Situated between Norway and mainland Scotland, the Shetland Islands are an archipelago made up of about 100 different islands, of which 12 are inhabited. Boasting an ancient civilisation that predates the Vikings and the Pics, Shetland is home to incredible Neolithic archaeological sites such as Jarlshof and Old Scatness, which feature parts dating back to 2500 BC.
Its landscape has been shaped by billions of years of shifting sands and sea, meaning that its dramatic landscape is internationally famous. Shetland’s historic sites are ever-changing, depending on when you visit – for instance, at the height of summer, the sun barely sets, save for a few twilight hours known by Shetlanders as ‘Simmer Dim’.
Here’s our pick of some of the Shetland Island’s most stunning historic sites.
Originally built in Sweden, intended for the United States, and now residing in the Shetland Islands, The Skidbladner is a full size replica of the Gokstad ship which was found in a Viking burial mound in Norway in 1880. The Gokstad ship was built around the year 890 AD during the busy and seafaring Viking Age. It is thought to have been built during the reign of Harald Fairhar, who is said to have landed in Unst, and after whom the bay of Haroldswick is named.
It was discovered by two farm boys on a farm who dug into a large burial mound called ‘the king’s mound’ when they were bored one autumn. Today, visitors can board the ship and feel what it was like to have been aboard a Viking vessel, with living history demonstrations in the summer enhancing the experience. While you’re in the area, take a look at the reconstructed Viking longhouse right next to the ship, which offers a fascinating insight into the methods used to create such buildings.
Located in Shetland, Scotland, Jarlshof is the best-known prehistoric archaeological sites in the UK. Containing remains dating from 2500 BC up to the 17th century AD, Jarlshof has been described as ‘one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles.’ The site was discovered after severe storms in the late 19th century washed away part of the shore, revealing existence of the ancient buildings. Archaeological excavation began in 1925 and Bronze Age relics were swiftly discovered.
Buildings on the site include the remains of a Bronze Age smithy, an Iron Age broch and roundhouses, a complex of Pictish wheelhouses, a Viking longhouse, and a medieval farmhouse. Visitors can visit the Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, oval-shaped Bronze Age houses, and the visitor centre which contains a rich collection of artefacts which span different eras. It’s also stunningly scenic, being located on a headland overlooking the West Voe of Sumburgh.
3. Mousa Broch
Mousa Broch is amongst the best preserved pre-historic buildings in Europe. Standing on the island of Mousa, the Iron Age roundhouse is thought to have been constructed in around 300 BC, and stands at 13m tall. It is one of an estimated 500 or so brochs that were constructed in Scotland.
Incredibly, the broch is mentioned twice in Norse sagas. One notes how an eloping couple took refuge there after a shipwreck en route to Iceland in AD 900, while another describes it as ‘an unhandy place to get at’ for an attack. Today, it is a scenic tourist attraction.
4. Sumburgh Head Lighthouse
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse in was built in 1821 by Robert Stevenson, and is the oldest lighthouse in Shetland. A category A listed building, from 1906 to 1987 it had an active foghorn which replaced a fog bell, which now hangs in the parish church at Dunrossness.
In 1991, the keepers houses were converted into holiday accommodation. In 2015, the foghorn was restored and sounds on special occasions. Today, there are plans to properly restore the lighthouse facilities and build a visitor centre.
5. Scalloway Castle
Scalloway Castle was built in around 1600 by Patrick Stewart, earl of Orkney and Shetland. Nicknamed ‘Black Patie’, he was notorious for his poor treatment of the Shetland people, and was accused of using forced labour for Scalloway’s construction. He was eventually executed in Edinburgh in 1615. The castle itself is a prominent example of a late 1500s tower house, and is one of only two castles constructed in Shetland.
In 1653, troops were stationed there, and by the early 18th century, it was described as being in poor condition. The castle ruins were placed into state care in 1908, and are now maintained by Historic Scotland. Excavations in 1979-80 revealed the remains of 17th century outbuildings to the north of the castle.
6. Fort Charlotte
Fort Charlotte is a five-sided artillery fort featuring bastions and half-bastions in the centre of Lerwick. The first incarnation of the fort was built between 1652 and 1653 during the First Anglo-Dutch War; however, little is known of the original structure. The second structure was built under Charles II on the same site at the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665. It was burnt by the Dutch in 1673 during the Third Anglo-Dutch War.
It was rebuilt in its current form in 1781 and named after George III’s wife. It was later used as a custom house and jail, and today is the base of the Shetland Army. It makes for a scenic visit.
7. Muness Castle
A splendid example of tower house architecture, Muness Castle is located on Unst. Built in 1598 for Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie, half-brother to Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney. He was a prominent figure during a turbulent time in Shetland, and was accused of oppressing the Shetland people.
In 1627, it was burnt by foreign privateers and was likely never fully repaired. It was abandoned before the end of the century and sold out by the family in 1718. Now roofless, the castle is missing its upper storey. Nonetheless, it is a popular attraction in a beauty spot.
Located at the south end of Shetland’s Mainland, Old Scatness is an Iron Broch and Village, although aspects of the site demonstrate that it was occupied for two millennia. It contains medieval, Viking, Pictish, and Iron Age remains. The site was discovered during construction work for airport improvements in the late 1970s. Excavation began 20 years later, and revealed an Iron Age broch, surviving to nearly 4m in height, and a substantial post-broch village built around it.
The site is managed by the Shetland Amenity Trust. In the summer, costumed guides provide tours of the site and the replica Iron Age and Pictish buildings. The visitor centre also includes exhibits, and there are demonstrations of ancient crafts.