Welcoming the Spring Equinox at the Stanydale Temple.
Today I stepped back in time 4,000 years to the heart of Neolithic Shetland, to that moment as dawn arrives and the world stops, where just for a moment everything falls silent. The birds stop singing, the sheep grow quiet, the wind lulls and life is suspended while that first ray of sunlight makes contact with the earth.
The moment where the dawn met the day and came through the door at Stanydale temple.
March brings with it an urgency, an expectation of spring. I feel it coursing through my body like a raw energy which needs to be expended – somewhere, anywhere. The mornings are easier, I feel lighter and bursting with an all-consuming desire to get out and explore. The light is returning – a welcome sight after a long winter at 60 degrees north, and like me, the earth is awakening from its winter slumber.
As well as the bulbs and the lambs we have the spring equinox, and today, the equinox, there’s a full moon; the third and final supermoon of 2019.
The equinox is quite simply that time when the day and night are of equal length; there’s a balance in these days, but also a sense of polarisation. It feels as if we are hanging on a pendulum, in free-fall, suspended as the world is about to be set into motion. Like a rollercoaster, suspended just before the drop. The days and nights are equal; but the tides give their most extreme versions of themselves with the high ones licking the tops of piers and the low ones revealing all kinds of mysteries from the murky depths.
This year I chose to welcome the spring. I wanted to experience it and give thanks for its return.
I chose the Neolithic temple at Stanydale to view the equinox (or vernal) sunrise (If you are a regular reader of my blog then you may remember that I spent the winter solstice here too. You can read about that here). Stanydale is believed to have symbolic meaning, and as the sun lifts its head above the eastern horizon, it rises in almost perfect alignment with the temple’s narrow doorway and two carefully placed standing stones set a short distance from the door.
I wanted to see this for myself. I wanted to soak in the first rays of spring sunshine, I wanted to feel them kiss my cheeks, I wanted to smell the earthy dew rise from the cold moor and witness this incredible prehistoric alignment of man, stone and sun.
Morning coffee awaiting the sun at Stanydale on the Spring Equinox.
Our ancestors were carefully tuned into the cycles of the earth and land, carefully labouring, tilling and ploughing. Sowing the seeds and watching them grow. One eye skyward watching the weather, the other embedded in the soil willing growth. Hands ingrained with dirt. Sweat exchanged for growth. Just as our bodies, particularly us women, are governed by cycles, so too is the earth and the way we interact with it. Farmers are still tuned into this cyclical way of life but for the vast majority of us it bears little relevance to our day-to-day lives which are governed by the demands of 9-5 jobs.
Setting the alarm for 4.45am on a cold March morning might be a bit mad – and a few questioned my sanity – but I decided to step-off the merry-go-round and walk into the past with my eyes and senses open to the world around me. I wanted to stand – just for a moment – in the land of our ancestors 4,000 years ago. I wanted to hear the bird call in that suspended moment of quiet as the dawn meets the day.
Morning light at Stanydale.
Approaching the parking place for Stanydale at 5.30am the sky was still dark, except for a dim glow in the eastern sky. The drive west wasn’t looking promising for the mind-dazzling sunrise that I craved, with a squally shower reducing visibility to next to nothing. But, making the ascent up to the mysterious temple of our Neolithic fathers, and with boots sucking into the mossy bog, the clouds lifted and the sky cleared.
And as the magical moment approached and my senses deepened, I wondered what they were thinking – those hands that laid the stones – what filled their thoughts as they laid each stone in place? What did their lives look like? Did they wonder about the past too? Or even the future?
As I stood there awaiting the light, in the centre of that neolithic temple, and as the first rays flexed their golden arms above the hill, throwing light onto the cold earth that surrounded me I was mesmerised. For now – where fifteen minutes earlier it had been dark and unforgiving, allowing shadows to play in the corner of my eyes, amplifying my senses – it was dappled in that first soft light of fairy tales, tracing through my veins like a drug. And in a moment of purity, just as the earth gives way to the sea – the sun broke through the door, darkness gave way to light – penetrating the temple like a sword.
The sun passing through the door of the temple on the morning of the spring equinox.
As I went through the door, sun dazzled my eyes which were still tuned to the dark – my senses felt sharper. I made my way, feeling, around the temple. Using my hands to trace its shape, its curves, its alignments; touching every stone as I made my way around this megalithic marvel. Every feature accentuated. The grasses and floss danced golden and bright in the early morning, each blade standing tall and proud against the burning orange sky above me. The lichen that punctuated every stone shone in colours and patterns I had never seen before. Maybe it was the low morning light, or maybe I had simply opened my eyes to the world. Yet there was something in that morning. Something in even the call of the birds that was different; the whaaps expectant call more piercing, the shalder’s tone more urgent.
