At the end of the nineteenth century a violent storm battered the southern tip of Shetland, revealing the remains of a prehistoric village. The local landowner, Mr Bruce, began an archaeological investigation which, passing into more professional hands, has revealed a sequence of continuous settlement from the late Bronze Age through to mediaeval times that provides one of the richest archaeological records in northern Europe. At the mediaeval end of this spectrum is the farmhouse to which the novelist Sir Walter Scott gave the name Jarlshof in his historical novel, ‘The Pirate.’ Beneath its fields lay a Bronze Age smithy, a charcoal-fuelled furnace for the manufacture of bronze weapons, tools and ornaments, dating back some five thousand years. Stone –constructed houses from the Iron Age were excavated by Mr Bruce, together with their associated underground stores, known as souterrains. In this northern part of the British Isles the late Iron Age produced a unique structure known as a broch, a dry-stone tower rising upwards of 20 feet. Jarlshof has the foundations of just such a broch together with a subsequent dwelling characteristic of the Pictish people, the wheelhouse, so called from its cartwheel-like design. In contrast to these circular structures, the mediaeval period saw Viking settlers on Shetland with their rectangular halls, a built heritage passed on to the farmhouse of ‘Jarlshof.’
Today Shetlanders are immensely proud of their Norse heritage. Shetland is closer to Bergen in Norway than it is to Edinburgh, let alone London and a Norse dialect known as Norn was widely spoken her until the nineteenth century. As the Jarlshof archaeological site so eloquently demonstrates, this most northerly of the British Isles occupies a cultural crossroads that has attracted successive waves of settlement. In this singular location, it is possible to walk through thousands of years, from prehistory to history.
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