Archaeology you must not miss!
Published: 18 November 2021
Shetland’s wealth of archaeological gems is an all too well-kept secret and visitors frequently ask me which sites they
really should see on a short trip. Shetland Museum and Archives is a great place to get an overview of the past - from
geological times, when Shetland was once near the South Pole, right through to the oil era - and everything between!
The South Mainland
If you only have one day, then I’d recommend heading to the South Mainland, where Shetland has no less than three
sites on the UK’s Tentative World Heritage list. Of these, Jarlshof is a great place to start. If your passion is for Vikings,
spend a day in Unst. To walk through a landscape 5,000 years old, then head for Shetland’s “West Side”.
Jarlshof is the perfect history lesson. The site spans 4,000 years – and, as luck will have it, following the path takes you through it more or less chronologically. The highlights start in the Bronze Age, with a dumb-bell shaped smithy. Bronze is made from copper and tin and Shetland had its own tin – an attraction for Bronze Age people. Copper may have been brought in from Ireland or Cornwall, perhaps by the Irish smith who worked here (the clay moulds for casting axes reveals where the smith learnt their trade).
The Iron Age highlights (spanning c. 800BC – AD 800, since Romans never settled in Shetland) have been cut in half by the sea. The broch might have completely disappeared by now, without its protective the sea wall. The site was originally revealed by storms in the 1880s. The sliced-through broch affords the unusual opportunity to appreciate the sheer thickness of broch walls (around 5 metres). The smaller wheelhouses, nestling around the broch, are the most complete examples anywhere. From above they look (a bit) like wheels. They were built in the Late Iron Age, (c400 – 850), also known as the Pictish period.
Find the Viking farm on the inland side of the modern path It saw many alterations during its long life, with new and replacement buildings being built over several centuries.
The looming Laird’s house is the most recent ruin. Built around 1600 by Earl Patrick Stewart, only one wing of four
survives well. This building was all that was visible when Sir Walter Scott visited and invented the name “Jarlshof”
(Earl’s Hall). He had no idea just how fitting that name was. Today, the staircase leads to the perfect viewing platform, to see how buildings were built one on top of another over time, as sand blow and rubbish disposal covered up the earlier remains.
The Broch and Iron Age Village at Old Scatness was completely unknown until a new road cut through its northern side in 1975. The remaining site was a pristine time capsule, completely unknown by antiquarian excavators. The recent excavations have rewritten the story of Scotland’s Iron Age.
A broch, built between 400BC and 200BC, lies at the heart of the village which grew up inside its ditches. The village boasts the best surviving, large, drystone, North Atlantic Iron Age roundhouses ever found. Astonishingly, their diameters are greater than the broch, with an upper floor and yet with thin, single-skinned, walls. A remarkable feat of drystone engineering. Once abandoned, a later Pictish village was inserted into the remains. An accomplished carving of a bear was found in a wheelhouse –the village totem? Later, these buildings were adapted for use by settling Vikings.
Reconstruction Iron Age buildings, dressed with replicas of finds and information gleaned from excavating the site, offer a sensory experience of Iron Age life as it may have been.
Shetland Amenity Trust own the site and managed the excavations. They are currently working on a plan to conserve the site, changing it from a “dig” and improving visitor accessibility. Until this is done, access may be restricted, but visitors are well cared for by knowledgeable guides. Contact Shetland Amenity Trust for details.
At 13m high Mousa Broch is the most complete broch anywhere – admittedly brochs only exist in Scotland. However, there were around 100 in Shetland alone. Archaeologists debate whether brochs were defensive towers or prestigious lairds’ houses or even something else. Perhaps, like castles, they were both. Broch construction was unique - an inner and outer wall, tied together with cross slabs, with chambers and galleries between the two. Visitors to Mousa can climb the irregular staircase to the wallheads and spot the ruined broch of Burraland on the opposite shore. Most brochs were partly dismantled later in the Iron Age, but Mousa was still useable in Viking/Norse times. The “Orkneyinga Saga” tells how, in AD 1153, an eloping couple barricaded themselves in.
Mousa is on a small island accessed by ferry during the summer months. At dusk in the early summer visitors can see ethereal storm petrels flittering in to change duty with their partners, nesting in the walls of the broch.
End your South Mainland day with a visit to St Ninian’s Isle. Cross the shimmering sandy tombolo to the island, where the chapel site has a history reaching back to the Iron Age. The chapel is best known for its Pictish treasure - 28 silver objects and the jaw bone of a porpoise – buried in a wooden box around 1500 years ago. The treasure was found by a Shetland schoolboy during an excavation in 1958. It looks like a personal collection rather than church silver. Chapels were considered safe places in times of danger. Was that danger approaching Vikings? Whatever it was, the owners never returned for their valuables.
The Vikings arrived in Shetland sometime around AD 850. To find them in abundance, head to Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island - the perfect base for raiding and trading across the North Atlantic. So far, archaeologists have identified the remains of around 60 probable longhouses. Three have been excavated recently and all were confirmed as longhouses. This is the greatest concentration of rural Viking farms anywhere in the Viking world. The Upper Underhoull longhouse is easy to visit being close to the road.
Unst boasts two spectacular walks through Viking / Norse landscapes. (“Norse” is technically the correct name for the settlers, “Viking” is a job description for raiders!) Starting at the Upper Underhoull longhouse, head to the broch which commands the bay and its impressive ramparts, then head down the slope to take in another longhouse, noosts above the bay, over the ridge to possible boat graves, and around the next bay to Lund chapel, with Viking crosses in the modern graveyard.
On the east coast, head down to the excavated longhouse at the Easting beach (Sandwick), along the extensive beach and beyond to Framgord, to find an unexcavated longhouse and another chapel with Viking crosses and some hogback stones or “keel stones” around them.
Just south of Haroldswick (Harold’s Bay) explore a reconstruction longhouse based on the excavated remains of the site at Hamar (also visitable), and bord the replica longship, “Skidbladner”.
The Vikings carved bowls, plates and smaller objects from the rock, or soapstone (steatite) at several places in Shetland. Find the shapes left behind in the rock in the lower reaches of the burn at Catpund (above the road), or following a walk, on the Ness of Hillswick, Fethaland in North Roe or the banks below Houbie, Fetlar. Shetland soapstone (rare in the UK) is one of the things which made the Vikings feel at home here.
Shetland’s Norse parliament was at Tingaholm in the Tingwall Valley. Business was conducted on the holm in the loch, a central and accessible place for people from all over Shetland. Later the centre of administration moved to Scalloway Castle, also worth a visit.
Some of Shetland’s most remarkable remains date back 4,000-5,000 years, to the Neolithic. These early farmers lived and farmed all over the islands, but visitors can literally fall over the remains of, not only their houses and burial cairns, but also their field walls and clearance heaps. On Shetland’s “West Side”. A good place to start is Scord of Brouster, on the road from the Bridge of Walls to Sandness. Excavated in the late 1970s, the houses and adjacent fields are easy to see, even to the untutored eye, with an interpretation board to help, and are close to the road. For the more adventurous, Pinhoulland, up a track just before the village of Walls, and following a walk across two fields, is my own favourite site. With eight or more houses, at least two burial cairns and field walls galore, this is an incredible, if little explored, site.
Stanydale “Temple” has been excavated and laid out for visitors. It is so called due to being exceptionally large, but also because the excavator was influenced by a stay in Malta. It is “heel-shaped” with a curving entrance and is set amongst Neolithic farms. Whether it was a religious building, a community hall or something else entirely, remains a mystery. However, it seems to be quite different to other houses of the period. (You pass one on the way to the “Temple”.) Unusually for Shetland, from the “Temple” you can’t see the sea in any direction.
The remains of the past are all around you in Shetland and these sites are just some of the easy to visit highlights. Whether you come here for a fortnight, a year or a lifetime, there is always more to discover.
Shetland: part of the UNESCO Global Geopark
Val Turner, Regional Archaeologist