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Winter solstice at Maeshowe on Orkney
Light streaming into Maeshowe
The winter solstice is the best time to view Maeshowe

Winter solstice, also known as the shortest day of the year, usually falls on 21 or 22 December in the northern hemisphere.

The date was significant to Neolithic people who settled on modern day Orkney.

Around 5,000 years ago they built Maeshowe, a chambered cairn believed to be a monument to the dead.

For three weeks, before and after winter solstice, sunlight streams into the dark passageway leading to the chamber.

Neolithic masterpiece

The Orkney Islands are known for their Neolithic archaeology and are quoted as the finest example of standing stones and cairns in north west Europe.

Together with the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness and other unexcavated sites, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney is listed as a Unesco world heritage site in recognition of its cultural heritage and significance.

Unesco describes Maeshowe as a Neolithic masterpiece. The paved passageway leads to a corbelled stone chamber. Measuring about four and a half square metres, individual stones in the walls weigh as much as 30 tonnes each.

The enduring strength of the structure is testament to the skill of those who built it.

Viking graffiti

In the 12th Century Orkney was reigned by those who swore allegiance to the King of Norway.

There is evidence that Norsemen entered the cairn around this time, causing structural damage to the roof.

Runic inscriptions on the inner walls - the largest collection outside Scandanavia - have been likened to Viking graffiti as they boast of treasure and conquests.

The site was excavated in 1861 before being taken into the care of the state in 1910.

Darkest days

No human remains have been found in the cairn. However, the dark chamber was a resting place for the dead.

It is believed that the winter solstice and the penetration of rays of light at this time signified a continuance of life and a sign that the darkest days were over.

Studies of the site have extended beyond the stones to the audio acoustic properties of the chamber.

In 2006 Dr Aaron Watson used instruments and recording devices to begin this work. The process culminated in 2009 with a specially composed piece of music and song performed in the chamber.

Musical instruments

Alan Jones runs the Tormiston Mill Visitor Centre which arranges all visits to the site which is in the care of Historic Scotland.

The site remains a visitor attraction.

Alan recalls receiving a phone call from Kirkwall airport explaining that a charter flight had arrived with 30 American tourists who wanted to take their crystals to Maeshowe to conduct a passive service.

There have been couples saying post-wedding vows, as well as requests to sing and play musical instruments and experiment with dowsing rods.

One of the strangest sightings was a man carrying a cross almost the same size as he was.

The former American bomber pilot was doing penance for the hurt he had caused during the Vietnam war. Maeshowe was one of the locations he was visiting.

Alan added that this year's solstice would be "even more special" as it coincides with a lunar eclipse.

In pictures: Orkney
17 Dec 10 |  Nature & Outdoors


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