A ray of light in the Isles of Orkney

P1120381The Stones of Stenness, Orkney

Visiting Orkney – the islands just off John O’ Goats at the northern tip of Scotland – a few days ago, we were entranced, as every visitor is, by the 5,000 year old archeological sites. Older than most of the pyramids, twice as old as Homer and ancient Greece, these stone structures that you walk around all over the place are evidence of a society of amazing sophistication.

One of the most notable features of the surviving artifacts is that, like Stonehenge 700 miles to the south (much nearer home for us) some of them are lined up accurately with the solar solstices. Stonehenge is aligned with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, but it is on the shortest that the sun shines right down the length of the entrance tunnel of Maeshowe in Orkney so that it illuminates the opposite wall of the chamber deep inside the mound.

MaeshoweMaeshowe. Entrance only by guided tour, and photography inside not allowed

The natural thing is to be amazed at the cleverness of people who could work out this sort of thing and line up their buildings accordingly. But I suddenly had a flash of insight into how it might actually be done which I would like to try out here. I don’t for a moment imagine the idea is original, but it was certainly new to me, and it has interested a few people I have described it to. So here goes:

By far the most important variable in the life of people living in far Northern latitudes (and also for anyone living in far Southern latitudes if there were any) is the extreme variation in day length that occurs with the seasons. In tropical latitudes, of course, the day length is unchanged throughout the year, but in Orkney last week it was still light at 11pm and in the depth of winter the opposite must apply, making it dark for all but a few hours of each day.

So, imagine some Orkadian Einstein hitting on the idea of sticking a marker in the ground to line up something like a distant tree with the point on the horizon where the sun is setting. The next day (s)he finds that the marker has to be moved a little to the left, and again the next day. And so on, day after day. But sooner or later there comes a point where the movement stops and the markers begin to move back. That point is obviously going to be significant. So he sticks a bigger and more permanent marker there.

That would be interesting enough merely as a sign that the worst is past and from now on the days will get longer, but imagine if our proto-Einstein then leaves his/her markers until the following year and finds that the sun turns the corner in exactly the same place that year as well, And then the next year. And then the next. Surely the significance of this alignment with the horizon would be far greater, and far more god-like, to someone who had no understanding of how or why it happened that way, than to people like us to whom the explanation is commonplace.

Looking at it like that I felt I had some understanding of why people living in those conditions, particularly those in Northern latitudes, would have placed such enormous significance on these alignments in their traditions and in their ceremonies. But at the same time I could also see that setting up the precise alignment would be a much simpler process than I had previously thought. Contrary to what I had always supposed it could be entirety empirical and done without the slightest understanding and without the need for any calculation or astronomy whatsoever. You just put in bigger stones to mark your alignment and build your temple, or whatever, round them.

On the other hand, the fact that the alignment still holds true 5,000 years later does still strike me as awe-inspiring and slightly god-like.


Sunset over the sea to Skye – and the Cuillin mountains

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