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.
So wrote George Mackay Brown, the observant eye of the great Orkney poet seeking out the touch of magic conjured up by the Neolithic architects who created Maeshowe with hard-hewn rock and a knowing eye on the heavens.
[Reposting a short tribute to the shortest day of the year, first written 22 December 2015 in another unsettled season…we didn’t know how much more unsettled it would become. What would ‘primitive’ humankind make of us? ]
Today, cloud permitting, after just six hours of daylight, the pale winter sun would have penetrated the narrow passage, piercing the inner darkness of the ancient tomb as it has done for the last 5,000 years. If the 21st century webcam was working we could have followed the gleam that lights up the inner chamber of Maeshowe with unerring accuracy at sunset on and around the Winter Solstice.
Who knows why? What inspired our far distant forefathers to go to such cleverly calculated lengths to capture the rays of the December sun? The Orkney jar website ponders possibilities: a sign of life after death; a fertility rite (that penetrating sun!); or just a human reminder that the darkest days of the year are ending and light is returning?
At this season the sun is a pale wick between two gulfs of darkness.
Whatever, there is comfort in this turning point of the year (just as the summer solstice is always tinged with sadness, for me) even if the worst of winter often comes just as the days are growing long and light enough to see the grey chill without any redeeming twinkle.
No chill, so far, this year when Christmas cards from friends in the south bring news of daffodils and robin red breast thinks its spring. But, however odd the weather, there is no changing the rhythm of night and day, and the welcome gleam of light.
One day I hope the webcam will be working so that my laptop screen can catch the moment like a wizard’s spell. For now, there is George Mackay Brown – I haven’t been able to find the origin of this passage but it is quoted on many blogs and websites, I am following their example. You can see why.
“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.”
Featured image: Standing stones near solstice on Orkney: picture Vicky Brock taken by the Ring of Brodgar CC BY-SA 2.0