And as I drove back to Lerwick in the rush hour traffic, it was as if I had been violently thrust forward 4,000 years into a surreal parallel universe. The cars and the bustle of this spring morning were so far removed from where I had come from. As I rejoined the world and followed the road back to Lerwick – back to my time – where I had to put bairns to school, empty the dishwasher and get to work. A cruise liner was expected; how very 21st-century.
And as quickly as I had stepped out, I was brought back thousands of year with a jolt – the 8 o’clock news reporting on more Brexit and more bombings.
To write about the experience and how it felt to be stood there as the dawn met the day has been harder than I imagined – I think because the experience moved me in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. Something in that moment of calm reflection, as the sun rose, resonated deep inside me like a burning fire. I felt like the only person alive in that moment.
How do you put that into words? How do you describe the indescribable? How do you give thought and feeling to something that is so much greater than you are? How can I give words to the noise of the wind passing overhead, as the chamber of the temple remained still and suspended, or how the earth smelled as the sun warmed it, how its earthy tones rose like nectar around me. All I know is that I felt motionless – caught in the tides of time – somewhere between the here-and-now and the neolithic.
Welcoming the sun at Stanydale.
Who am I to say why those stones were placed in alignment to meet the sun of the spring equinox. Who am I to paint that picture? That picture of sunrises, and low morning sunlight kissing the walls of the temple’s passage. Of lichen, floss, birds and growth. I feel humbled to have borne witness, as those walls accepted the light and welcomed the spring. I am just one of many who have stood in that spot and soaked in the dawn of four-millennia, while the passage of time marches on regardless. One day my life will be history and I too will be a 4,000-year-old mystery.
To read more about Stanydale from an archaeological perspective check out this helpful and informative essay by Dr Esther Renwick from Archaeology Shetland here.
Dialect words meaning:
Whaap - curlew
Shalder - oystercatcher
Passage down to the shore can often be dangerous. Photo Terri Leask.
Today I took my second dip of the year in the sea; this time it was the North Atlantic (rather than the North Sea) – and this time it was unscheduled.
Shetland’s eastern seaboard is flanked by the North Sea – a marginal sea of the North Atlantic stretching across to the mainland of northwestern Europe – on the west side, our 'wild' frontier plays host to the full force of the powerful North Atlantic, bringing storms, ravaging waves and an abundance of seabirds and mammals. With nothing between us and North America the waves which assault the western coastal fringes have had thousands of miles at sea to grow before expelling their mighty energy on our shores.
Both the Atlantic and the North Sea meet with a rip-roaring clash of personalities at the southernmost and northernmost tips of Shetland – Sumburgh Head and Muckle Flugga.
The sea has provided so much for the isles over the years with fishing, aquaculture, oil and of course – pleasure. It’s said that Shetlanders have saat in da blood. And this was no exception today as I felt the full force of the cold salt water as it seeped into my knickers.
If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen the videos in my stories (which I will highlight in ‘Stormy Shetland’).
While out taking photos and videos I was swept off my feet by an incoming 'rogue' wave, and I captured the whole sorry episode on my iPhone. I shouldn't have been so close to the edge and I shouldn't have been glued to my phone.
The moment I plunged into the icy Atlantic captured on camera...
Bannamin beach in Burra where I fell in the sea.
So, I am writing this post to act as a reminder – and a warning – to both visitors, and locals alike to take care when out and about in Shetland. As someone who grew up here I should firstly know better, and secondly, I have probably become complacent to the power of nature.
So here are a few pointers (plucked from my boring risk assessment on coastal walking) to bear in mind when you visit:
The stunning cliffs at Eshaness. As tempting as it may seem, please stay back from the edge.
And an additional one (added today!):
Bannamin beach, Burra in stormy weather.
At the start, I said that this was my second dip in the sea this year. The first swim was a planned snorkel in the North Sea, and I had on a wetsuit. I wrote about this for the magazine I edit which will be published in April. The magazine – Shetland Life – can be subscribed to here. Or if you’re interested in only one copy, let me know and we can arrange that.
So please – go and explore – we have no restrictions on where people can go, all that we ask is that you do it safely.
So stay safe and enjoy your trip – your Shetland adventure awaits.
Cannon from the Queen of Sweden shipwreck, off the Knab, Lerwick. Photo: Donald Jefferies.
