I am thoroughly sick of Sir Walter bloody Scott. His novels fall into my period of literary expertise, and I appreciate his significance from this perspective, but as I travel about Scotland, I do get incredibly irritated by his ubiquity. Everywhere you go, Scott has been and stamped his mark, and so many ‘Scottish’ things, people, and places are now entangled with his obfuscating legacy. You can’t even escape him in Shetland! Sometimes the meanings he managed to impose on our national landscape amount to crude acts of historical containment – and this certainly seems to be the case with ‘Jarlshof’ – the name Scott gave to the ruin of Black Patie’s Sumburgh residence when he visited Shetland in 1814, and which is now associated with the incredible remains which were first uncovered there in 1897. I have no idea what experts in Scottish prehistory and archeology think about this issue, but it seems to me that ‘Jarlshof’ – a nineteenth-century name which suggests the seat of a Norse earl – is a very misleading moniker for a site around which ordinary people lived and worked for thousands of years before the Vikings got there, let alone the Stewart lairds. ‘Jarlshof’ is such a complex and wondrous place, but its name suggests neither that wonder or complexity. Here endeth the Scott-associated rant.
If you are visiting, and are, like me, an archeological ignoramus, then I highly recommend the brilliant audio tour. However, please listen very carefully when instructed to pass ‘through a low doorway’. Mel and I clearly weren’t paying enough attention, and made our way into the wheelhouse through this, um, hole.
In my case this involved a drawn-out and undignified scramble on my hands and knees. (Post-stroke crawling around archeological remains may look amusing, but is not easy). Once we were actually inside the wheelhouse, we discovered another “low doorway” of perfectly ordinary human proportions. DOH!
Unorthodox crawling notwithstanding, it is fair to say that I was blown away by ‘Jarlshof’. Is there anywhere else that allows you to experience domestic environments from the Bronze Age to the Seventeenth Century in such a direct way? Layers of history are uncovered as you move through the oval-shaped domestic remains of the bronze age, to an iron age broch, spectacular wheelhouse, viking longhouse, medieval croft dwelling, and, finally, the seventeenth century remains left by the ruthless Stewarts. I became rather fixated on the trough querns which litter the early part of the site.
When one remembers that Scottish millers were legally enabled to break the quernstones of those defying thirlage agreements, the humble quern can seem quite a powerful symbol of domestic independence.
One thinks of the centuries-old labour of grinding grain . . .
. . . of hearths and fires and the basic acts of baking and breaking bread . . .
. . .of other hands, and other lives . . .
Mel thinks I have a quern problem . . .
. . . I couldn’t possibly comment.
After being at Vindolanda a couple of weekends ago, I was struck by how far technological ‘progress’ in the ancient world seems to be represented by lines and corners. The Romans were clearly all about right angles. Everything on the early parts of the site of Jarlshof is round, and when my untrained eye compared the remains of the Pictish and the Viking settlements, it seemed that the slow domestic transition from one to the other was simply accomplished through the introduction of straight lines.
Though one can sometimes miss the bigger picture of all these lines and corners when one’s photographic eye becomes distracted by the unruly pattern of daisies among the stones of the longhouse.
. . .or the crazy, hairy walls of the broch . . .
. . .or gold lichen on red sandstone . . .