Shetland is an archaeologist's dream come true. Wherever you go in the islands you can see evidence of the people who lived here thousands of years ago.
Because cultivation has always been small scale in Shetland, this is an extraordinarily rich area for undisturbed archaeological remains. New discoveries are continually being made, for example the Norse boat grave identified in Fetlar by the 'Time Team' TV series in 2002.
Shetland's landscape looks wild but in fact it's been created by at least 5,000 years of human occupation. It's possible people were living in Shetland before that but, because the sea has risen by an estimated 120m (400') since the ice melted, about 10-12,000 years ago, traces of early coastal settlements are now under water. Some of the earliest and best archaeological sites are indeed right next to the modern shoreline.
To the first settlers, Shetland must have appeared as a labour-saving paradise. Although now mainly treeless, back then it was lightly wooded country, as is shown by the remains of birch and other trees 2-3m down in peat bogs. In addition to unlimited firewood, there was plenty of building timber - in the piles of driftwood from North America, on shores where no beachcomber had yet trod.
Better still, there probably weren't any grazing animals until people brought them north: after 3,000 to 5,000 years without sheep, the vegetation would have been astonishingly lush. And, unlike the Scottish mainland, there were no wolves, bears or foxes, so sheep and cattle didn't have to be herded in every night.
Pollen analysis suggests people had burnt most of the wood by 3,000 years ago. Sheep then stopped the natural vegetation growing back. Burning the heather, to improve pastures, helped further to destroy the native trees, which were soon confined to steep ravines, cliff faces and few islets in freshwater lochs. When the Norse arrived in the late eighth century AD there was still some woodland but by then peat was the main fuel. Cutting and drying it was a major demand on labour.
Agriculture appears to have come relatively late to Shetland. Knowledge of metal working also spread slowly: while most of Britain had entered the Iron Age, Shetland was still a Stone Age society. Relics of that time, in the form of chambered cairns, prehistoric houses and about a hundred round towers or brochs (built about 2,000 - 2,500 years ago) can be found throughout Shetland.
The best preserved broch in the world is on the now uninhabited island of Mousa. Standing 13 metres high with a staircase between the double wall to the top, this is a must see attraction. From the wall head of Mousa Broch there is a good view of both the sound and of the Broch of Burraland (at Sandwick) and it is thought that part of their purpose was to act as a network of watch towers to guard the shores. Clickimin Broch, another good example, stands by a loch in the middle of suburban Lerwick and is easily accessible.
Two of the best sites are right next to Sumburgh Airport: the recent archaeological dig at Old Scatness has turned up some amazing finds, including entire buildings overwhelmed by a sandstorm. Nearby is the famous Jarlshof, with a record of human occupation going back 5,000 years.
The Romans came, saw but did not try to conquer. For the first 700 years of the Christian era this northern outpost of Britain remained in the hands of tribes who spoke a Celtic dialect. The richness of their culture is seen in monuments such as the Bressay Stone, the Papil Stone from Burra Isle and, above all, in the ornate silver hoard of the St Ninian's Isle Treasure. The treasure is in the Royal Museum of Scotland at Edinburgh but replicas of the engraved silver chalices, brooches and bowls are on show in the Shetland Museum and the site of the discovery is open to the public. We do not know what sudden terror obliged its owner to bury the treasure. It may have been a pirate raid by Norsemen or a local feud. But we do know that these priceless works of art lay under the sand for perhaps a thousand years until discovered in 1958 by a Lerwick teenager. And no-one can visit St Ninian's Isle without a sense of wonder at what befell the Celtic civilisation of Shetland.
The Viking invasion was so overwhelming that only a few Celtic place-names survived. Were the original Shetlanders slaughtered or were they merely enslaved and their culture eradicated? Archaeologists and historians are still arguing about it. Tradition says the Vikings landed first in Unst, where there are an estimated 30 Norse house sites. The Viking Unst Project is designed to find out exactly what happened, and when.
On This Site
- Familiarise yourself with our area guides to Shetland
- Check out the visitor attractions Shetland has to offer