Shetland's past comes to life amid the ruins
HIDDEN beneath the turf of a windswept part of Shetland's coast lies the impressive remains of one of the longest inhabited spots in Britain. No-one knows what the earliest name of this settlement was, but from the rubbish they left we can tell a lot about the people who lived there over the years.
The people of Jarlshof threw garbage into dumps from before 2500 BC but, although their waste was unwanted, their refuse has been anything but rubbish for archaeologists investigating their lives. We know that the Stone Age settlers lived in small circular stone houses, that they tilled crops, kept cattle and sheep, and harvested the sea for fish and whales, seals and shellfish. They also made tools - some finely decorated - from stone, pottery and bone.
Life changed little for the people of Jarlshof between the Stone Age and Bronze Age. Soft local stone and bone was still used for tools and ornaments. The houses, which lie only a few metres from the Neolithic site, were more complex with cells dividing the interior space. Although metal was not yet commonplace, the arrival of a bronze smith who cast tools, weapons and ornaments made a big change to peoples' lives.
Iron Age settlers moved closer to the coast and, just as the previous Bronze Age occupants moved up the property ladder, their homes had thin stone partitions and were even more spacious than those who had lived there before them. The Iron Age occupants were fisherman and farmers. These industrious inhabitants kept their surplus produce in souterrains, or underground cellars, that brave visitors can creep around in today. These homes were later supplemented by a broch, a tall stone tower rising above the low houses that clustered nearby.
The continuous pattern of settlement shows how good a place Jarlshof was to live in and each successive group rebuilt and remodelled their surroundings. During the later Iron Age a deep sand blow built up behind the wall of the broch courtyard and this was dug out to provide a footing for a passage house with side compartments. These sort of structures were usually inhabited by Picts, the native peoples of eastern Scotland named by the Romans, and other finds from the site suggest that those who lived here certainly had a lot in common with these peoples. The Picts lived in the middle of the first millenium AD, just as the Scotland we know today began to take shape.
Around 800 AD a threat appeared on the horizon - the Vikings. At first these warriors set out to raid the coast but soon realised the opportunities of the fertile Scottish coastland, and so the raids turned into settlements. By the ninth century AD a Norse farmstead was built at the Jarlshof site and grew into a thriving community that lasted several centuries and left a maze of ruins from houses, byres and workshops. What happened to the previous inhabitants we do not know but recent research suggests that many of the Norse incomers took local wives.
The earliest surviving references to Jarlshof were made during the 18th century by Earl Robert Stewart, the laird of Shetland, about a "Palace at Dunrossness". This comprised a substantial stone building, of which only one wing remains, but it was to form part of a grander complex built by his son Earl Patrick in the following century. Earl Patrick's buildings were abandoned by the end of the 17th century, and the sand gradually reclaimed the surrounding farmlands burying all trace of previous life.
Archaeology unearths the possessions that endure the passage of time but these goods tell us more than what people owned; they tell us about the lives they lived. From the earliest Neolithic settlers who carefully decorated a fine bone plaque, to the Norse inhabitants who left illustrations of the ships that were so important to them, and a magnificent (if tiny) portrait of a handsome man with a beard who would surely have been proud to see his image survive - all of these relics tell us something of the stories of these people.
Small grave slabs set in rows in the courtyard of the old hall are believed the final resting place of ship-wrecked sailors - some of the most poignant reminders that people lived here.
In the 19th century the site was visited by Sir Walter Scott who christened the ruined hall "Jarlshof", and the name has stuck since. Sir Walter had no idea that these graves lay below the ruins he named; at the time the site remained a solitary building until the storms started to reveal the wealth of human history that lay beneath them, yet he was inspired to base part of his novel The Pirate here above their tombs. Perhaps their ghosts called to him just as the ruins of Jarlshof remind us of the ghostly echoes of those who once lived here.
Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist who lives and works in Orkney.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:
The ancient village of Skara Brae
Towers of stone – the brochs of Scotland
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