Jarlshof is the best known prehistoric archaeological site in Shetland Islands. It lies near the southern tip of the Shetland Mainland and has been described as 'one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles'. It contains remains dating from 2500 BC up to the 17th century AD. The Bronze Age settlers left evidence of several small oval houses with thick stone walls and various artefacts including a decorated bone object. The Iron Age ruins include several different types of structure including a broch and a defensive wall around the site. The Pictish period provides various works of art including a painted pebble and a symbol stone. The Viking-age ruins make up the largest such site visible anywhere in Britain and include a longhouse; excavations provided numerous tools and a detailed insight into life in Shetland at this time.

The most visible structures on the site are the walls of the Scottish period fortified manor house, which inspired the name 'Jarlshof' that first appears in an 1821 novel by Walter Scott. There is a small visitor centre at Jarlshof with displays and a collection of artefacts.The name Jarlshof meaning 'Earl"s Mansion' is a coinage of Walter Scott, who visited the site in 1814 and based it on the Scottish period name of 'the laird"s house'. It was more than a century later before excavations proved that there had actually been Viking Age settlement on the site, although there is no evidence that a Norse jarl ever lived there.

The earliest remains on the site are late Neolithic houses, followed by Bronze Age houses, two of which have underground passages attached, known as souterrains. These may have served as cold stores. A third souterrain curls beneath the hearth of one of the buildings and might have been for keeping grain dry. Smithing also took place in one of these. A broch was built in the Iron Age: today half of it has been eroded into the sea. The broch was subsequently modified and when it went out of use, at least four wheelhouses were built, partly using stone from the higher levels of the broch. One of these wheelhouses is almost complete and has corbelled cells surviving which demonstrate skilled drystone work.

Jarlshof boasts an impressive Norse settlement possibly originating in the 9th century. The earliest longhouse was in use for several generations, being modified and lengthened over time. The settlement expanded with the construction of further longhouses, barns and byres, but by the 13th century this had been replaced by a Medieval farmstead, comprising a farmhouse, barn and corn-drier.

From 1592 Sumburgh was leased to William Bruce of Symbister. Between 1604 and 1605 the estate fell into the possession of Earl Patrick but soon reverted back to the Bruce family. The property was ransacked by Earl Patrick in 1608 and reduced to ruins by the end of the century. The stones in the courtyard are believed to mark the graves of shipwrecked sailors.

Today Jarlshof is in the care of Historic Scotland and is open from April to September. There is a small visitor center.

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Founded: 2500 BC
Category: Prehistoric and archaeological sites in United Kingdom

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4.7/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Richard Bradley (3 months ago)
The visitor centre is closed in the winter but the actual things you came to see are accessible all year around - get tickets from the adjacent hotel and lunch too, as we did. This is an incredible place to visit with some of the oldest settlements in, well in Europe certainly, if not the world. It's as old in parts as the pyramids of Egypt. It is best visited with access to an explanation though as it is a confusing place, having developed over thousands of years of building on top of building so some parts are of a very different age to others. I'd say this is the one thing every visitor to and indeed resident of Shetland needs to come and see,
cvgould1 (5 months ago)
If you like over manicured history served up under tight control and moreover also like to pay through the nose for it then this is the place for you. Personally I don't so would not recommend it to anyone else
Bethany Jenkins (6 months ago)
Beautiful place. It's not all closed off like most historic sites - instead you can walk in and around the old buildings. The audio guide was great too.
Mark Mcgowan (6 months ago)
Been a member of historic Scotland now for more than five years and this place rates as one of the best places I've visited. Lovely location loads of layered history and a small but well presented gift shop and display area . 5 out of 5 this is the kinda place l pay my membership for
Merrill Smith (8 months ago)
Loved Jarlshof. Amazing location next to the sea and so much history that it takes a while to take it all in. The video in the centre before you go around the remains is so useful to get a handle on it all. Can see why people have wanted to live there for such a long time. Great that they let you wander at will in all the nooks and crannies.
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