Take advantage of the search to browse through the World Heritage Centre information.

Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof: the Zenith of Iron Age Shetland

Date of Submission: 27/01/2012
Criteria: (iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
State, Province or Region:
Shetland, Scotland
Ref.: 5677

The Tentative Lists of States Parties are published by the World Heritage Centre at its website and/or in working documents in order to ensure transparency, access to information and to facilitate harmonization of Tentative Lists at regional and thematic levels.

The sole responsibility for the content of each Tentative List lies with the State Party concerned. The publication of the Tentative Lists does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the World Heritage Committee or of the World Heritage Centre or of the Secretariat of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its boundaries.

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Old Scatness Lat/Long: 59:52:44.927N 1:18:19.775W
Jarlshof Lat/Long: 59:52:7.475N 1:17:27.839W
Mousa Lat/Long: 59:59:42.943N 1:10:55.421W

The Iron Age in Europe was a time of dramatic cultural and architectural changes. The inhabitants of Iron Age Shetland, a largely treeless landscape, were forced to build their constructions in stone. The resulting drystone structures are the zenith of prehistoric architectural achievement in Northern Europe. Three distinctive sites, located at the south end of Shetland: Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof, outstanding in terms of their original construction and in surviving the ravages of time, provide some of the most significant examples of the European Iron Age in an area outside the Roman Empire.

Old Scatness and Jarlshof are situated within a mile of one another, Mousa is situated on the first island to the north on the west coast. Each of the three sites displays a different and distinctive facet of Iron Age architecture. The three elements which comprise the nomination each portray an exceptional part of the wider story of the Zenith of Iron Age Shetland, particularly with regards to its evolution through this period. Together, their Outstanding Universal Value is greater than the sum of the parts and comprises a tribute to the capacity of humans to adapt to and live in a harsh, windswept, environment.

Brochs, meaning strong or fortified places in Old Norse, are massive, circular, double skinned, drystone towers that would have dominated the landscape of Iron Age Northern and Western Scotland. Those in Mousa, built more than 2,000 years ago, were exceptional feats of engineering for the society of that period. Old Scatness provides clear evidence of the immensely large, single walled, stone built roundhouses that succeeded brochs. Iron Age society lasted here for a period of more than 1,000 years and remarkably details how broch society developed and flourished. Jarlshof, meanwhile, is internationally renowned for its well preserved, multi period remains that span over 4,000 years of human achievement and provides the best surviving examples anywhere of Iron Age wheelhouses.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The site is of Outstanding Universal Value for its monumental Northern European Iron Age architecture, which spans a period of more than 1,000 years and which is key to the emergence of Europe from the prehistoric period into the medieval and, subsequently modern, worlds. The site stands as a proxy for a whole era of European architecture which has not survived elsewhere because it was usually constructed in timber. Further, the three parts of the site demonstrates what was happening in Europe outside the Roman Empire and shows the progression of architecture and design over that period.

Each element of the site contributes significantly to the overall outstanding universal value, clearly defining the evolution of the local civilisations through the Iron Age period. Brochs are the crowning achievement of prehistoric people living in Northern Europe. Dating from around 400-200BC, they represent complex engineering architectural solutions to creating multi storied towers up to 13m high, within a treeless landscape. Mousa is the most complete extant example in the world. The Broch and Village at Old Scatness is unique, demonstrating how the broch style developed into the construction of huge single skinned roundhouses and how values changed architecturally and culturally as the village became Pictish. The excavation used cutting edge scientific techniques, overturning current theories eg: the date and origin of brochs. Jarlshof is internationally renowned for encapsulating 4000 years of settlement, in particular the transition from Iron Age/Pictish to Viking periods. There is no comparable rural Viking township in existence, even in the Scandinavian homelands. It represents a time of transformation in culture and lifestyle: a cultural upheaval which strongly influences life today, defining Shetland within the North Atlantic.

Further, these incredible structures are of Outstanding Universal Value because they are exceptional both in their survival and in their quality, being outstanding examples of their types and providing a visible link between the prehistoric past and the emerging pan-European, proto-historic, Viking period. They represent the zenith of prehistoric architectural achievement in the North Atlantic world.

Criteria met:

(iii) The Broch of Mousa, the complex Iron Age and Pictish village at Old Scatness and the Pictish and Viking settlement at Jarlshof bear exceptional testimony to the development over many centuries of the Iron Age civilisation of 2000 years ago, the Picts, and the advent of the Vikings. Together the three sites demonstrate in an unparalleled way the inventiveness of the sophisticated Iron Age Societies of the Northern Atlantic in response to the changing needs of that society.

(iv) Brochs are outstanding feats of drystone work, due to their height, durability and their incorporation of primitive relieving lintels. Mousa is the defining example of that tradition, while Old Scatness contains exceptional examples of huge single walled roundhouses. Jarlshof includes the best surviving example of a wheelhouse as well as an outstanding example of a Viking village in a treeless landscape. These incredible structures are outstanding examples of their types, representing the zenith of prehistoric architectural achievement in the North Atlantic world.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Integrity: All the physical attributes necessary to express the Outstanding Universal Value of the nominated site are contained within the boundaries around the three elements which comprise the site, although those elements themselves are not entirely intact. Nevertheless, the combination of the three elements provides a complete, unique and outstanding insight into the complex structures which were the zenith of prehistoric architectural achievement in the North Atlantic. The architectural integrity of both the above and below ground remains at Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof is also intact with only minor modern intervention in terms of consolidation for structural stability. Modern excavation and investigation is demonstrating that the integrity of the site is even greater than initially envisaged. The locations and settings of the elements are also remarkably unaltered by modern development.