Time stood still for me today, as I paused and listened to the wind howl down the chimney. In that moment, I was reminded of something someone told me once, a marine archaeologist, who said that one of the most moving things he had discovered on a shipwreck was a stopped clock, stopped at the precise time of loss. In a world governed by time, a stopped clock holds such profound meaning. This idea, of time standing still forever, is something I think about whenever I consider the wrecks lost at sea here in Shetland.
The Knab; a rocky headland at the entrance to Lerwick Harbour.
It got me thinking about men at sea in the past, before modern GPS, and the trepidation they must have felt as a strengthening wind took hold and ripped through the rigging, and the mounting fear as the ship began to roll and pitch. And for the ships sailing on our watery highways, the difficulty navigating these unfamiliar waters must have been a tremendous burden. Despite our apparent remoteness, Shetland sits in the centre of a great nautical crossroads; which opens up the world. It’s little wonder that over the years we have seen our fair share of notable shipwrecks around our rugged coastline.
Renowned for extreme weather and heavy unpredictable seas, many ships have been lost in and around our exposed coastal waters. Of these, only a small handful pre-date 1800. Many ‘ancient wrecks’ simply don’t survive. They are broken up and carried away by the sea, great rafts of flotsam ready to be washed up on the beach, a gift from the sea to the opportunistic beachcomber.
A diver surfacing with a pewter plate from the wreck of the Queen of Sweden. Photo courtesy of Sara Joffre.
Whatever their fates, those vessels which do survive are of even greater importance to our understanding of life at sea and the societies who took to the oceans. These rare, historic wreck sites are precious time-capsules – snapshots capturing every aspect of life at the exact time of loss – the moment that, for those on board, time stopped. They provide valuable information to archaeologists, historians, storytellers or curious individuals like me about the ship; including fittings and armaments, the cargo and the personal possessions of the crew on board. They tell us how they lived, and fought, how they worked and what they ate.
Alex Hildred, a diver on the famous Mary Rose, sums up historic wreck sites very well, she says that they offer a unique form of archaeological site: ‘It is a home, it is a community, it is a workplace, and it is a fighting machine’. What this gives us is every aspect of life, a beautifully encapsulated snapshot of time. A window into the past.
Lost to the elements. Shipwrecks are time-capsules of the moment of loss. This is an anchor from the Queen of Sweden. Photo courtesy of Sara Joffre.
Today we are still hobby beachcombers here in Shetland, our inner treasure-hunters scouring the tideline in the hope that something more dazzling than a discarded boot will have found its way onto our beach and into our expectant hands. In the past, these wrecks provided islanders with vital supplies – wood for roofing, for furniture, for agricultural tools and children’s toys. Or, wrecks were targeted by divers salvaging finds – treasure hunting and looking to make a quick buck. My great-great-grandfather, one of the many islanders whose fate was surrendered to the sea, lost to the waves while gathering wood from a wreck.
This simple map gives an idea of the route these East Indie ships were taking.
And to give a little context, Shetland has (perhaps surprisingly been) a major trade route all over the world from North America and Scandinavia to the East Indies and Australia and every conceivable place in between – and it has been so since the first explorers (in our case, the Vikings, who plied the oceans from the 9th century) arrived. During the 17th & 18th centuries ships often chose the northern route around Shetland to avoid conflict (or full-scale war) in the English Channel – meaning that more and more vessels found their journeys taking them into Shetland waters.
Navigating around unfamiliar Shetland waters was a challenge in the 18th century. This chart and navigation tools demonstrate what would have been available to the crew on the Queen of Sweden as she approached Shetland waters. Note the outline of hills on the chart - this was done so that the crew could recognise which part of the land they might be approaching from the shape of the hills. These items are all held in Shetland Museum & Archives. Photo: Davy Cooper.
Shetland & the Queen of Sweden
The point of the Knab, Lerwick, in blizzard conditions in January.
One of these incredible historic vessels, the flagship of the Swedish East India Company, was the Drottningen af Swerige (translated as Queen of Sweden). Under the command of Captain Carl Johan Treutiger, the Queen, a 147ft, 950-ton merchantman, carried 130 men and 32 guns. Built in Stockholm in 1741 for the princely sum of £12,500 she was the largest vessel in the company’s fleet. A trading vessel to China for the Swedish East India Company she was a ship to admire and marvel over – and one they were rightly proud of. She was partially loaded, en route to Cadiz (Spain) for more supplies before continuing to Canton (China) when she floundered here.
Ship of the Swedish East India Company.
