A winter sunrise in December.
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.
What better place to spend the solstice?
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 the 1st of 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 the 25th December – present day Christmas but with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this changed meaning that today, the solstice occurs on the 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 magic of this - the shortest day of the year. It is 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.
Stanydale temple on the winter solstice.
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.
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, “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 temples 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.
A largely empty landscape at Stanydale in all the beautiful shades of Shetland winter.
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.
Some local friends made along the way. These ponies were such placid, friendly guys.
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.
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Shetland with Laurie
Copyright ©Alexa Fitzgibbon
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Shetland tourist info: shetland.org