Articles - Shetland Digs
For the summer and autumn of 1814, Sir Walter Scott joined a party of Commissioners for the Northern Lighthouse Service on a voyage around the coast of Scotland. Their main aim was to check the condition of the many lighthouses in their charge.
It seems to have been an agreeable trip and the company got along very well. On Orkney, Sir Walter Scott ‘learned the history of Gow the pirate from an old sibyl’ and for much of the rest of the voyage, he was left alone on deck, pacing and muttering to himself as he plotted a new novel.
From Orkney, they sailed on to the Shetland Islands where Scott became acquainted with the Roost of Sumburgh – tides ‘running with force only inferior to the Pentland Firth,’ as he describes in the introduction to his tale, The Pirate.
As well as fierce currents, Sumburgh Head, at the southern tip of the mainland of Shetland, has a craggy coastline that is deeply indented with sandy bays. Of a once impressive building at the head of one of these inlets, Scott wrote, ‘Yarlshof (his spelling) seemed to imply an ancient Earl of the Orkneys had selected this neck of land as the place for establishing a mansion house. It has long been deserted and the vestiges only can be discerned with difficulty. But at the end of the 17th century a part of the Earl’s mansion was still entire and habitable.’
At the time Sir Walter Scott gave the building the name ‘Yarlshof’, sand had filled the rooms to a depth of three feet and the township’s few cottages were ‘wretched’.
On the surrounding land, ‘it was hardly possible,’ he said, ‘to raise the most culinary vegetables. As for shrubs or trees, they are entirely out of the question such is the force of the sweeping sea – blast.’
If the cottages reminded Scott of a Scottish ‘ferm toun’ that is less than surprising. In 1469 Shetland came under the control of the Scottish king, James 111, and many Scots moved there.
In the sixteenth century the lordship of Shetland passed into the hands of Earl Robert Stewart, an illegitimate son of James V. His ‘Palace at Dunrossness’ as he called it, in which the local magistrate held his court, was the New Hall, the building nearest to the ancient Norse settlement of Jarlshof (as the site has come to be known).
In 1592, William Bruce Symbister leased the house from Earl Robert. From 1604 to 1605, Earl Patrick, Robert’s son, had possession and he built another house that came to be known as the ‘Old house of Sumburgh.’ This was the building that Sir Walter Scott later named ‘Yarlshof’ and set in his novel, The Pirate.
Unbeknown to Scott, there was far more to Jarlshof than a sand-filled ruin and a few sad looking houses.
At the end of the 19th century violent storms broke into the low cliffs at Jarlshof. The landowner, Mr. Bruce dug into the sand and discovered structures that were still in place from the day they had been built during the Iron Age. In 1925, he placed the site in the care of the State. Archaeological excavations have since revealed many more exciting finds.
When a plane is due to arrive or take off from Sumburgh Airport vehicles must stop and wait at the roadway barriers. As soon as the runway is clear, the roadside warning lights stop flashing, the barriers lift, and drivers can then carry on their way across the runway. After hardly any distance, a turn off leads to the car park of the Sumburgh Hotel and the start of the short path which ends at Jarlshof. From the trappings of the 21st century you can wander into the stone outline of a building where a blacksmith wielded a hammer some 2800 years ago.
The entrance fee to Jarlshof includes headphones and an audio cassette which gives information on what lies beneath your feet as you make your way round the site.
Near the first stopping place, three middens (rubbish dumps) were found separate from each other by layers of wind-blown sand. The lowest, or earliest midden, was piled beside hearths and much-damaged walls. Pottery found here has been dated to before 2500 BC but nothing is known about the people.
In one house the remains of four freshly made steatite (soapstone) bowls were found and among the many stone tools were ploughshares and cleavers. Bone chisels and awls suggest that leather working was common and leather clothing may have been worn.
The middle midden revealed that the inhabitants grew grain, kept cattle and sheep and fished the sea. It’s not known what happened after the visible house, (associated with the middle midden) was abandoned, but it is likely that the occupants moved to other nearby sites.
The latest (topmost) midden is of roughly the same date as the Bronze Age village nearby.
From there, a few steps takes you forward in time to the remains of a large Iron Age roundhouse standing in the courtyard of a Broch built about 2000 years ago. The houses here have distinctive cells formed by thick buttresses extending into the living space and are of a type that can be traced back well before 2000BC in Shetland.
By this time, the introduction of iron had probably eased some tasks involving cutting and piercing. Spindle whorls show that thread was made from fibres, implying woollen cloth was now in use for clothes and coverings.
The villagers farmed in much the same way as their forebears. They bred sheep, including Soay and other breeds similar to modern day Shetland sheep. They kept short-horned cattle, a few pigs, and ponies the size of modern Shetland breeds. They were active fishermen and also hunted grey seals and walruses on the beaches of offshore islands.
