By Laurie GoodladJanuary 6th 2021
Laurie Goodlad

With thousands of scheduled sites and monuments, you may be at a loss as to which archaeological treasures to visit when you’re only in Shetland for a limited time. We outline the top archaeological attractions and take you on a voyage of discovery through 6,000 years of human history.

Start your historic tour by exploring and understanding Shetland’s full human story. The best place to begin is at the Shetland Museum & Archives, where you can explore their fascinating archaeological displays and get an idea of what life looked like to Shetland’s early settlers.

Mesolithic Shetland

Shetland has been permanently inhabited since Neolithic times (4-6,000 years ago) although people have been using the islands’ since Mesolithic times.

The first hunter-gatherers are believed to have arrived from the north of Scotland, crossing the Pentland Firth and the North Sea in small open boats; boats formed by stretching animal skins over simple wooden frames.

West Voe beach (pictured above) on the southern tip of Shetland’s South Mainland is the best place to get a sense of Mesolithic Shetland. In 2002, archaeological excavations revealed a Late Mesolithic shell midden at the beach. In simple terms, a shell midden is a rubbish heap; the detritus of human activity that provides archaeologists with vital clues about how hunter-gatherers lived and, more importantly, when they arrived. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the midden dates back some 6,000 years, making it the first Mesolithic site to be discovered and dated in Shetland, allowing a glimpse into the lives of the early hunter-gatherers in Shetland.

Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement is your next stop into discovering Shetland's past. This is one of the most important, and largest, multi-period sites in Europe, boasting an almost uninterrupted occupation from the first Neolithic farmers right up until the 1600s when the Stewart Earls ruled.


Shetland’s Neolithic period falls between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago and is characterised by the introduction of agriculture and farming. This period is sometimes known as the New Stone Age and sees the first farmers arrive and settle in Shetland.

Some of my favourite remnants of Neolithic Shetland are the standing stones that punctuate the landscape in many places. The best example is probably found near Lund in Unst, but if you train your eyes, you’ll find them scattered throughout the landscape.

Stanydale Temple is a must-see. Set in the heart of Shetland’s West Mainland, a short walk takes visitors into Neolithic Shetland and back in time some 4,000 years. The heel-shaped megalithic structure or temple – the only one of its kind in Shetland – remains shrouded in mystery and intrigue, tucked into the empty landscape.

Bronze Age

The Bronze Age is the next period we arrive in, and unlike other parts of Europe, Shetland’s Bronze Age was very brief. Evidence of bronze-working comes from Jarlshof where the Bronze Age house was re-purposed around 800 BC into a smithy. Bronze objects were produced by pouring molten bronze into clay moulds. Perhaps the most obvious remnant of Bronze Age Shetland is the numerous crescent-shaped burnt mounds, of which there are about 300, that occur throughout the islands. The best example of a reconstructed Burnt Mound can be found at Cruester in Bressay.

Iron Age

Shetland’s Iron Age is vast and can be split into three distinct periods taking us from about 500 BC to 850 AD and the arrival of the Vikings.

The Iron Age is perhaps best known for being a period where brochs were built and, in Shetland, there are over 100 known broch sites. The best-preserved broch is found on the island of Mousa, and it has recently been voted the best broch in the world.

A broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, built in the mid-Iron Age. They are unique to the north and west of Scotland, and archaeologists still do not agree on their purpose. Were they defensive structures? Agricultural grain stores? Homes for high-status members of the community or bolt-holes in times of strife or trouble? Perhaps we will never know? We know that they have a unique construction; built with a double-wall, giving an inner and outer wall with a staircase between the two, leading to the top.

The Broch era lasts for about 500 years with evidence of the first broch date from archaeological excavations at Old Scatness where Radiocarbon dates place the broch at 400 BC.


The Vikings are thought to have arrived in Shetland from western Norway about 850 AD and subsequently settled in the islands, giving rise to what is known as the Norse Period. Both Shetland and Orkney became Viking, and later Norse, strongholds until 1469 when the rule passed over to Scotland.

The best place to see evidence of the Vikings is in Unst where an archaeological project, Viking Unst, has excavated three longhouses (Hamar, Underhoull and Belmont) and built a reconstructed long-house and longship, Skidbladner, at Haroldswick. Unst is thought to have been the first point of landfall for these early Viking settlers who made the dangerous journey across the North Sea from Western Norway and Scandinavia. There are 60 longhouse sites in Unst – believed to be the highest density of rural Viking sites anywhere in the world.

In my next blog, I will explore Shetland’s transition into Scotland and how it has shaped the islands' culture and traditions, which are very much set apart from the rest of Scotland.