email
Jarlshof, Shetland

Scotland: Shetland - Sumburgh Head, Ness of Burgi, Jarlshof
June 2021

Sumburgh Head Ness of Burgi & West Voe Beach Jarlshof
Puffins, Sumburgh Head

Fabulous walks, ancient history, gorgeous scenery and puffins!

Shetland pages:
Sumburgh Head, Ness of Burgi, Jarlshof
Old Scatness, St Ninian's Isle, Mousa
Lerwick, Scalloway
Eshaness, Stanydale Temple

Sumburgh Head

Sumburgh Head
Sumburgh Hotel is on the far left of this shot, Sumburgh Head and lighthouse in the distance, Jarlshof on the headland.

 

We stayed at the Sumburgh Hotel, right next to Jarlshof and within easy walking distance of Sumburgh Head. We had a lovely corner room on the upper floor with views up to Sumburgh Head and out over the sea to Fair Isle. We also spotted Harbour Porpoises making their way from the open sea across the bay.

The food here was excellent, some of the best we had on Shetland - really superb lamb and very good fish and chips. Though sunny it was quite cold so we also appreciated the hot roast parsnip soup they did us for lunch one day!

 

Sumburgh Head
Fair Isle, from our room at the Sumburgh Hotel.
Sumburgh Head
Sumburgh Head from our room at the Sumburgh Hotel.
Sumburgh Head
Sumburgh Head puffin

We ambled up to the lighthouse on Sumburgh on a gloriously sunny afternoon, our main aim to see the puffins.

Sumburgh Head puffin
Our first puffin at Sumburgh Head.
Sumburgh Head guillemots
Lots of guillemots.
Sumburgh Head puffins

 

It's a really nice walk and there were a lot of puffins near the lighthouse on the grassy edges of the cliffs.

Sumburgh Head puffins
Sumburgh Head puffins
Sumburgh Head puffins
The puffins nest in burrows dug into the cliff face.

 

Sumburgh Head puffins
Sumburgh Head puffins
Sumburgh Head puffins
Sumburgh Head puffins
Sumburgh Head
Looking back from Sumburgh Head to the Sumburgh Hotel in the distance on the right with the bright curve of West Voe beach behind and the northern end of the Ness of Burgi.

Seeing puffins was one of my aims for the holiday so I was especially happy!

Sumburgh Head
Drifts of pink thrift on the cliff tops.
Sumburgh Head

 

Ness of Burgi & West Voe Beach

Ness of Burgi
The southern end of Ness of Burgi, seen from Sumburgh Head.
Ness of Burgi
Ness of Burgi

 

On another beautiful day we had a very gentle walk to the Iron Age fort on the Ness of Burgi, not far from the hotel, near the southern tip of Scat Ness stretching south from the western end of West Voe Beach. Ness of Burgi derives from Old Norse, "ness" meaning promontory, and "burgi" from borg meaning fort.1

The walk is lovely, mostly over grassland, with views all around, lots of seabirds. However, there are some quite difficult rocky sections to be negotiated including a very narrow, rocky stretch with a fixed chain to hold onto.

Ness of Burgi
Looking east to Sumburgh Head.

Ness of Burgi
Ness of Burgi
Ness of Burgi

It's an impressive site, spanning almost the full width of the small south-east promontory, and would have been easily defensible, especially as there was a shallow, double ditch and massive bank1 on its northern side, and with great views out to sea - perhaps a lookout post?

Ness of Burgi
Approaching the fort.
The nearer structure is very recent, built using material retrieved during excavations.
Ness of Burgi
The fort stretching across almost the full width of the promontory on the Ness of Burgi.
Ness of Burgi
The central passage and entrance to the south-west chamber.

It is described as a blockhouse, rectangular in shape, built and occupied at much the same time as the brochs, perhaps around 100BC.

Ness of Burgi

The structure measures approximately 23m by 5.5m with the walls surviving to a height of around 1.5m.1 There is an entrance on both the long north-west and south-east faces connected by a passageway.

Ness of Burgi
Ness of Burgi
The north-east and north west faces of the fort.

