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Winter Solstice sunlight entering the Maeshowe Chamber Cairn

Winter Solstice: Scottish Megaliths and the World’s Oldest Calendar

Anyone who has lived in Scotland can tell you that the Winter Solstice can be a tough time of the year, with barely any daylight hours. On ‘driech’ rainy days, there may be little light at all. Most people feel that they would gladly join the hibernating hedgehogs and bats in their sleep.

This must have been a trying time for the Prehistoric peoples of Scotland. The short days brought with them a risk of starvation and whatever shelter they found would have provided little protection from the biting winds and bitter frosts which characterise the Scottish winter. However, we know that these people were far from ignorant. They had a vast knowledge of the lunar and solar cycles.

Evidence for this can be found in the Megaliths or henges, stone circles and chambered cairns which are aligned to the movements of the sun and moon. The Clava Cairns, near Culloden Battlefield, and Maeshowe in Orkney are aligned to the Winter Solstice. The Calanais Standing Stones in Lewis, on the other hand,  are aligned to the Summer Solstice. The recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire are aligned to the major standstill moon which occurs every 18.5 years. There can be no doubt that the early Scottish people had studied the heavens over a number of years and had some way of recording their observations.

Winter Solstice 2019

In 2019, the Winter Solstice will occur at 04:19 on Sunday 22nd December. This marks the turning point of the season, the shortest day and the longest night. The name solstice comes from the Latin ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘the sun stands still’ and refers to the moment when the sun appears to reach it’s lowest setting point in the sky and stops moving before beginning its journey north again.

However, in astronomy terms, it is the point when the earth at northern latitudes is tilted at its furthest angle away from the sun, casting the northern hemisphere into a lengthy, cold shadow. Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, the earth is titled towards the sun, creating its summer solstice.

Maeshowe and The Winter’s Solstice

Many Megaliths are aligned to the Winter Solstice. These include the Stone Circles at Rothiemay and Loanhead of Daviot and the Clava Cairns. However, the monument with the most famous winter solstice alignment must surely be Maeshowe in Orkney. This is the finest chambered cairn in North-West Europe and is thought to have been constructed around 2,700 B.C., making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. It is located in one of the richest Neolithic landscapes in Europe: a place of stone circles, villages and burial monuments, where people lived, worshipped and honoured their dead. It forms part of the UNESCO Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, along with the Stones of Stenness, Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae.

In fact, it has been suggested that because Maeshowe postdates Skara Brae by a few hundred years, the greater organisation required to construct a monument as large as Maeshowe, led to the gradual decline of settlements such as Skara Brae. Creating such a huge construction must have been a major challenge for our remote ancestors, who lacked the benefit of metal tools or powered machinery. It also clearly shows considerable social commitment.

The Structure of Maeshowe

The building of Maeshowe was a massive undertaking. A circular platform, some 38 metres in diameter, was cleared and levelled. The main chamber was then built above ground, complete with its side chambers and entrance passage. Each wall of the 10-metre entrance passage is composed mainly of a single gigantic sandstone slab. These slabs weigh up to thirty tonnes in weight. It is likely that these slabs were dragged here from a distant location. As the cairn was constructed, it was buried in an artificial mound, itself containing structures and retaining walls to ensure stability. Much of the material for the mound probably came from the huge ditch that surrounds Maeshowe.

From the outside, Maeshowe looks just like a large grassy mound. Incidentally, the word ‘howe’ comes from the Old Norse for ‘hill’. To appreciate its size and significance, visitors must enter Maeshowe, stooping to walk its long passageway to reach the central, stone-built chamber. The outside world feels far away, with just the merest glint of light entering the tomb.

The Interior of Maeshowe

A large swivelling blocking stone still in place at the entrance’s outer end. The passage rises gently uphill to allow for drainage. It opens out into the main chamber, which is roughly square in shape. There is a massive upright stone slab at each corner of the central chamber.  Is it possible that these slabs were standing stones brought to the site from elsewhere?   They do not support the roof and serve no structural purpose.

Three smaller chambers feed off of the main chamber. Within these chambers are platforms which may have been used to house human remains. The workmanship is truly magnificent and is a testament to the incredible ingenuity and skill of the stonemasons, architects, mathematicians and astronomers who were involved in its construction. Overtopping everything is a white-painted stone cap which probably lies lower than the original roof. This was put in place after the tomb had been excavated in 1861.

The Enigma of Maeshowe and its connection with the Winter Solstice

Although a great deal is known about the structure of Maeshowe, its purpose still remains an enigma. Presumably, it was used to house the bones of the dead of the surrounding community.  However, only a trace of bone was found during the 1861 excavation.

The only thing that does seem certain is that the alignment of the tomb was used as a calendar. At sunset on midwinter’s day, the sun shines straight down the length of the entrance passage and illuminates an area low on the rear wall of the main chamber. During the spectacle, the sun’s rays align with a standing stone 800 metres away known as the Barnhouse Stone. This continues for the three weeks surrounding the Solstice. Certainly where you are reduced to six meagre hours of daylight, knowing exactly when the days are going to start getting longer again is a very important piece of information.

