what remains. Here’s what happened at Jarlshof…
Bronze Age remains
The Bronze Age settlers from over 4000 years ago left evidence of oval houses, with rubbish pits that showed their diet included a lot of shellfish. How freaky is that amount of detail?!
One structures was the workplace of a smithy trained in the Irish style, and was built around 800BC. It was so strange to stand in the middle of what would have been a workshop almost 3000 years ago.
Iron Age remains
In the Iron Age a broch was built on the site, a round structure with two outer walls found only in Scotland. These are all over the Shetland Isles, quite often on the coast and spread out at intervals which suggest they had some kind of correlation to each other, although no one really knows their purpose.
Next to the broch is the remains of a Pictish Village. The Pict people are a bit of a mystery, but are thought to be a tribal group of people who lived in Scotland in the late Iron age and early medieval times.
In this area they built Pict wheel houses. There are spots in these strange round houses you could tell had once been bedrooms, and shelves where the inhabitants kept who knows what.
A member of my extended family from the Shetland Isles had his DNA tested it and showed a more likely link to the Pict people than to the Vikings, so I was especially interested!
Viking settlement remains
I always thought of the Viking times and the Vikings in Britain as happening so long ago, but in reality the Vikings built here in the 9th century (the 800s). The remains of up to 16 generations of Viking longhouses are still visible here because they were made from stone rather than the usual wood. It’s the most extensive site of Viking remains in the whole of Britain.
By the 13th century a medieval farmhouse replaced the longhouses, showing the change in society.
After Shetland passed to Scotland in 1496 a Scottish Lairds house was built on the site, the final major structure. It was called the Old House of Sumburgh, Old Norse for “fort”. The site was actually named Jarlshof by Sir Walter Scott.
Why is this place the most amazing to me?
I know there are places around the world even older than this, but something about the normality of the spot struck me. It’s not a grand display of architecture, it’s not visited by millions of people per year, it’s simply a blustery spot on a little known island where multiple generations of people decided to make their home, and left the remains of it there for us to discover hundreds of years later.
So how do you get to the Shetland Isles and Jarlshof?
You can fly to the Shetland Isles Sumburgh Airport with Flybe from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, or Inverness.
The overnight ferry with Northlink runs from Aberdeen to Lerwick nights a week, and stops in Orkney 3 times a week. We did this and it was great!
Jarlshof Site Entry
For the pricely sum of £5.50 for adults and £3.30 for children, you can enter this amazing site, located at the tip of the mainland near the airport.
Where to stay in the Shetland Isles
I always recommend Booking.com for accommodation options, because you can often book with zero cancellation fees and it shows you all the options from hotels to self catering! The other great option is Airbnb, which I love for that more local feel. Click here to get a £25 credit for your first stay!
What’s the most amazing historical site you’ve ever seen and why?
Want more on the Shetland Isles? Check out why Shetland is an Underrated Tourist Destination.
Want more on Scotland? Check out Essential Sights on a Quick Visit to Edinburgh, A Unique View of Edinburgh and Highlights of a Scotland Road Trip!
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