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Maeshowe and the winter solstice

Picture Sigurd TowriePerhaps the best-known attribute of Maeshowe is its world-famous midwinter alignment.

In the weeks leading up to the winter solstice, the darkest time of the Orcadian year, the last rays of the setting sun shine through Maeshowe's entrance passage to pierce the darkness of the chambered cairn.

Theories abound as to the significance of this phenomenon:

  • Just as the death of the midwinter sun marked the return of life, did its entry into the tomb symbolise the continuance of the "life" of those who had died and had been placed within?
  • Did the entry of the sun represent rebirth, or a fertility rite of some sort?
  • Was the shaft of sunlight thought to carry away the souls of the dead. Or perhaps return them?
  • Or was it simply a calendar to remind the ancient Orcadians that the darkest time of the year had passed and that the light was once again returning?

Maeshowe Entrance: Illustration by S TowrieIn truth, we will never fully know the answer, although we can be fairly certain that it marked the passing of time - the death of the old year and the birth of the new one - and was an indicator that the days were lengthening again.

To the users of Maeshowe, just as it still does today, the return of the sun heralded a resurgence of light and the return of life to the land.

Although in Orkney the worst of winter often follows the winter solstice, to this day it remains a comforting thought to know the days are lengthening again.

But although we can only speculate as to the purpose of the alignment, what is clear is the skill of the Neolithic architects and builders who designed and built Maeshowe. Not only did they raise the remarkable structure, but it was built precisely to allow the light at the darkest point of the year to illuminate their house of the dead.

The Barnhouse Stone and the solstice

Barnhouse Stone and MaeshoweAlthough the common conception is that Maeshowe's alignment is connected specifically to the day of the winter solstice, the truth is that the cairn is illuminated for a number of weeks on either side of the shortest day.

Key to this event is a connection between the howe and the nearby solitary monolith, known as the Barnhouse Stone.

Around the winter solstice, the sun sets over the top of the Barnhouse Stone, its last rays going on to illuminate the darkness of Maeshowe's inner chamber.

At first this alignment was thought to be purely coincidental but later excavations around Maeshowe uncovered a socket at the tomb's entrance that appears to have at one time housed a standing stone, similar to the one at Barnhouse.

Local schoolmaster Magnus Spence first recorded the connection between Maeshowe and the Barnhouse monolith in 1893. While observing the midwinter sunset from Maeshowe, Mr Spence noticed that:

"The view is very limited, not extending farther in breadth than a few yards. Strange to say, in the centre of this contracted view, and at a distance of forty-two chains stands the monolith at Barnhouse.

"The alignment formed with this long passage of Maeshowe and the Standing Stone of Barnhouse indicates directions too remarkable to be accidental."

(one chain equals 22 yards)

Six weeks of light

It has now been shown that the centre axis of the inner entrance passage is directly aligned with the centre of the Barnhouse Stone. From here, the line travels out to strike Hoy's Ward Hill, at a place where the sun sets 22 days before, and after, the midwinter solstice.

This three-week period is referred to by archeastronomers, such as Alexander Thom, as a megalithic month (a sixteenth of a year).

The solar flashings

Recent research at Maeshowe revealed another interesting solar phenomenon - a period when the setting sun briefly reappears from the side of Hoy's Ward Hill before disappearing beneath the horizon.

This phenomenon has been christened "flashing", from the flashes of light apparent seen within the cairn.

An Orcadian symbol

But regardless of the significance of the phenomenon and the ancient technology behind it, it is not an easy one to experience given Orkney's notorious winter weather. Very often low cloud or rain blocks the light of the setting sun leaving the chamber in darkness.

The phenomenon of the midwinter solstice and its relevance to Orkney's most famous chambered cairn has captured the imagination of Orcadians from time immemorial.

The late George Mackay Brown penned what is perhaps the most poignant account of the 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."