Sailing with the Stockholm, both ships left Gothenburg, on Sweden’s western seaboard, on 9th January 1745, on ‘a day of chill easterly wind and white driving sea fog’. After making good headway, the weather deteriorated as they neared Shetland. With high winds, blizzard conditions and poor visibility, the ships struggled to maintain course. The Stockholm floundered and was lost off Braefield, Dunrossness (in Shetland’s south mainland) on 12th January at 5pm. The Queen continued, her Captain deciding to run for the safety of Bressay Sound (Lerwick). As she came into sight of the harbour entrance and safety, the weather closed in and visibility was again lost to a wintery shower. At around 9pm she struck a rock at the Knab (pictured) and was lost in only 10 fathoms of water. The crew from both ships survived, but the vessels were lost to the sea forever.
Chinese porcelain from the Queen of Sweden. A popular trade item which was taken back for Europe's influential upper and middle class societies. This plate is part of Shetland Museum & Archives collection.
An unlikely trade with the East
Although this trade to the east seems an unlikely one to have influenced Shetland, it was common and in fact, necessary! The English Channel during the 18th century was not a good place to be – privateers lay-in-waiting, ready to attack unsuspecting ships, plundering cargoes. These cumbersome merchantmen, such as the Queen, were difficult to navigate – especially within the tight and crowded confines of the busy Channel. So, that is why so many of them found themselves taking the longer, ‘safer’ northern route, around Shetland – risking both ship and men in our northern waters. And in fact, around 25 of these great ships were lost here, and this, I find incredible. That these elegant trading ships with billowing sails and ornately decorated hulls would find themselves in our waters – a corner of the UK forgotten and ‘boxed-off’ by geographers – is testament to the strategic importance of our island archipelago which sits on this nautical crossroads where the North Sea and North Atlantic meet in a dramatic clash of power and motion. A braver me would pull on a wetsuit and head down to the murky depths exploring. But I’m not a braver me so I’ll tell this story from dry-land.
Just as today we are a nation, and world obsessed with travel, so too were the men of the 18th century. People wanted to stand out in society and the pull of the east was great. Middle and upper-class social circles craved ‘exotic’ items brought back, and porcelain such as this photographed, from the Queen, was highly sought after. Extensively excavated, the finds from the Queen can tell us a wealth of stories about society at the time.
Small finds from the Queen of Sweden. These are now held in Shetland Museum & Archives. Photo: Davy Cooper.
The Queen beneath the waves
The personal finds, carefully excavated and brought back to the surface, particularly moved me, collected from the seabed hundreds of years after they were lost to time in a moment of panic, fear and confusion. A small signet ring. A trade item perhaps? We don’t know. It could have as easily been a marriage band, an heirloom a gift. If we think about our personal possessions and how we come to cherish them, then the bone comb could just have easily been a birthday present from a dearly-departed loved one, it may have been the only memory for a sailor of a wife back at home. We don’t know. All we know is that there were buttons and buckles, accessories and shoes. All these personal finds, belonging to a member of the ship’s crew on that fateful day and each with a story to tell.
Much of the ship's fittings were sold at auction at the time of wreckage but some have made it into the collections at Shetland Museum & Archives.
We know a lot about the finds from the Queen – some of the cargo was salvaged at the time of wrecking and sold at auction. The finds were listed and the auction catalogue is now held in the Shetland Archives. These salvaged parts included; ropes, sails, oak planking, muskets, pistols and bayonets, tar barrels, candles, linseed oil, vinegar, soap and lead, as well as the ship’s rudder and wheel.
The wreck was re-discovered in October 1979 and excavated by marine salvor, Jean-Claude Joffre. The collection, containing almost 500 individual items offer a tantalising insight into the life and workings of an 18th-century trading vessel.
Boy Jan off the Knab with divers excavating the wreck of the Queen of Sweden under the leadership of Jean Claude Joffre. Photo courtesy of Sara Joffre.
One reason for highlighting the Queen in this blog post (other than the fact I love shipwrecks) is because a consultation has recently been launched by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) to recognise and protect this important site which is thought to be the best example of a Swedish East Indie merchant ship in Scottish waters. HES, who advise Scottish government on the designation of historic Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), has recommended the Scottish government recognise and protect this important part of Scotland’s marine heritage with HMPA status.
Historic wreck sites such as these are protected and safeguarded through various legislative acts – Protection of Wrecks Act (1973); Zetland County Council Act (1974) and the Marine (Scotland) Act (2010) to ensure that they are safeguarded against ‘inadvertent or deliberate damage’. Diving on a site protected by this act is prohibited unless a license through HES is sought.
Evidence of the Queen can still be viewed on the seabed, including her impressive cannons, the crew all made it back home to their families safely, and for those of us who dive today - we're asked to take only photographs, and leave only bubbles.
With love (and bubbles),
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