Worldclass Archaeology

Shetland’s rich archaeological landscape deserves to be better known. The fact that the islands have never been heavily populated or intensively farmed means that many sites have survived that, in other circumstances, might have been lost.

Shetland’s rich archaeological landscape deserves to be better known. The fact that the islands have never been heavily populated or intensively farmed means that many sites have survived that, in other circumstances, might have been lost. Some of the remains are extensive but subtle, such as field boundaries. Others are among the most impressive in the UK, such as the Broch of Mousa, the only broch anywhere that is virtually complete. Archaeology in Shetland also embraces relics from two world wars and a huge reservoir of shipwrecks, finds from which can be seen in several of our museums.

Shetland is an archaeological paradise, not only for professional archaeologists but for anyone interested in the past.

There are impressive remains all over the islands and Unst, for example, is known for its Viking legacy. However, to give you a flavour of what’s available, here’s a brief guide to some key sites in the south of Shetland that you might visit over a couple of days. Three of these, Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof, are on the UK’s tentative list for World Heritage status.

Clickimin Broch

Starting in Lerwick, Clickimin Broch is one of the better-preserved examples and, situated on a promontory in the loch of the same name, it’s very easy to reach and always open, with no admission charge. The broch itself is supplemented by other buildings said to date from as early as the late Bronze Age and the site’s occupation spanned at least 1,500 years, from around 1000 BC. Much, though, is unknown – and intriguing!

Much, though, is unknown – and intriguing!

Scalloway Castle & Museum

Just ten minutes or so to the west of Lerwick, Scalloway Castle looms over the village, rather as the man who built it, Earl Patrick Stewart, imposed his often harsh rule on Shetland. In 1615, just 16 years after its construction began, he was executed for his behaviour. However, it marks an important phase in the islands’ history and the structure is impressive, and a testament to the skills of those who were forced to labour in its creation. It’s free to visit: pick up the key from the adjacent Scalloway Museum when it’s open, or at other times from the Scalloway Hotel.

Mousa Broch

Heading into the South Mainland, the broch on the island of Mousa is visible from the main road as you approach Sandwick. It’s astonishingly complete and you can (carefully) climb the stairs and stand on the wallhead. It was last used as a refuge by an eloping couple, Erlend and Margaret; Margaret’s son, Earl Harold, found it an “unhandy place to get at”. Today, the passenger ferry from the hamlet of Leebitton makes it much easier and although there’s a fare to pay for the trip, entry to the broch itself is free.

Mousa supported eleven households in 1794 but became uninhabited when the last family (Smith) left in 1853.

Old Scatness

Near Sumburgh Airport you’ll find two extensive and important sites. Travelling from Lerwick, the first you come to is Old Scatness, accidentally uncovered during road construction in 1975 and excavated from the late 1990s. Archaeologists unearthed a large broch, dating from between 400BC and 200BC, tightly surrounded by an Iron Age village. The structures were later adapted by Pictish people and then by Vikings. Among the many finds was a stone with a carving of a bear. Old Scatness is currently open on Fridays from mid-May until the beginning of September and a season ticket costs £5 for adults and £4 for children.

Jarlshof

Occupation at Jarlshof, just a mile south-east of Old Scatness, stretched from the Neolithic period into the 1600s AD. There are impressive remains from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Viking and mediaeval periods. Again, there’s a broch, this time accompanied by a large roundhouse, four wheelhouses and an extensive Viking farmstead with its characteristic longhouse. An excellent visitor centre helps make sense of it all. It’s open all year, with tickets (adults £5.50/£4.40; older children £3.30; under-5s free) available from the visitor centre from April to September (9.30am-5.30pm). Outside those months, the site is open until dusk, with tickets obtainable from the adjacent Sumburgh Hotel.

On the way north to Lerwick, the western route via Spiggie leads to Bigton, starting point for a visit to St Ninian’s Isle, which is linked to the mainland by a spectacular sand tombolo. On the east-facing slopes of the island stood a chapel where, in 1958, a Shetland schoolboy was helping with excavation of the site. He lifted a slab marked with a cross and found 28 items of Pictish silverware that included jewellery, various bowls and weapons, apparently hidden here to escape the attention of Viking invaders; replicas are in the Shetland Museum and the originals are in Edinburgh. You can visit the chapel freely at any time, except when – as happens during high tides in winter – the tombolo is flooded.

Taking in all of these sites isn’t possible in one day, so we’d suggest you might consider visiting Clickimin, Scalloway and Mousa on one day and Old Scatness, Jarlshof and St Ninian’s Isle on another. However, the south mainland has much more to offer; you certainly won’t want to miss Sumburgh Head and time spent at other sites, such as the Croft House Museum, Quendale Mill and the Ness of Burgi, will be well rewarded.

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