Our Northern Scotland trip – Part 5: Jarlshof

Honestly, dear friends, the place I’m going to show you around today was the most wonderful surprise of our holidays – one of the most magical, most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. I’d heard about Jarlshof, but not as much as about Skara Brae, and I thought it ‘only’ dated from the Bronze Age – but, as we discovered as soon as we looked into our souvenir guide, it’s just as much from the Stone Age as Skara Brae (not quite as old, the oldest finds here date from about 2,700 BCE), and what’s more, it covers more than 4,000 years of history, all in one place!

On arrival (don’t forget to book your tickets online to make sure you’ll get in), you get a little audio device each, which is your guide through the site. You can look around the little exhibition first, with very interesting finds from various eras, and leave a few quid in the souvenir shop like we did; and then you step out into an enchanted walk through history –  from the Stone Age to the Renaissance. And how lucky we were that day: we had glorious sunshine all day, quite a rare thing in these parts!

On the right-hand side of the first ‘row’ of buildings are the remnants of a few houses from about 4,500 years ago; parts of the walls and hearths are still recognizable, as is a quern (a stone in a big hollowed out stone, used for grinding corn – one of the most important utensils of the time!) and a midden, i.e. rubbish heap, from which archaeologists have recovered invaluable information about the Stone Age people’s diet here: they seem to have lived largely on shellfish which they found on the nearby beach. What a lovely idea, eating mussels and oysters most every day…

Thanks to the beautiful illustrations in the souvenir guide by Chris Mitchell, we get a most lively insight in what everyday life must have looked like back then:

Just a stone’s throw away to the left are the remnants left by an entirely different group of people; the Stone Age people had abandoned their village for unknown reasons in about 2,000 BCE, and a few hundred years later new arrivals from Europe came here, bringing bronze with them to Shetland for the first time. They also brought with them the knowledge of animal husbandry and farming; they grew barley and wheat, and they domesticated sheep and cattle, so their diet was much more varied than that of the Stone Age people who had lived here before them.

Next to their small round houses, of which large portions of walls, hearths and another quern remain, in about 800 BCE they built a smithy where they made their bronze tools, weapons and also jewellery items. Again, Chris Mitchell illustrates in a wonderful way how work in this smithy would have looked like.

Not too long after that, the Bronze Age settlers left the site, and soon after a new wave of immigrants came: Iron Age people, who brought with them the art of iron smelting. The old village must still have been there, because the newcomers built their new, more spacious, houses partly on top of it; the dry stone walls (built without mortar) are well preserved, and lots of artefacts have been found here that give us a good picture of how the Iron Age people here lived: they produced textiles, kept sheep, cattle and pigs, grew grains and fished in the sea, and of course they made iron weapons and tools.

They also built souterrains underneath the houses, like cellars, for storing food; here is how the building process must have looked like:

At some point, the site was abandoned again and the village was covered with sand; then, in the first century BCE, came new settlers, obviously Scottish Celts – because they built one of those uniquely Celtic round towers that can only be found in Scotland: a broch. Parts of the impressive thick double walls still exist, the remains of a hearth and also some small houses surrounding the main building; the ordinary people would have lived in them and the chieftain’s family in the comfy tower.

Unfortunately, later on parts of it fell into the sea due to erosion; but here is how this broch would have looked like 2,000 years ago:

200-300 years later, the way of building changed again (perhaps with the structure of the little society occupying the site?), and structures called wheelhouses began to be built: a round central room with little chambers all around, which made the roofs look like wheels.

The houses must have been quite cosy, with a warm central fire and space in the chambers for everybody:

Then, around 800 AD, Norsemen from Norway started raiding the Scottish coasts, and soon they arrived on Shetland as well. A Viking family built an extensive farm here, not far away from the old Celtic settlements; their way of building was much different from all the others, though. They built their longhouse rectangular, with stone and turf, and they even added the luxury of a bathhouse. There were servants’ quarters, indicating that the family who occupied the large main building had great power over the others, there was a smithy and a cow shed.

For about 400 years, the ruling family lived in the longhouse, while servants and maybe relatives lived in smaller houses surrounding the main building; large amounts of archaeological finds on the site show us that they not only had sophisticated tools, decorative items and board games, but they also imported jewellery and other luxury goods from Norway (which is only a two day sailing trip from Shetland) and the Viking parts of Ireland!

The Viking inhabitants of Jarlshof went with the times: around 1200, when the building style in their old homeland of Norway (with which no doubt they were in regular contact, and to which – namely the Domkirk of Bergen – they actually belonged) changed, they also started building a new style of farmhouse to the East of the old longhouse which they then abandoned. Two spacious rectangular houses were built next to each other, including all the necessary facilities of the Middle Ages including a kiln where the grain was dried in order to be stored – food was getting scarcer at the time…

In 1469, political events suddenly changed the fate of Shetland and Jarlshof: when James III of Scotland married Margaret, daughter of Christian of Denmark and Norway, he got Orkney and Shetland as a dowry, and soon Scottish noblemen came to the islands to build their villas here. Not too much changed for the people at Jarlshof for the moment, they continued their farming and trading with German cities and were allowed to keep their language and laws – until in 1581, Robert Stewart, half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, was made Earl of Orkney and Shetland and began a despotic rule. He had a big house built near the old farmhouses, which his immensely unpopular son Patrick, known as ‘Black Patie’, enlarged to a minor castle called Sumburgh (not Jarlshof, that was a name Sir Walter Scott gave the ruins on a visit more than 200 years later).

The ruins with its massive walls are really impressive; parts of what used to be the second floor are still standing and make it easy to imagine what it must have looked like in all its glory.

For today’s visitors, there is a metal staircase winding its way up to the top of these walls; and despite my fear of heights, I bravely climbed them to take a few pictures from above – what a breathtaking view!

We spent more than two hours on the site, walking around, listening to the audio guide, sitting down on a bench to digest all our impressions, then walking round again, taking lots of photos and absorbing the atmosphere – just listen to the sound of the sea eternally rolling ashore behind this great monument of human history!

Jarlshof is much underrated even by seasoned visitors of ancient sites because it’s so ‘far out’ in the sea, halfway between Scotland and Norway – but believe me, dear friends, getting all the way to Shetland and seeing it with your own eyes is the experience of a lifetime!

Next time: the last stage of our North Scotland trip – a day of luxury at the Aberdeen Altens.

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