As we approach the end of the year it’s a good time to reflect back and take stock. For me the year has been fast paced, busy – a period of discovery and growth and much in my life has changed immeasurably, for the better. I’ve started a business, got married, made friends, changed career and left behind what made me unhappy. Today (21st December) is the winter solstice, also known as midwinter, or traditionally, in the days of the Julian calendar, Yule. An astrological event, occurring twice a year – once in the northern hemisphere and once in the south – it is when the earth’s pole (in our case, the north pole) is tilted at its furthest reach from the sun giving the fewest daylight hours in any 24 hour period in the year.
Historically it was a significant milestone, marked with feast and fire, the return of the sun and the lengthening of the days celebrated. Meteorologically it's also significant, some say that the solstice marks the beginning of winter, although most meteorologists would concede that this in fact occurs on 1st December. Yet, anyone living this far north will know that the coldest days and the hardest frosts are still to come and that these will generally occur some time after the solstice. So perhaps not time to lay-aff the thermals yet.
Under the old Julian calendar the winter solstice occurred on 25th December – present day Christmas – but with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this changed meaning that today, the solstice occurs on 21st.
The word solstice comes from the Latin, sun stands still, and today I took heed and also took a moment to stand still, listen and appreciate the wonder and the magic of this – the shortest day of the calendar year. It's a time which has been marked, celebrated and revered for millennia and, today, I too stopped to take stock, and what better place to do that than the ancient and sacred temple at Stanydale in Shetland’s west mainland.
Now I’m not some mad pagan hippy – yet – but standing among those ancient stones, at sundown – stones laid down by our ancestors, which have seen the trample of many generations of feet – was nothing other than magical. Every sense in my body was on red-alert, willing, in an Outlander-esque manner for something to come through those stones and strike into the 21st century – giving me an insight into a forgotten world. The one of our ancestors. A world of hard work and farming; short, stooped backs, bent to the ground, waiting on light and growth.
This 4,000 year old, heel-shaped megalithic structure – the only one of its kind in Shetland, seemed to me, the perfect place to connect – for want of a better word – with my ancestors. Shrouded in mystery and intrigue, tucked into the empty landscape, archaeologists are still unsure what the purpose of this Neolithic/Bronze Age structure was. The heel-shaped façade, similar to that at Islesburgh (Delting) and Punds Water (Northmavine), but the size incomparable to anything else on a local level meaning that the function of this 4,000 wonder remains untold. The beauty for any escapist like me, being that its function remains locked only in the imaginations of those who visit.
But there were more grounded reasons to visit on this day. Archaeologists Simon Clarke and Esther Renwick have noted that the temple may hold significance in regard to equinoxes (in March and September), and the movement of the sun through the sky, noting that from a pair of standing stones nearby that:
“The temple (when complete and roofed) would have been skylined against the setting sun, which would have been directly behind it at the equinox.”
The temple's curved facade “may have been the focus for activity taking place outside the doorway… most of the features along the route suggest the focus was the sunset at the equinox, sunrise at the equinox would also illuminate the back wall of the interior (as seen at the winter solstice in the case of Maeshowe in Orkney).” So it made sense really.
(I did return. I visited again at the spring equinox and it was a truly magical experience which I wrote about here.)
There is little archaeological evidence to indicate much farming and domestic life here and yet the pull remains present. A deep-seated desire to understand the past, our ancestors and where we come from is within us all. And as I stood in the temple against a darkening winter sky I too wondered about Stanydale's sense of place in our history. Was there a spiritual significance to its location? Or was it a sacred place of worship? Did our pagan ancestors dance around bonfires on these special calendar occasions as folklore would lead us to believe or did it have a much more practical, utilitarian purpose?
These are questions we will never answer and perhaps that is its greatest power. The catalyst which leads people to places like this and prompts us to ask such questions – safe in the knowledge that these age-old questions will remain unanswered for eternity. And in a time of technology, and information at the click of a mouse, this is a novel and comforting reality.
And at this time, I would like to extend my thanks and gratitude to all my readers – all over the world. I have been overwhelmed by the support and encouragement this blog has received over recent months and for all the kind comments. I wish each and every one of you a very happy Christmas and every good fortune for 2019, wherever you may be, and whatever it may bring.
Note: I highlighted my trip to Stanydale on my Instagram stories and for those not on the app, please feel free to get in touch and I will be happy to email a short video taken at sundown.
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.