In the fields around the village, cereal crops like bere (an early form of barley) and emmer (a kind of wheat) were grown. Stone querns were used to grind the grain. Seeing the actual hollowed out querns and heavy stones used in the grinding process is proof that making a loaf of bread would not have been a quick or easy job.
It’s difficult for visitors to disentangle the Jarlshof Broch from later structures since there are cells in its wall thickness, a courtyard attached to it, and a roundhouse with an outhouse in the courtyard. How tall this broch stood when it was complete is not accurately known. The surviving solid base is 2.4m high but many great stones found nearby during excavation had probably fallen from the upper storeys.
The tallest broch known in Shetland, and the best preserved in Scotland, is found on the Island of Mousa, about 15 miles from Jarlshof. Mousa Broch stands 13m high but many others were probably no more than 5 to 6m tall. Brochs may have served as fortified farmhouses for the leading families of the area and as watchtowers to guard the shores. It’s thought that inside the towers there could have been several wooden floors where people lived.
Jarlshof is 48 hours by sailing boat from the coast of Norway. In the 9th century AD, Shetland became an important link in the raiding and migration routes ‘west over sea’ to Britain, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. There are indications that the Norse settlement at Jarlshof expanded and contracted over several centuries, perhaps some twelve to sixteen generations. After its first phase, it seems by comparison, with sites in Norway and Greenland, to have been more than a simple farm.
The first Norse dwelling house was a bow-sided building about 75ft long and built of drystone and turves, except for its east gable which was of timber. It was divided into two rooms, the hall or living room, and a much smaller kitchen or pantry. The hall was provided with a characteristic long hearth down its centre, with raised platforms on either side for both sitting and sleeping. Outbuildings consisted of a byre for wintering animals, a barn for storing their fodder, stables and a small smithy. Another building of similar size to the smithy may have been a bath house where water could have been thrown over hot stones to make a steamy sauna.
Amongst many changes over the years, new buildings and extensions were added when necessary to the original farm complex. Barns and byres were built. Houses were lengthened and the inhabitants continued to exploit both the land and the sea.
There must also have been some leisure time. Beautifully carved bone pins have been found that were used as cloak fasteners. Various types show thistle - head, axe -head, or cross-head designs. The high quality animal – head pins are similar to those found alongside 11th century remains in Dublin. Clearly, Jarlshof stayed in touch with other parts of the Norse world.
From Jarlshof, it’s only a short drive north to another site known as Old Scatness. Here again there are remains of a broch, an Iron Age village and evidence of a Viking settlement. But since the overall site is an ongoing ‘dig’ in progress, visitors are given a guided tour.
“As you can see from the stone work on the face of the Broch, it’s very well built,” said the guide. “We believe it stood around 15m high and was at least as tall as the Broch on the Isle of Mousa which is missing 1m in height of stone. The internal staircase runs clockwise up the structure which seems to have been of some significance to these early people.”
In the remains of a building close by, thought to be Pictish from around the time of the late Iron Age, part of a slab of stone was found that shows the outline of a bear. Since it is a very fine depiction, complete with teeth and claws, this is another mystery. Who was the artist? Where did he usually work? How did he come by his knowledge of such an animal?
“We think an artist, an extremely good one, has been brought here to create this symbol for a chief,” said the guide. “The bear was an emblem of power and strength.”
Since Scatness Broch is central amongst several other brochs, the guide suggested that this site might have been some sort of administration centre or even the site of a parliament. Geophysical research revealed the whole site to be fairly extensive, and potentially, archaeologists could be kept working there for a very long time.
Another unusual feature at Scatness is that two replicas of dwellings from Pictish times have been built to give the researchers more practical information on daily living conditions within such structures. As well, over the summer, members of a living history group try and recreate some of the everyday skills of the period such as metal working, spinning, baking, beer making and carving local soapstone to make replica artefacts.
At one side of the path leading in to the Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village there is a relatively recent, fine stone built house. This was where Betty Mouat lived - Scatness’ most famous resident. In January 1886, this sixty year old lady boarded the smack (a small sailing boat) Columbine at Scatness to sail to Lerwick. However, during the storm, the crew were lost and she spent nine days and nights alone on board existing only on milk she had brought with her. Eventually the smack was driven ashore at Lepsoy, Norway. She became a celebrity and her story was told in many newspapers. Subscription funds were opened and even Queen Victoria contributed.
Little could Betty Mouat have imagined that her home would in time be refurbished, renamed, ‘Betty Mouat’s Bod’ and given a new purpose. The hostel now offers simple accommodation to visitors from around the world.
The history of Scatness is slowly being uncovered and archaeologists are learning about Betty Mouat’s predecessors.
I wonder what she would have made of the fact that she was living on top of one of the most important archaeological sites in Shetland.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage