The centre of their world – where heaven, earth and people came together

“There is only a small segment of daylight now, at midwinter, in an immense star-thronged wheel of darkness.”
George Mackay Brown. The Laird’s Son.
The south-eastern end of the Ness of Brodgar, looking towards the Orphir hills.  (📷 Jim Richardson)
The south-eastern end of the Ness of Brodgar, looking towards the Orphir hills. (📷 Jim Richardson)
Stenness map

By Sigurd Towrie

At this, the darkest time of the year, a glimpse of the rising sun is always welcome.

But viewed from anywhere on the Ness of Brodgar those sunrises are particularly spectacular. Why? Because, by natural coincidence, the isthmus roughly lines up with a solstice axis – the line between the positions of the midwinter sunrise and midsummer sunset.

This means that in the weeks before and after the winter solstice, when the sun finally climbs above the hills to the south-east, the Ness points to the enormous stage upon which it begins its brief, daily appearance.

Today, Friday, December 22, 2023, is the winter solstice. A day of darkness when the sun’s arc across the sky is at its lowest.

Midwinter sunset from outside Ness HQ. 9.49am.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Midwinter sunrise from outside Ness HQ. 9.49am. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The sun appears above the Orphir hills at 9.48am.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The first glimpse of the midwinter sun above the Orphir hills at 9.48am.
(📷 Sigurd Towrie)

For those on low-lying areas around south-eastern coasts, the first sight of the sun is around 9.07am.

But at the Ness of Brodgar sunrise is much later. It finally emerges from behind the ridge of the Orphir hills to make its way westwards, just above the hilltops, to set shortly after 3pm.

Depending on the location, and the weather, we’re treated to about six hours of grey daylight.

From my little corner of the West Mainland, for example, the sun appears around 9.50am. But its time is short-lived. By 12.40pm, it is slipping behind another hill.

But although it marks the darkest point of the year, the winter solstice is a turning point. We need only look at sites such as Maeshowe to see that Neolithic Orcadians recognised that, just as we do today.

“The winter solstice was past,” wrote the Orcadian bard George Mackay Brown. “The people were rejoicing in the return of the light.”

That sense of relief remains today and must have been even stronger in prehistory. With each day, the hours of daylight increase noticeably as the sun’s path climbs higher and higher in the sky.

But back to the Ness. Standing outside dig HQ on the morning of the winter solstice, the sun shows up around 9.48am.

In the weeks leading to this, its position has gradually shifted west along the line of hills before reaching the solstice end point. Then the process reverses and the sunrise begins its eastward trek again.

Solstice sunrise and sunset in relation to the Ness of Brodgar.
Winter solstice sunrise (light orange) and sunset (dark orange) points in relation to the Ness of Brodgar.

Cloud conditions permitting – and that’s been something of a rarity this year – it really is a magnificent sight. A natural phenomenon that not only counts the days towards the deepest darkness but then heralds, and tracks, the gradual return of light.

Could this solstice orientation explain why the Ness of Brodgar has been a magnet to people for millennia?

“[E]very winter hitherto the sun, after the time of bright stars and snow, had begun to revive, making wider arcs through the sky; and though the days were cold and stormy, there was no doubt that the sun was renewing itself.”
George Mackay Brown. Under Brinkie’s Brae. (1995)

Around Stonehenge, excavation across the landscape feature known as the Avenue led to the suggestion that the earthwork followed natural, glaciation features that lined up with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. [1]

According to Mike Parker Pearson:

“The north-east entrance of Stonehenge is positioned at one end of a pair of natural ridges, between which are parallel stripes of sediment-filled gullies and chalk bedrock.

“It is not particularly unusual for Neolithic monuments to incorporate such aspects of the natural world into their design, but what is exceptional here is that this particular natural feature, by sheer coincidence, is aligned on the solstice axis.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the builders of Stonehenge were aware of the presence of this geological formation, because they enhanced the two natural ridges by digging the avenue’s ditches along their outside edges and heaping soil on top of each ridge to form parallel banks.”

To Parker Pearson, this was why the builders of Stonehenge were so concerned to incorporate solstice alignments into the monument’s architecture – “It was already inscribed in the ground.” [1]

That significance may have stretched back millennia, when the periglacial stripes and ridges were more prominent than they are today.

“Perhaps,” he added, “this is why this particular spot was important enough for Mesolithic people to mark its environs with huge pine posts.”

“This was the heart of Neolithic Orkney, the place where all circles overlapped.”
Mark Edmonds. Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. (2019)

So, are we looking at something similar for the Ness? 

Maybe, but here the solar alignment was maybe just one of the reasons it came to be regarded as a special place.

A second exists on the excavation site itself, where the midwinter sun reappears briefly after setting behind Hoy’s Ward Hill. [2]

The best place to observe this is around Trench P, but so far none of the excavated structures specifically reference it (although it must be remembered we’ve only exposed a tiny fraction of the site).

So, from the Ness complex – and assuming a clear line of view in among all those buildings – it was not only possible to watch the progression of the sunrise before and after midwinter but also the sunset. Turn the other way and you could do the same for midsummer!

The island of Hoy after sunset.  (📷 Nick Card)
The island of Hoy after sunset. (📷 Nick Card)

But perhaps just as important is the fact that the isthmus lies within a natural “amphitheatre” created by the surrounding hills. This lends the Ness of Brodgar the feel of being a central point – a focus of the surrounding landscape, enclosed and with the vault of the sky stretching upwards and outwards.

To Professor Mark Edmonds:

“Standing at the [Ring of Brodgar] today with water to either side, it easy to see the area as an equivalent for the entire archipelago, a world in microcosm. The eye is also drawn down and along what was probably an important Neolithic pathway, carrying you towards the monumental settlement at Ness of Brodgar, which straddles the isthmus at its narrowest point; the two entrances to the Ring follow the same line. [3]

Although the Ness is now flanked by the two lochs these were probably not so prominent in the Neolithic. Today it forms a land bridge between the Harray and Stenness lochs that connects the north and west Mainland to the main road between the towns of Stromness and Kirkwall.

There is no doubt the isthmus served a similar role throughout the historical period. And going on the available evidence, there is no reason to doubt things were different in prehistory.

Although survey work suggests the Stenness loch was much smaller in the Neolithic, the Ness would still have stood out as a natural landmark — a raised ridge of high ground running from the north-west to the south-east and clearly visible from miles around.

The Orphir hills, the stage for the midwinter sunrises, as viewed from the Ring of Brodgar.  (📷 Nick Card)
The Orphir hills, the stage for the midwinter sunrises, as viewed from the Ring of Brodgar. (📷 Nick Card)

It was in the Neolithic that the Ness and its environs became, given the number, scale and location of monuments, perhaps more than just the handy path between two points it had been for millennia.

Given the evidence of Mesolithic activity (including the excavation site itself) and around the lochs, one cannot help but wonder whether the isthmus acquired some significance in the Neolithic as a link to a distant, legendary past.

As we’ve seen above, Mike Parker Pearson suggested the Stonehenge Avenue area was considered significant in the Mesolithic. It has also been argued that “special” Mesolithic sites across Britain continued to be important throughout the Neolithic. A fine example is Blick Mead, near Stonehenge, which appears to have had a significance and role in the Mesolithic that evolved into a place associated with the past and ancestors in the Neolithic.

In Orkney, the same commemoration of the past was applied to Neolithic sites in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

At the Ness, it seems that what perhaps began as a simple route along the length of the peninsula – and one that coincidentally followed a natural solstice alignment – became increasingly monumentalised and embellished.

A place that was not only where people from Orkney and beyond gathered, but perhaps one “where the passage of the sun was marked on the land [and] where heaven and earth came together.” [1]

I’ll leave the final word to Professor Mark Edmonds:

“Yet [the people of Neolithic Orkney] were also part of something larger, a wider social and political world that could only exist if it was carried forward by gatherings like those held in the Stenness-Brodgar area. Over the course of the Late Neolithic, the land between the lochs became the centre of that world, large numbers assembling to celebrate, to honour the dead, make judgements and agreements and compete for prestige.” [3]
Midwinter sunrise from the side of Trench P.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Midwinter sunrise from the side of Trench P. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)


  • [1] Parker Pearson, M. (2012) Stonehenge: A New Understanding. Simon & Schuster.
  • [2] Reijs, V. (2018) The Reappearing Sun in Neolithic Orcadian Landscape and Culture. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, 18 (4), pp.499-506.
  • [3] Edmonds, M. (2019) Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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