Jarlshof – The Most Amazing Historical Site I’ve Ever Seen

Updated November 24, 2015

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.

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 Historical Site Shetland Scotland Vikings

Looking across Jarlshof from above

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.

Jarlshof Shetland Bronze Age Historical Site

A view standing near the workshop towards the beach

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!

Jarlshof Shetland Pict Historical Site

Looking down on the Pict Wheel Houses from above

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.

Jarlshof Shetland Viking Historical Site

Remains of Viking Longhouses all built next to and over each other

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!

Sonja x

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Jarlshof Shetland Historical Site


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  • Reply Brooke of Passport Couture November 26, 2015 at 6:48 am

    Ancient sites like this are always fascinating to see. It’s crazy how many of them are still in tact, even though they’re not fully functional and you can learn so much about a culture from their artifacts. I’d love to visit this one for its scenery and continually be fascinated by all of the history!

    • Reply Migrating Miss December 4, 2015 at 4:49 pm

      I agree! The scenery in this are was amazing. There are hardly any trees at all in the Shetlands so it makes for a very different landscape! I couldn’t believe how in tact this one. Maybe one day you’ll make it there 🙂

  • Reply Natasha November 28, 2015 at 4:27 am

    The Shetland Isles looks so charming. I would love the fact that there aren’t many tourist around.

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 29, 2015 at 10:21 am

      Not at all! We did go in January which is definitely off season, apart from when Up Helly Aa is on, but I imagine in the summer you would still get to enjoy most of the sites with little or no people. I’m hoping to make the trip back next summer and find out!

  • Reply Nikita November 28, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Haha it’s so cute that you thought the buildings on Vancouver Island were old! I agree though, it’s so cool to see places where people just lived… I find that more interesting than any grand monument or castle!

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 29, 2015 at 10:22 am

      Haha coming from New Zealand which was only really settled in the 1800s most places I think are old! Places where people live are just so much more relatable I think, sometimes a monument or castle is just too unbelievable! I’m glad you find it interesting too 🙂

  • Reply John Bayes July 7, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Have you ever been to Cornwall? Some of the ancient structures there are pre- Iron age, & bronze age, to the stone age! For example on the moors above Penzance, there is Chycauster ancient village, dated to around 2,500 BC. The Cornish (Celts) were trading tin & copper with the Phonecians (around where Israel is today)! That is b4 London was even conceived of, even b4 it was six mud huts & a pub! I come from St. Ives originallyoriginally, so know the area well! If you get the chance to go,. GO, you will love it.

    Regards…. ? John Bates.

    • Reply Migrating Miss July 8, 2016 at 11:29 am

      I haven’t but it is very firmly near the top of my list! Both there and the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, unfortunately opposite ends of the UK haha. It sounds so amazing though, thank for the tips!

    • Reply jenny March 4, 2018 at 11:58 am

      Thanks John for this info. I’ve just looked it up as I never knew this ancient village existed. I shall try to get to it next time I go near St Ives.

  • Reply Dave Clarke April 25, 2018 at 5:35 am

    Hi Sonja,
    It certainly looks very interesting and very old. Did you know that you passed a much older settlement called ‘Skara Brae’ on your way to ‘Jarlshof’ It is over 5000 years old and they say it predates the pyramids.
    Maybe you can add this to your travel bucket list.

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 3, 2018 at 11:22 am

      Hi Dave,

      Yes I have actually since been to Skara Brae! I enjoyed it as well, but I actually preferred Jarlshof because you could walk around it more, and it was interesting to see so many different layers of settlement over time as opposed to more of one time period at Skara Brae. I think there used to be houses at Jarlshof like Skara Brae but they have disappeared with the weather/been used to build new homes. Between the two of them though they’re pretty amazing!

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