Authenticity: There is a very high degree of authenticity in the known physical remains , both above and below ground.

Mousa is authentic in the extent of its survival in terms of height, breadth and completeness. Corbelling, recently observed at the wallheads at Mousa, confirms the authenticity of the building; it is highly unlikely that any repair work carried out in the late 19th/early 20th centuries would have observed and replicated this. Pre-1879 paintings and photographs demonstrate that Mousa has always stood to its present height. It has a coastal location, the area immediately around it comprising maritime heath which is lightly grazed.

Old Scatness was impacted by the road and airfield, the construction of which led to its accidental discovery in 1975. Although a portion of the site was destroyed, the majority of the site must be one of the most authentic excavated archaeological sites in the world. As it was unknown to antiquarians it was therefore a pristine Iron Age time-capsule. Excavation commenced in 1995. The excavation was to the highest standards, using cutting edge archaeological techniques. The site was recorded photogrametrically prior to consolidation.All intervention has been documented and the process is completely reversable. It has been kept to the absolute minimum required in order to protect the excavated site. Reconstruction buildings, based on the excavated evidence, are clearly distinquished as such and placed in an area found to be archaeologically sterile.The reconstructions have been informed by the archaeology, and constructed using skilled drystone dykers with an experimental dimension, in order to learn more about how the Iron Age structures were built and functioned.

Jarlshof is a coastal site and has been subject to coastal erosion, now halted by coastal defences. Although the 19th century consolidation is undocumented, comparison with Old Scatness suggests this is both true to the original and far more limited in extent than hitherto imagined.Like Mousa, Jarlshof has been maintained since the later 19th century by the appropriate national government agency, to the highest standards of the day using either original material or, in the case of pinnings, materials identical in character and origin. The report for Jarlshof (1956) set new standards for archaeological publication.

The locations and settings of the three elements of the site are remarkably authentic, having changed little through time. The area surrounding the site has changed remarkably little: Mousa is not impacted by modern development at all; at Jarlshof and Old Scatness the impact of modern land use is low, both being situated in areas of low intensity farming. The lightly used airfield to the north of Old Scatness preserves the open vista to the north from future development, maintaining the authenticity of views to other Iron Age sites in the vicinity.

Comparison with other similar properties

Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof comprise an outstanding site due to the exceptional survival (particularly demonstrated at Mousa); the exceptional preservation demonstrated at Old Scatness; and the exceptional longevity and cultural development demonstrated at Jarlshof. Whilst there are the remains of approximately 100 brochs in Shetland and similar numbers in Orkney and the North Scottish Mainland as well as in the West of Scotland, Mousa is the best preserved. Dun Telve, in north-west Scotland, is probably the second best example, standing 10m high but for less than half its diameter. (Clickhimin, Shetland; Dun Trodddan near Dun Telve; and Dun Carloway, Lewis, perhaps compete for second place.) Old Scatness is the only place where the survival of the partly contemporary/post-broch village is so extensive and where modern excavation has enabled so full an understanding of the site. Gurness in Orkney and Clickhimin in Shetland include Pictish structures but do not have the same monumental post-broch structures. Jarlshof has the most complete Pictish wheelhouses and surviving rural Viking village although they must once have been commonplace. In Scandinavia, timber would have been the usual construction material and so therefore does not survive.

No similar site has already been inscribed on the World Heritage List and no comparable Site in current Tentative Lists or otherwise, exists to be put forward for World Nomination. The Nomination does not overlap thematically with either Neolithic Orkney or St Kilda World Heritage Sites. Although geographically close, Neolithic Orkney is separated from Iron Age Shetland by 2-3,000 years and the archaeology of St Kilda is predominantly 1-2,000 years later than that of Iron Age Shetland. This Nomination would therefore represent an era which is otherwise not included on the World Heritage List. In terms of date there is an overlap between this application and Frontiers of the Roman Empire however, culturally Iron Age Shetland is very different and provides the complementary story of life in Europe outside the Roman Empire.

During the 19th century, antiquarians remarked on the visual similarities of Iron Age Brochs to the Nuraghi of Sardinia of which Barumini is inscribed on the World Heritage List. In reality these are rather different types of construction, in Southern Europe, although also a response to building in the round in stone, and date from the middle to late Bronze Age (c.1500-800BC). The visual similarity of sites which are located on the Northern and Southern edges of Europe is intriguing to visitors to both and therefore the nomination of Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof is complimentary to that of Barumini.

Inscription of Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof therefore would therefore fill a gap on the current World Heritage List by uniquely representing the zenith of monumental Northern European Iron Age architecture over a long period, demonstrating what was happening in Europe outside the Roman Empire as well as for the ability to stand as a proxy for a whole era of European architecture which has not survived elsewhere because it was in timber.