I visited the Shetland Islands in 2015 and again briefly in 2018. The islands are notable for the number of Neolithic house remains, a multi occupied site known as Jarlshof and an interesting so called Stanydale “temple,” a roofed building which was possibly a community hall or religious gathering site. There are strange burnt mounds (see my Orkney page for an excavated example) and single chambered cairns, many of which I did not see because of my limited time there.
Orkney has the huge megalithic cairns and stone circles. The monuments in Shetland are more intimate – Neolithic heel-shaped cairns with an entrance passage leading into a small chamber. Later burials are in cists. Discover Shetland and Kittywake Tours do good tours. Best easy book on the subject is Prehistoric and Viking Shetland by Noel Fojut and A Photographic Guide to Shetland’s History by David Malcolm. Here are some of the sites I saw in alphabetical order. If you click on the small photos they will become larger. I can supply larger photos if you want.
This stands on the hill looking down into the loch, east of the road to Busta, just before the cattle grid. There is a second stone nearby which may be fallen companion. There are various standing stones in the area which may be modern sailing marks but this looks like a Neolithic one because of its size.
No 49 in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland.
Brochs are Iron age circular towers 100 BC to 100 AD. Probably defensive, though it is not clear why it was suddenly necessary to build them. There is often a circular wall round them. The site started life as a simple fort with wooden buildings, then a fortified blockhouse was added
and finally a broch. This is within walking distance from the centre of Lerwick. Clickimin
is an easy walk from the centre of Lerwick and is free admittance.
No 21a in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland
A semi-circular cairn, heel shaped, ie rounded at the back and with a facade at the front. The entrance may have been blocked after abandonment of the grave. A rectangular single chamber. The setting is beautiful and worth the walk from Mavis Grind to the head of the bay. No 48 in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland. There are unexcavated chambered cairns all over the place, small compared with the huge passage graves of Orkney.
This is the site that is on everybody’s tour of the Shetland mainland. Well worth it, too. It is a site that was occupied from Neolithic times onward. The photos show the first neolithic house (left) , 2500-1500 BC, and the later bronze age building, 800 BC, which was a metal working smithy (lower left). Unless they just worked copper, they would have needed to import tin – perhaps from as far away as Cornwall.
On the right is the next building in time – the outside wall of a broch (upper right) 100 BC-100 AD. Then a very well preserved wheelhouse (lower right) 200-300 AD. Wheelhouses have a roof supported by dry stone walled piers arranged like the spoke of a wheel. You can see the piers in the photo which was taken from the roof. The use of stone meant a minimum of wood was required.
Later the site was occupied by the Vikings – there are remains of their long houses. Then a medieval farm was on the site.
And finally a Scottish laird built his posh house on it, partly covering the site of the broch. That too is a ruin now.
Jarlshof is no 25, in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland.
The best preserved broch, iron age tower, in the Shetlands. Well worth making the effort to see it as you can go inside and walk up the circular stair (on the inside of the tower) to the top. Was it a look out? A defensive structure? A posh house for the clan leader? Why did they suddenly have to build these huge defensive structures in 100 BC to 100 AD? Inside the stairs were wooden beams holding up six circular galleries. On the floor of the broch is a rock tank for water and a hearth. Many, if not all, brochs had a village surrounding them – see Gurness broch on the Orkney page. There’s a ferry boat from the mainland. Stormy petrels, tiny little birds that fly out and in only at dusk and dawn, net in the stonework and in the stone walls on the island. If you listen carefully and silently you may hear them purring on their nests. No 105 in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland.
A standing stone near the road just near the Tingwall loch which has a little mound on it. This is where the Ting, the thing, the law assembly for Shetland, was held by the Vikings but excavations suggest nothing much remains. Later the Ting was held in the church nearby. Until the 18th century there were said to be large stones there on which the people sat. Not impossible. Stones, sometimes prehistoric ones, were used as assembly points (see the Kiftsgate Stone in Gloucestershire, a moot stone) or stones used for crowning kings (the stone of Scoon or the King Stone in Kingston). The record is here.
Not far from Stanydale (below) is the site of a Neolithic houses. It is a whole neolithic landscape which you can see if you walk to the top of the hill (where the notice board is) and look downwards. A little further on is Galley hill, with a long Neolithic dyke (Shetland word for a wall). These are not unlike the very early reeves on Dartmoor in function.
This is the Stonehenge of the Shetlands – an exceptionally large Neolithic house, easily twice as big as some of the neolithic oval houses nearby (see photo on the above right). A temple it isn’t! We know it was probably roofed because there are two post holes in the centre of the building. As Shetland is, and presumably was, almost without trees, these holes presumably held tree trunks that washed up on the shoreland. Pottery from here suggests it was in use from the late Neolithic through the Bronze Age. Number 18 in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland.
The photo to the right show standing stones to the south of the main monument. Calder, the original excavator, suggest they are “all that is left of a complete circle or oval that may have surrounded the building.” With modern excavation techniques this might be established.
His original paper, “Report on the Excavation of a Neolithic Temple at Staneydale in the parish of Sandsting, Shetland,” Inventory of Shetland, Twelth Report, vol iii, 185-205 is available via the Staneydale Wikipedia entry.
Probably the hugest standing stone in Shetland, 3.8 m high and thick with it. A real whopper! I have put myself in the photo this time to show how large it is. This stone is in Unst. I was taken there by David Malcolm, historian and guide, and his daughter Kitty of Kittywake tours. David took the photo.
No 30 in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland.
A slender upright stone not far from Muness castle in Unst. There is a companion stone, squat shaped and built into a wall. You can just see it at the back of the photo. Worth a look at the ruined castle while you are there.
No 31 in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland.
A ruined broch with ramparts on the edge of a slope leading down to the site of several Iron Age round houses and a souterrain (see lower right). On which has been built a rectangular Norse house (see lower left).
No 88 in Prehistoric and Viking Shetland.