By Anna Ritchie
British Archaeology, Issue 69 (2003)
Introduction: Jarlshof, Britain’s best-known Viking farmstead, owes its romantic name to Sir Walter Scott, who visited the Sumburgh promontory on Shetland in 1814 and later set there the opening scene of his novel, The Pirate.
All that was visible then were the ruins of the 17th century laird’s house, and it was this that Sir Walter named Jarlshof, or ‘Earl’s Mansion’, suggesting that ‘an ancient Earl of the Orkneys had selected this neck of land for establishing a mansion house’. He would have been gratified to know that excavations more than a century later proved that there had indeed been Viking Age settlement here, long before the laird’s house was built.
The archaeological remains at Jarlshof were first discovered in the late 19th century after storm damage to the shore revealed a number of massive stone walls. The landowner, John Bruce, carried out some promising initial excavations, and eventually gave the site to the State in 1925.
What had been exposed were not, in fact, the now-famous Viking farm buildings, but the walls of a much earlier, Iron Age broch. Indeed, Jarlshof is almost as celebrated for its prehistoric as for its later remains. The prehistoric sequence began probably in the late 3rd millennium BC with a few Neolithic houses, continuing through a well-preserved cluster of multi-celled Bronze Age buildings, an Iron Age domestic settlement with souterrains, and finally a large defended broch and courtyard, which doubtless survived into the Viking age.
However it is the Viking archaeology that strikes the visitor to Jarlshof most forcibly today. Laid out here at the southern tip of mainland Shetland are the most extensive remains of a Viking site visible anywhere in Britain. No substantial rural Viking sites were known when Jarlshof was excavated in the 1930s and late 1940s – first by Alexander Curle, then by Gordon Childe, James Richardson and finally John Hamilton. So this remote farmstead played a major role in creating the image we have of Viking occupation and lifestyle in northern Britain.