Off the passageway there is a large chamber on each side. The chamber on the north east side is entered from the passage, that on the south-west side has a low entrance on its south-east face.

On the south west end there is another chamber, the entrance to which has been lost. The north east end is neatly walled.

Ness of Burgi
The chamber at the south west end.
Ness of Burgi
The south-west end of the fort looking to the southern end of Scat Ness and an island further south.
Ness of Burgi
An old farmhouse with kiln, used for drying grain.Ness of Burgi
Mostly Spring Squill.

The fort would have been visible from nearby, but more ruinous, "Scatness North" fort, and the now largely destroyed, fort on Sumburgh Head, and also from Jarlshof. Forts that were visible to one another may have been instrumental in early warning of attack.

Ness of Burgi

 

Ness of Burgi
There were lots of Arctic terns around.

The curve of golden sand that is West Voe Beach stretches east from the north end of Scat Ness.

Ness of Burgi
Looking north from Scat Ness to West Voe Beach, with Sumburgh airport behind, Jarlshof and the Sumburgh Hotel to the right.
West Voe Beach
West Voe Beach
West Voe Beach
West Voe Beach
Sumburgh Hotel at the east end of West Voe Beach.

 

Jarlshof

Jarlshof

 

This remarkable archaeological site spans thousands of years, from the early Neolithic to the age of the Vikings. It was rediscovered in the late 19th century after a huge storm revealed traces of large structures around the Jarlshof - a Laird's home so-named by Walter Scott.2

The on-site notice boards and a very good Youtube video by Historic Environment Scotland help to identify the structures.

Jarlshof
Early Neolithic dwellings.

The location is little short of ideal for a settlement. The curved, shallow bay of West Voe is perfect for fishing and gathering shellfish and evidence from middens suggests shellfish were an important part of the diet. There are freshwater springs nearby, fertile land for agriculture, and good grazing pastures.

The earliest houses, from Neolithic times around 5,000 ago, were oval in shape, possibly roofed with wood and turf, though the wood was probably driftwood as trees were rare in Shetland.

The Neolithic structures are not well-preserved but display a bare interior with a central hearth.

Jarlshof
These structures began life as Bronze Age homes but were remodelled and were still in use in the Iron Age.

The Bronze and Iron Age structures are much better preserved, and there seems to be significant overlap in use.

Jarlshof
Earlier Bronze Age dwelling; partly converted to a smithy.
Jarlshof
Many querns, for grinding grain, were discovered at Jarlshof, this one in a Bronze Age home.

The Bronze Age homes, established some time between 2,000 and 1,500BC, were in use for an extended period. The earliest homes were oval with recesses, which may have been for beds, and may have had a central hearth. Later they became more circular, the central space expanded, and the recesses disappeared.

Jarlshof
Bronze Age home with hearth.
Jarlshof
Into the Iron Age.

Around 800BC one of the Bronze Age houses was adapted to work as a smithy, with charcoal as fuel for the fire. Here molten bronze was poured into clay moulds to cast weapons, such as swords, and tools, such as axes.

The circular shape of the houses became more regular in the early Iron Age, around 600-400BC. Two of the Iron Age roundhouses have underground spaces which may have been used for storage or rituals.

Around 100BC, still the Iron Age, a large broch was built on the coastal side of the settlement. It has been severely eroded by the sea which has removed around half of the broch and adjacent areas, as a result of which an illuminating cross-section of the interior has been revealed.

Jarlshof
The south edge of the site - anything further south was lost to coastal erosion. Further damage is now prevented by a wall between the site and the sea.
The floor tank sits in a chamber between the concentric walls of the broch.

Double-walled and circular in shape this broch is fairly typical, around 20m external and 10m internal diameter, probably around 10m high. A 4m deep well is located in the middle of the floor and there is evidence of at least one upper floor.

Jarlshof
The remains of the outer wall of the broch.
Jarlshof
Inside the broch.

Not long after the broch was built, a walled courtyard was added on its western side, the wall curving round to meet the broch on its northern side.

