During my study abroad in Canada, a German friend and I explored the Vancouver Island area as much as we could, frequently having the following conversation…
Me – “Look at that (insert church, building, lighthouse etc), it must be SO old.”
Her – “That’s not old! Wait until you get to Europe.”
How right she was.
When I moved to Edinburgh I began to really understand what “old” in the context of architecture and history means. But even after seeing Edinburgh Castle and 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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Visiting the Shetland Islands
The Shetland Isles are located off the northeast coast of Scotland, and if you looked at a map you’d be forgiven (maybe) for thinking they were part of Norway given they’re closer to Bergen than Edinburgh!
There’s an extensive history of inhabitation of the islands, and the landscape is just beautiful. I think Shetland is seriously underrated when people plan their Scotland itinerary. Although it takes a little more effort to get to, it’s well worth it!
I’ve been to some stunning historical sites, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is just one, and Ephesus in Turkey another, but in Shetland, I visited one that really fascinated me. To the point I’ve already returned once more and I really want to go again!
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 (pronounced “Yarlshof”) ranks so highly on my list of amazing historical places because of its unassuming nature. This is just a normal place where people started living 4000 years ago. And then more and more people kept moving there to make it their home.
What they’ve left behind is a series of ruins showcasing so many different ages and styles of life of Shetland.
Why the people who lived here 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 artefacts far removed from their original home, at Jarlshof you can touch and see this history, and be a part of it.
I couldn’t get over how much has been discovered from this site about the people who lived there, and what remains.
So for a brief lesson in history, here’s what happened at Jarlshof and what you can expect to see if you visit one of the best historic sites in Scotland.
Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement at Sumburgh
Bronze Age remains
At Jarlshof, the Bronze Age settlers from over 4000 years ago left evidence of oval houses, with rubbish pits outside that showed their diet included a lot of shellfish. How freaky is that amount of detail?!
One Bronze Age structure, built around 800BC, was the workplace of a smithy trained in the Irish style, evidenced from the tools and workpieces found around the site. It was so strange to stand in the middle of what would have been a workshop almost 3000 years ago.
Iron Age remains
During the Iron Age, a broch was built on the site. A broch is a round structure with two outer walls found only in Scotland. They can be found all over the Shetland Isles, quite often on the coast and spread out at regular intervals. This suggests 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 also a bit of a mystery, but they are thought to be a tribal group of people who lived in Scotland in the late Iron age and early medieval times. It seems they travelled up from the south as there is a lot more evidence of them in Orkney.
In this area, they built Pict wheelhouses. There are areas in these strange roundhouses where you could tell there had once been bedrooms, and shelves where the inhabitants kept who knows what. Some of them are so intact that it seems as though they’re just waiting for soft furnishings and you could move in!
Skara Brae in Orkney is another place where you can see these roundhouses, but what amazed me at Jarlshof is that they are surrounded by the ruins of other ages as well. Also, you get to walk inside of them!
Plus you know those DNA tests you can do now? A member of my extended family from the Shetland Isles had his DNA tested and it showed a more likely link to the Pict people than to the Vikings, so I was especially interested!
Many people travel to Scotland on heritage trips (here’s how to plan one!) and being able to visit sites where people lived in the way your ancestors might have is really special.
Viking settlement remains
I always thought of the Viking times and the Vikings appearing in Britain as happening so long ago, but in reality, the Vikings built at Jarlshof 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! Given Shetland’s proximity to Scandinavia, it’s not really surprising.
In another family connection, my Dad recently took a DNA test as well, and it showed a lot of Viking DNA!
Farmhouse and Barn
But the settlements at Jarlshof didn’t stop with the Vikings. By the 13th century, a medieval farmhouse and barn replaced the longhouses, showing the change in the lives of the people who were now living in Shetland.
After Shetland became part of Scotland in 1496, a Scottish Lairds house was built on the site, which is the final major structure you can visit at Jarlshof. It was called the Old House of Sumburgh, which is Old Norse for “fort”.
You can climb up a tower inside to view the site from above, complete with the cemetery right next to the house that’s said to be the resting place of shipwrecked sailors.
How was Jarlshof discovered?
By the end of the 17th century, the Laird’s house was in ruins. The land belonged to the Bruce family and its significance was left undiscovered until the end of the 19th century when huge storms exposed some of the underlying settlement by the coast.
Between 1897 and 1905 the Landowner, John Bruce, investigated the site and it then became popular with archaeologists through the 20th century.
The site was given the name “Jarlshof” by Sir Walter Scott when he was visiting. It means “earl’s house” and refers to the Laird’s house on which he based a fictional house in his novel “The Pirate“.
Why is this place the most amazing to me?
I know there are places around the world even older than Jarlshof and maybe you’re wondering why I’m obsessing over it so much. 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.
That simplicity and our ability to walk in their footsteps are what makes it so amazing to me.
So how do you get to the Shetland Isles and Jarlshof?
You can fly to Sumburgh Airport just down the road from Jarlshof from major Scottish airports like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen, as well as from Kirkwall in Orkney, and Bergen in Norway.
The overnight ferry with Northlink runs from Aberdeen to Lerwick seven nights a week and stops in Orkney 3 times a week. We did this and it was great!
Jarlshof Site Entry
For the princely 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.
While you’re there I also recommend a visit to Sumburgh Lighthouse, where you might be lucky enough to see puffins if it’s spring/summertime!
Where to stay in the Shetland Isles
Accommodation in Shetland is mostly provided by small owner-operated businesses. You can check 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.
Another great option is Airbnb, where you can choose to stay with hosts or in your own accommodation. Click here to get credit for your first stay!
I would recommend spending some time on the mainland but also staying on other islands if you have the chance. We always spend some time staying in Unst, the most northerly isle. We do have connections there but there’s also plenty to do!
Planning a trip to Scotland? Check out these posts
- 22 Films to Watch Before You Visit Scotland
- 21 Free Things to Do in Glasgow
- Edinburgh Festivals in August Guide: What You Need to Know
- Edinburgh Itinerary: 2 Days in Scotland’s Capital
- 11 Reasons to Visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris
- Edinburgh in Winter: Things to Do & Reasons to Visit
- 25 Romantic Things to Do in Edinburgh for Couples
- Scotland Road Trip: Edinburgh to Glencoe by Car
- 9 Lesser-Known Hidden Gems in Edinburgh
- 11 Reasons to Add Shetland to Your Scotland Itinerary
- 27 Amazing Things to Do in Orkney
- Heritage Travel in Scotland: Planning a Trip
- Two Days in Glasgow: What You Need to Know
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