Maeshowe and the winter solstice

“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.”
George Mackay Brown
Maeshowe in winter. (Sigurd Towrie)
Maeshowe in winter. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The dark of winter

Maeshowe entrance passage from the interior. (Sigurd Towrie)
Maeshowe’s entrance passage from the interior.
(📷 Sigurd Towrie)

With its south-westerly facing entrance, Maeshowe’s best known attribute is its orientation towards the setting sun around midwinter.

But although the idea of the last rays of the winter solstice setting sun piercing the darkness of the cairn’s interior conjures suitably dramatic imagery, the actual situation is much more complex.

As archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles pointed out:

“[A]lthough it has been stated a number of times that the setting sun’s rays around the midwinter solstice illuminate, or at least once illuminated, the rear wall of the central chamber, the mean axis of the inner part of the passage (azimuth 221°) was more in line with sunsets some three weeks earlier or later.” [4]

Although this seems pretty clear cut, note that the orientation refers specifically to the inner passage. And therein lies the problem. Much of what has been written about Maeshowe and the winter solstice relates to the current configuration of the entrance and outer passage.

Not only was that outer arrangement reconstructed at some point after the 19th century excavation, but details of the original layout are lacking. Not only was it probably ruinous but perhaps further damaged by Farrer’s operation to clear out the chamber.

As Petrie pointed out in 1861, the outer passage appeared to have originally 71cm (28in) high [5] – lower than the intact inner section.

Although unroofed when excavated, if the outer section was originally covered then this would dramatically impact the sunlight entering the chamber. [6]

There is, however, no reliable evidence that the outer passage was covered – a situation is not helped by inconsistencies in the early accounts and plans.

Maeshowe from the rear. (Sigurd Towrie)
Maeshowe from the rear. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

As mentioned previously, in his 1861 letter to the local newspaper, Petrie said “the covering stones had been removed for about 22½ feet”. [5]

However, a very brief report to the Archaeological Journal, also written in July 1861, states: “the covering stones for about 15ft were wanting”. [7]

Knowing Petrie’s work elsewhere, I find it hard to believe he would not have spotted and recorded collapsed roof material.

It has been suggested that the outer section “may have been in the form of an open trench” leading to the entrance – much as it appears today. [6]

If it was the blocking stone that marked the original entrance to Maeshowe, via the megalith-lined inner passage, and was used to close off the chamber, it did not completely seal the passage.

The top of the huge stone is lower than the passage roof so, when in place, it left a distinct gap. It is often suggested this gap acted as a “lightbox”, similar to the one found in Newgrange, Ireland.

Because the original form of the outer passage remains unclear, how the midwinter sunsets affected Maeshowe in the Neolithic remains a topic of debate.

However, computer modelling by Victor Reijs, in 1998, took into account various entrance permutations and his results did suggest the sun entered the chamber in 2800BC – the amount and duration depending on the different configurations. [9]

Subsequent work by Reijs also highlighted another solar phenomenon:

“Well before and after the present-day Winter Solstice (some 20 days) the sun sets and then reappears from behind Ward Hill, a hill on the island of Hoy.” [10]

This brief return of the sun also casts its light within the chamber for about a minute. [10]

Maeshowe - Sigurd Towrie
Maeshowe. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
“There, along the corridor of Orkahowe, the sun entered at the solstice, and touched, with a golden finger, a tomb with the dead jewelled bones in it.

“We must imagine, perhaps, a great cry of lamentation changing to a chorus of joy. The sun would not die. And even the dead would taste the chalice of immortality.”
George Mackay Brown. Under Brinkies Brae. (1995)

Regardless of the debate over Maeshowe, the time around the winter solstice was clearly significant.

It is not only Maeshowe that incorporated it within its architecture, but others such as Stonehenge and Newgrange. Other possible examples in Orkney include Rousay’s Midhowe and the Taversoe Tuick. [11]

Standing around 760 metres to the south-west of Maeshowe, and aligned to its entrance, is the Barnhouse stone.

In 1893, local schoolmaster Magnus Spence noted an apparent connection between the chambered cairn, the winter solstice and this monolith:

“The alignment from this long passage of Maeshowe and Standing Stone of Barnhouse indicates directions too remarkable to be merely accidental.

“The straight line thus formed points in a south-westerly direction to the point where the sun sets some ten days before the winter solstice, whilst the same alignment in the opposite direction points unequivocally to the point where the sun rises at midsummer.”
Barnhouse Stone looking towards the hills of Hoy. The Kame of Hoy is the steep slope pictured right of the monolith.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Barnhouse Stone looking towards the hills of Hoy. The Kame of Hoy is the steep slope pictured right of the monolith.
(📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Spence, however, considered the midsummer sunrise alignment as the significant one.

Spence was also viewing the Barnhouse stone from the entrance passage and not the chamber itself.

Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to note that the excavators of the Maeshowe-inspired passage grave at Howe suggested a forecourt enhanced the grandeur of that construction. [3]

From the exterior of Maeshowe, the “return” of the sun from behind Ward Hill could not only be witnessed, but some 45 days either side of the solstice, its reappearance from behind the Kame of Hoy. [10]

So what did the solstice signify?

Then, as now, it marked the passing of time – the death of the old year and the birth of the new one.

Today, in the dark depths of an Orcadian winter, the solstice is still a welcome indicator that the sun is returning.

It heralds a resurgence of light and the return of life to the land.

Although in Orkney we still face the worst of the winter weather, it remains a comforting thought to know we’re slowly moving out of the darkness as the sun climbs higher and the days lengthen again.

“On midwinter day, just before the ultimate darkness — ‘the year’s midnight’ — the setting sun shines through the long passage and throws one fleeting golden look on the opposite wall. It is a pledge that, after the long night of winter and death, the earth, with all its freight of seed and root and jewelled bones, will proceed to resurrection and the springtime.”
George Mackay Brown. An Orkney Tapestry.


  • [1] Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Crozier, R. and Murphy, E. (2010) Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140, 1-50.
  • [2] Challands, A., Muir, T. and Richards, C. (2005) The Great Passage Grave of Maeshowe. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 229–248.
  • [3] Ballin-Smith, B. (1994) Howe: four millennia of Orkney prehistory excavations, 1978-1982. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
  • [4] Ruggles, C. (1999) Astronomy in prehistoric Britain and Ireland. Yale University Press.
  • [5] Petrie, G. (1861) Letter to The Orcadian newspaper. July 20, 1861.
  • [6] Davidson, J.L. and Henshall, A.S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents. Edinburgh University Press.
  • [7] Petrie, G., (1861). Notice of the opening of a tumulus in the parish of Stenness, on the Mainland of Orkney. Archaeological Journal, 18 (1), pp.353-358.
  • [8] Spence, M. (1893) Standing Stones and Maeshowe of Stenness. The Scottish Review.
  • [9] Reijs, V. (1998) Maeshowe’s Megalithic Month alignment. 3rd stone. pp. 18–20.
  • [10] Reijs, V. (2018) The Reappearing Sun in Neolithic Orcadian Landscape and Culture. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, 18(4), pp.499-506.
  • [11] Technically, the sun shining through the passage of the Taversoe Tuick’s lower chamber was noted by Orkney’s county archaeologist as occurring mid-morning on December 18.

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