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Aerial view of the settlement
click to enlarge

(click on the following images to enlarge them)

Jarlshof (O.S. grid reference: HU 398095) is a multi-period settlement complex which was in use from the Bronze Age until the 19th century.

Historic Scotland have produced a very interesting computer-aided video on the Jarlshof site.

It is located in a sheltered bay on the south of Mainland Island, Shetland, c. 2 km northwest of Sumburgh Head. (see Google satellite view)

Its evocative name, which means "Earl's Mansion", was created by Sir Walter Scott for his novel 'The Pirate' and referred to the ruins of the later house that still dominates the site.  It is not an original place-name.

The settlement had been occupied for centuries, but was still on a small scale when the Viking settlers recognised the potential of the site.



The first Viking Age house was a bow-sided building c. 23 m long built of drystone and turves, with a timber east gable.

The house was dived into two rooms: the main living area, or hall and a smaller kitchen, or pantry.

The hall had a raised platform (O.N. langbekkr) on each of its long sides for sitting and sleeping, and a central long hearth (O.N. langeldr).

The outbuildings consisted of a byre for the animals in winter, a barn for storing fodder, a small smithy and a building that has been interpreted as a small bath house, where water would have been thrown on hot stones creating a kind of sauna.

The Viking Age settlement covers a long period - probaby from the 9th to the 11th centuries, although dating is not at all precise.

During that time, many houses were replaced or rebuilt, so that the site presents a complex picture of walls of several periods overlying each other.

Finds from the site suggest that the occupants were primarily farmers, although fishing seems to become more important in the later phases.

The settlement grew quickly during its initial stages, although there are indications that the settlement grew smaller again in its latest phase.

Some of the buildings are of the type known as 'long houses' where a central passageway divides the living area with its langeldr from a byre with stalls and a central stone drain.

Some of these long houses had a paved road for the cattle leading to the byre door, as shown in the photograph on the left.

In Shetland, the idea of a house with accommodation for both humans and animals persisted until the 19th century, with the so-called 'black houses' - a cottage with living quarters at one end and a byre at the other.

See Also:

Shetland Heritage and Culture: Jarlshof

Undiscovered Scotland: Jarlshof