There has always been a great mystique about the summer solstice. Around 23rd of June crowds of people gather at places like Stonehenge to witness the sunrise that marks the mid-point of the year and the gradual move towards shorter days. For sure the summer solstice sunrise is a wonderful sight, but now many historians and archaeologists agree that most probably the winter solstice held equal, if not more, importance for the ancients. This belief makes sense when you think that it would have been vital to know exactly when the days were starting to lengthen in order to know when to begin the new agricultural year and, let’s face it, to bring some hope of light and warmth into the gruelling northern winter.
One of my most memorable moments of 2017 was visiting Maeshowe, a chambered cairn (tomb) on Orkney, just as the days were becoming distinctly shorter. As we stood inside the tomb listening to the tour guide, the sun was starting to sink towards the horizon. A shaft of gold light glinted through the tunnel entrance and lit the wall ahead of us, highlighting a small family of swallows who had nested on a tiny ‘shelf’ exactly opposite the tomb’s entrance. The tiny chicks were born so late in the season that local ornithologists were not sure they would fledge in time to survive the winter. But there was hope – this was a smart, sheltered place to nest and a safe launching point for the offspring. As the last of the sunlight pooled at our feet, each of us in our little tour group felt tiny eddies of air on our faces as the swallow parents swooped past us, leaving the tomb to find food and returning to feed the nestlings. And I could almost feel the focus of our attention shift from Neolithic bones and Viking intruder graffiti to a kind of silent prayer of hope. These little guys were dedicated – they had mouths to feed – sod the history!
At Maeshowe, on the winter solstice, the light from the setting sun will hit the Barnhouse standing stone – perfectly aligned to the tomb entrance (700 metres away) and will then light up the interior of the cairn. What better way to mark possibly the most important day of the year and perhaps to honour ancestors? The patience of the people who built this tomb and their awareness of their universe has a lot to teach us in a world where our darkness is often invaded by smartphones and our light is overshadowed by busyness and the desire to achieve rather than to be.
Tonight the sun will set again and we’ll move imperceptibly towards the light. I don’t know about you but I find this a moving and optimistic prospect and a reason to celebrate. To mark the occasion, I’ve found couple of links that might be interesting. The first is a slide-show of the winter solstice in Orkney. Next, there is a video of the rising and setting sun in Fairbanks, Alaska, as it skims along the horizon. The final clip is a piece of music by The Unthanks – a Scottish folk group – that might provide a relaxing soundscape to your winter solstice.
Happy solstice and I wish you light and hope in the days ahead.
The Unthanks – Mount the Air
Mid Winter Solstice Orkney 2010
Winter Solstice , Fairbanks, Alaska