Jarlshof
The interior of one of the earlier Iron Age houses within the outer courtyard of the broch.
Jarlshof
Inside a beautifully preserved wheelhouse.
Jarlshof
Inside the broch, the original well remains in place.
Jarlshof
What the interior of a broch might have looked like.
Site information board.

Within the courtyard a number of houses were erected, not quite circular, soon replaced by circular wheelhouses, and one wheelhouse was built inside the broch, which had probably been reduced in height. Jarlshof has the best examples of wheelhouses discovered anywhere. These wheelhouses date from some time around 200AD.

Jarlshof
The wall of a wheelhouse (left) cuts the internal space of one of the earlier Iron Age houses within the outer courtyard of the broch, slicing through what was once the central hearth.

Wheelhouses are unique to the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland. They are characterised by thick, sturdy dry stone walls and a central hearth, with the area around the hearth divided by walls, like the spokes of a wheel. What these compartments were used for is unknown - perhaps they were bed recesses.

Jarlshof
A well-roofed tunnel such as this would have afforded protection from the elements as the people moved between buildings.

The upper parts of the "spoke" walls were corbelled and slabs of stone laid on top to cover the compartments. The centre was probably covered by a wood and thatch or turf roof. The fire and simple oil lamps would have provided light. No doubt they were warm places of refuge from the strong winds and cold weather.

Jarlshof
This wheelhouse is almost perfectly preserved, its walls close to their original height, and gives an excellent impression of what it must have been like to live in one of these homes.
Jarlshof
The south end of what is thought to be the first Viking longhouse at Jarlshof

After some time the wheelhouses fell into disuse and simpler homes were constructed. In the latest of these a few stones with scratched designs typical of the Pictish era were found.

Around 900AD new settlers began to arrive. The Vikings, as they were known, may have had intermittent contact with the people of Jarlshof when they came to trade and then decided to stay. At first there was a single farm on the northern outskirts of the settlement which underwent many modifications and even rebuilding to form the core of the small village that grew here.

Jarlshof
The north end of what is thought to be the first Viking longhouse at Jarlshof.

The new settlers brought a very different architecture with them which itself evolved. In the early period of the village the homes were long and rectangular with an integrated internal space at one end for cattle. Later the cattle were housed in separate buildings, possibly abandoned farmsteads, and later still the integrated byre became common again. There was a kitchen at one end and a large living area. This longhouse style, including an integrated byre, was in use in Shetland well into the twentieth century.

Jarlshof
The clear outline of a Viking longhouse.

At any one time there seems to have been no more than four occupied dwellings, and more typically only one or two.

The Viking village lasted for about 400 years. In the late 1200s a new building was erected to the east of the Viking village, a farmhouse with a corn-drying kiln and a barn. Shorter and wider than the Viking houses, over the next 300 years it was rebuilt at least four times and what is now visible dates mostly from its last incarnation, around 1500, at a time when Shetland was no longer governed by Norway and had become part of Scotland.

Jarlshof
The remains of the medieval farm. The interior is more complex than the simple spaces of the previous homes.

The final building on the site is the Laird's House, built at the end of the sixteenth century by Earl Robert Stewart and his son Patrick, who succeeded him in 1593. The Stewarts never lived here, leasing it to William Bruce. Patrick, known as "Black Patie", was an unpleasant man, whose son was hanged for rebellion in 1614 and his Patrick was beheaded the following year. The Bruce family moved to a new home on the site of the Sumburgh Hotel in the early 1600s and the building fell into disrepair. The courtyard was used for a time as a burial ground in the 1700s, the final stage in the long history of this fascinating site until excavations began.

Jarlshof
The remains of the Laird's House ("Jarlshof" coined by Sir Walter Scott after a visit) on the south side of the courtyard, built by "Black Patie". On the right the low walls are all that remain of New Hall built by his father Robert. The courtyard is said to have been used as a temporary graveyard when the parish graveyard at Quendale was overwhelmed by sand.
Jarlshof

 

 

References

  1. Statement of Significance - Ness of Burgi HES Publications
  2. Statement of Significance - Jarlshof HES Publications