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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User Reviews

Annabelle Batchelor (8 months ago)
Cool place, really informative.
Martina M. (10 months ago)
Perched on the southernmost tip of the Shetland archipelago, Jarlshof is described as one of the most remarkable sites ever excavated in the British Isles, covering an incredible time span of more than 4000 years. Approaching the complex from the main road, literally crossing the landing airstrip of tiny Sumburgh airport, gives the feeling of being really far from the busy mainstream sites of other islands. At a first glance, Jarlshof appears as an irregular group of sand dunes covered by windswept grass. Coming up close to the first buildings, it is clear that the site is an enormous complex of heterogeneous structures, from early Neolithic dwellings to a Bronze Age settlement, Iron Age roundhouses, wheelhouses and the thick structure of what was once an imposing broch. That could be enough to make it an archaeologist’s playground. Add a big Norse settlement with its rectangular-shaped longhouses and a post-medieval Hall, and you have it. The name, which betrays something of its Norse past, was given in a much later time by Sir Walter Scott, who set his novel ‘The Pirate’ at Sumburgh Head. (You can see more photos and read more about it on my IG @limbsdisarm)
Rob Anderson (22 months ago)
A fabulous visit, especially if you have some spare time before your flight. 4000 year old ruins amongst more rent ones. Really cool buried bronze-age underground houses
Grant Bremner (22 months ago)
JARLSHOF is the best known prehistoric archaeological site in Shetland, Scotland. 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. As you walk around this Prehistoric site you will come across plenty of display boards proving information about what life would have been like back then.
Juliana McNicol (23 months ago)
It as an interesting place with over 4000 years history. Shame there is no caretaker in Winter months to open the visitor center
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