At the end of the 19th century violent storms tore into a small promontory in the South Mainland, exposing part of a multiperiod settlement, which in time came to be known as Jarlshof. The name of the site, meaning "earl's house", was created by Sir Walter Scott when writing The Pirate, and refers to a fictional house based on the 16th century laird's house, the Old House of Sumburgh, which towers over the prehistoric remains today.

Jarlshof enlarge Jarlshof Landowner John Bruce initially investigated the site between 1897 and 1905. Over the next 50 years Jarlshof attracted the attention of some of the most eminent archaeologists of the early 20th century, including Dr A.E. Curle, Professor V.G. Childe, Dr J.S. Richardson and finally J.R.C. Hamilton, who published the excavation results in 1957.

The earliest remains on the site are late Neolithic houses, followed by Bronze Age houses, two of which have underground passages attached, known as souterrains. These may have served as cold stores. A third souterrain curls beneath the hearth of one of the buildings and might have been for keeping grain dry. Smithing also took place in one of these. A broch was built in the Iron Age: today half of it has been eroded into the sea. The broch was subsequently modified and when it went out of use, at least four wheelhouses were built, partly using stone from the higher levels of the broch. One of these wheelhouses is almost complete and has corbelled cells surviving which demonstrate skilled drystone work.

Jarlshof boasts an impressive Norse settlement possibly originating in the 9th century. The earliest longhouse was in use for several generations, being modified and lengthened over time. The settlement expanded with the construction of further longhouses, barns and byres, but by the 13th century this had been replaced by a Medieval farmstead, comprising a farmhouse, barn and corn-drier.

From 1592 Sumburgh was leased to William Bruce of Symbister. Between 1604 and 1605 the estate fell into the possession of Earl Patrick but soon reverted back to the Bruce family. The property was ransacked by Earl Patrick in 1608 and reduced to ruins by the end of the century. The stones in the courtyard are believed to mark the graves of shipwrecked sailors.

Find more detailed information regarding the archaeology of Jarlshof at:

Canmore site record Jarlshof