Several theories have been proposed to explain the winter Solstice alignment:

  1. Just as the death of the midwinter sun marked the return of life, did the early people believe that those within the tomb would continue to live?
  2. Was it a fertility rite and the entry of the sun symbolised rebirth.
  3. Was the shaft of light thought to carry away the souls of the dead? Or return them?
  4. Or was it simply a calendar to remind the Neolithic Orcadians that the darkest time of the year had passed and that the light was once again returning?

The decline of Maeshowe and the arrival of the Vikings

Towards 2,000BC Maeshowe seems to have simply fallen into disuse. There is evidence that the ancient Orcadian society was going through a difficult period at the time. It seems that a deterioration of the climate resulted in a southerly migration of most of the population. Thus, for the next 3,000 years, Maeshowe lay dormant. Then, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, on the 6th January 1153, some Viking Crusaders took shelter there, during a snowstorm. They occupied themselves by carving runes into the walls. Amongst their carvings are a panting dog and a beautifully carved dragon.

Experiencing the Winter Solstice in Orkney

However, regardless of the significance of the phenomenon and the ancient technology behind it, viewing the Winter’s Solstice from Maeshowe can be difficult to experience given Orkney’s notorious winter weather. More often low cloud or rain blocks the light of the setting sun leaving the chamber in darkness.

But those lucky enough to experience the Winter Solstice at Maeshowe can relate to the words of the late George Mackay Brown about this event :

“The most exciting thing in Orkney, perhaps in Scotland, is going to happen this afternoon at sunset, in few other places even in Orkney can you see the wide hemisphere of sky in all its plenitude.

The winter sun just hangs over the ridge of the Coolags. Its setting will seal the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. At this season the sun is a pale wick between two gulfs of darkness. Surely there could be no darker place in the be-wintered world than the interior of Maeshowe.

One of the light rays is caught in this stone web of death. Through the long corridor it has found its way; it splashes the far wall of the chamber. The illumination lasts a few minutes, then is quenched

Winter after winter I never cease to wonder at the way primitive man arranged, in hewn stone, such powerful symbolism.”

The World’s Oldest Calendar

It seems that primitive man was far more sophisticated in his knowledge of the wheel of the year than what we first imagined. Maeshowe might be a giant stone calendar but it certainly isn’t the oldest calendar in the world. Once more we have to look to the early peoples of Scotland to find this.

The site of what is believed to be the oldest calendar in the world is located at Warren Field on the grounds of Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire. It is thought to have built around 8,000 BC during the Mesolithic period. Excavations of a field at Crathes Castle found a series of 12 pits which appear to mimic the phases of the moon and track lunar months. These pits form an arc which follows the night sky. There is evidence to suggest that there was either a timber post or a standing stone in each pit. Until recently it was always assumed that the world’s first formal calendars began in the 3rd Millennium BC in Babylonia, the cradle of civilisation.

How the Winter Solstice was used to Reset the world’s Oldest Calendar

The knowledge needed to make a lunar calendar would have required hundreds of years of observing and recording the moon’s passage through the skies. The Adri Blanchard bone plate from the Dordogne region of France seems to be an early example of a lunar recording device. Tallies carved into it, apparently correspond to lunar events. But, using lunar months to measure time is somewhat problematic. Twelve lunar months are eleven days short of a solar year. It is the solar year that governs the seasons.

However, the prehistoric people of Aberdeenshire had a solution for this. The pit arc also aligns to a prominent point on the South East horizon associated with sunrise on the Winter Solstice. By acknowledging the solstice, the early hunter-gatherers were provided with an annual astronomic correction which they could use to reset their calendar. This allowed them to use the lunar cycle to measure the passage of time, and still synchronise with the solar year and its associated seasons.

The Importance of the World’s Oldest Calendar

Human communities may have been aware of the passage of time but at Warren Field, something remarkable happened. Here the people had both the need and the knowledge to track time. Here a group of Hunter-Gatherers must have joined together and shared their collective knowledge of the skies and found the manpower to construct a device which would anticipate time. Why? We do not know. Perhaps it was used to predict when game would return into the area or the run of salmon on the River Dee.

Whatever its purpose, its impact on society was huge. It meant being able to schedule activities and have larger congregations of people. This would have brought social change. The formal construction of time is one of man’s most important achievements. Once man developed a way to anticipate time, it had major implications for how society and civilisation would develop. Gatherings of people could be arranged at certain times when food resources were abundant. In a sense man’s ability to measure and anticipate time represents the start of history.

Happy Winter Solstice

It seems that the winter solstice was an important time of the year for the early peoples of Scotland. It formed the basis of their calendars. However, for us at Spooky Scotland, we are simply relieved that after the solstice the days will get longer, allowing us to visit and photograph more of Scotland’s Spectacular spooky sites.

Have a happy Winter Solstice and please share the seasonal spooky using the icons below.

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