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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.

The site is is located in a sheltered bay on the south of Mainland Island, Shetland, c. 2 km northwest of Sumburgh Head.

It is located in a sheltered bay on the south of Mainland Island, Shetland, c. 2 km northwest of Sumburgh Head.

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 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.

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.

Aerial view of the site
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The first Viking Age house
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Plan of the site
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Jarlshof: Viking Period Structures
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Jarlshof: the byre end of a Viking Period long house
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Jarlshof: Viking Period Structures
(click on the image to enlarge)

Jarlshof: Viking Period long house with Cattle Road
(click on the image to enlarge)