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Weisdale Valley. Copyright Robina Barton. Weisdale Valley. Copyright Robina Barton.ZoomPatterns of Settlement

Evidence of farming settlements in Shetland appeared around 5,000 years ago. As geology is a major influence on soil formation, these settlements were often based around bands of limestone, such as the Tingwall and Weisdale valleys, where the soil is most fertile. Other areas of settlement include Dunrossness and Burra, where wind-blown sand aided soil fertility. Early farmers also learned to improve soil fertility by adding organic materials and so evidence of prehistoric houses and fields can still be found in many areas of Shetland.

Mousa Broch. Copyright Shetland Amenity Trust. Mousa Broch. Copyright Shetland Amenity Trust.ZoomRocks for Building

Due to the lack of mature trees, rocks have been used as a building material in Shetland since the earliest times. This has resulted in some of the best preserved archaeology in Europe and fine examples of stonemasons' art. This is particularly evident with Brochs. Mousa, Culswick and Loch of Houlland have excellent examples of brochs, all constructed from very different materials.

Mousa is built using very slim sandstone, Culswick is built entirely with chunky pink granite and the Broch of Houlland is built from huge rectangular blocks of ignimbrite. The Broch of Houlland is particularly interesting as the Iron Age builders hauled these huge stones from a storm beach over a kilometre away in preference to using the much more brittle andesite that was available nearby. In contrast to this, the Broch at Old Scatness is built of the Old Red Sandstone on which it stands.

Shetland Knives. Copyright Shetland Amenity Trust. Shetland Knives. Copyright Shetland Amenity Trust.ZoomTools and Utensils

Between 7,000 and 5,500 years ago, Shetland’s first settlers were keenly aware of Shetland’s geological wealth and used the rocks around them as a fundamental resource. Flint is not found in Shetland so quartz was used to make arrowheads and scrapers. Coarse sandstones and schists were used for querns and millstones, while sandstones and siltstones were commonly used to make essential tools. 

Some rocks seem to have had aesthetic appeal or even ceremonial function. These include the highly polished axes, mace heads and the enigmatic ‘Shetland Knives’ fashioned at the Neolithic ‘axe factory’ in North Roe.

Neolithic potters ground down kleber (soapstone) to be used as an ingredient in pottery along with glacial clay. However, the greatest exploitation of this material occurred in Norse times. Soapstone was extensively quarried by Norse settlers to produce a range of functional and decorative objects, including fishing weights, cooking utensils and personal ornaments. Objects of Shetland soapstone have been found in association with Norse settlements throughout Britain and Ireland, suggesting a thriving export trade.