Sunday, 23 December 2018

A winter solstice celebration

On the winter solstice, 21st December 2018, we visited Cothiemuir Hill stone circle which is near to our home.  Arriving  before sunrise, we experienced the light gradually seeping in around the stones on this, the shortest day of the year.

Aberdeenshire is very rich in neolithic monuments and has close to a hundred of a type of stone circle found almost nowhere else, the recumbent circle.  Aligned on the midwinter moon, and in particular the major "standstill" midwinter moon which occurs every 18.6 years, the builders aligned the circles to an astonishing level of precision.  Some circles have cup marks incised to mark major lunar events and show where the moon would appear when viewed from the centre of the circle.

Cothiemuir Hill is a great example of a recumbent circle and is almost complete.  The huge recumbent is a 4.2m long basalt monolith, and was brought to the site.  The flankers either side are 2.9m and 2.7m tall - this is an imposing circle. the west flanker (the right hand in this image) is aligned very precisely on the major southern moonset.  I've written about this circle several times before, here and here, and I'm still fascinated by the place.

We try to visit at the winter solstice, not from any pagan leanings but merely from a feeling that this is their time, the point in the year when the circle had most significance to its builders.  Now within a wood, it would have been a prominent viewpoint when in use.

We headed home after visiting the circle to do the jobs which seem to take so much time as Christmas approaches.  The shortest day turned out fine, cold and dry with bright, low winter sun.

Towards sunset (3.25pm at the solstice!) I decided to go back to the circle and see if I could view the sunset from the circle.  It was a very atmospheric afternoon, a smoky sunset and a hard frost setting in.

Walking up to the stones I was delighted to see that a wedding was in progress - timed, it seemed, for the sunset.  No pagan or "New Age" ceremony, this was a straightforward humanist celebration.  I often leave some greenery at the stones at this time of year, and I'm not alone in doing that, but here was a continuity of use for the circle stretching back millenia.  Having waited until the couple were married, I added my congratulations and left quite moved at this simple ceremony in a wood.

Back at home, the solstice full moon was rising over Bennachie, a huge disc growing brighter and colder as it climbed over the Aberdeenshire farmlands.  This is what the circles were built to observe.  Maybe not as striking as the solstice full moon of 2010, it's nevertheless a significant turning point in the year.

The morning of the 22nd was forecast to be fine, with perhaps a little cloud.  I thought it would be good to get out early and see if I could watch the sun rise from Millstone Hill.  Heading out well before dawn, my headtorch picking out the hard glitter of a deep frost, I was near the summit of the hill as the light was beginning to grow.  Below, the valley of the River Don was a cold, frosty place.

To the south east and across the city of Aberdeen, I watched the sunrise over the North Sea.  At first a crimson line, the colour intensified to a searing orange before fading as the sun was obscured by a cloudbank.  There was a warmth to the light, but certainly not in the air - it was very chilly as I sat waiting with a flask of tea. 

Although the sun itself remained obscured, the light crept up and gave a nice view over to  Bennachie's Mither Tap, site of a hillfort.

Despite the short days I felt that I'd experienced the best of the winter solstice - from the continuity of the stones to the first sunrise of lengthening days - something to celebrate indeed!


  1. Impressive ancient work and mindboggling! Nice photos as usual, Ian.
    Have a nice ending of this year and a very Happy New Year!

  2. Thanks Leif, its a special place. Hope you had a great Christmas - here's to 2019!