Peter Yeoman ponders an equinoctial enigma

I really enjoy guiding guests at Stanydale on my Andante tours of Shetland, revealing an extraordinary prehistoric designed landscape purposefully created around 4,500 years ago. At this time, the landscape may have been designed for processions and so we process through this, experiencing a gradual revelation – peppered with near-contemporary oval houses, field systems, and standing stones. Literally the tip of the iceberg, as we know that much more lurks undiscovered under the modern blanket peat bog.

As we walk back in time, we become aware of approaching a unique and very large ancient building as the goal of our pilgrimage, successively revealed and then hidden again by folds in the landscape. And then we have the excitement of arrival, having passed through a portal of standing stones, aligned on the single entrance of what was dubbed a ‘temple’ in 1949 by the original excavator, who had nothing else to compare it with. This impressive hall-shaped building, 14 metres in length, was built from massive boulders, originally with heavy timber doors. Stanydale allows us rare glimpses into the higher lives of these prehistoric folk, of their sophisticated planning and ability to mobilise impressive communal effort.

Photo courtesy of Peter Yeoman

Photo courtesy of Peter Yeoman

This is the only bravura early prehistoric monument found so far in Shetland, where the greater constraints of climate and landscape may have inhibited such communal projects, unlike in Orkney. The front of the temple is concave, creating a ceremonial forecourt with a single long, narrow entrance passage in the centre. The shape of the façade is similar to local Neolithic tombs, and the interior mirrors the layout of contemporary houses – albeit multiplied in scale. It's amazing to realise that the building was aligned with extraordinary accuracy so that the sunrise at the equinox March and Sept would shine directly down the roofed passage and illuminate the back wall of the gloomy, windowless interior. The spring equinox (this year on March 20th) is when the world reached a balance for the prehistoric farming folk of Shetland –this event promising the start of the growing season with days longer than nights.

Visiting with an Andante group always sparks great discussion about the purpose of this mighty building, sometimes focused on the paired central post sockets. When excavated, these produced traces of spruce wood, which could only be from whole trees washed up nearby having fallen in native North American coastal virgin forest. The Shetland landscape was devoid of tree cover by this time. Sharp-eyed guests have spotted that the roof supports are off-centre, but why? And it was only during one tour last summer that someone made the brilliant suggestion that if the hall was designed for the rising sun on the equinox to shine directly down the entrance passage, these great posts would block its path. Hence the need to offset the roof supports – genius!

Explore Orkney & Shetland with Peter

Spend 11 days exploring the rich archaeology of Orkney and Shetland in expert company. Highlights on this tour include the aforementioned Stanydale Temple, the Neolithic dwellings at Skara Brae, the megalithic Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, and the multi-period settlement of Jarlshof with its remarkably well-preserved wheelhouses. These islands are also blessed with an extraordinary natural beauty. Wildflowers bloom throughout the summer, covering the green cliffs with colour and the exquisite scent of heather. Peter will lead the 27th June and 8th August departures of this best-selling tour, which was recently included in The Times' round-up of the best cultural holidays to take this year. 

Orkney and Shetland

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Peter Yeoman ponders an equinoctial enigma was published on 15 March 2022