Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Ancient Places - #Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice Venues 

Aberdeenshire, #Scotland, is full of ancient places dotted around the countryside, open to the eye and available to the touch— should anyone wish this. 

Loanhead of Daviot, Aberdeenshire
Neolithic standing stones and stone circles abound, many of which are thought to have been set down in perfect alignment with the seasons and were most likely used as lunar calendars, all executed with an impressive astronomical knowledge. Yet, it would appear that the Neolithic locals who frequented some of the stone circles also had other purposes beyond getting a seasonal marker that told them to expect the days to lengthen after the winter solstice.

I wrote a blog post earlier this year on my own blog HERE about a site named the Loanhead of Daviot where there is a Neolithic recumbent stone circle, the horizontal stone being laid down in line with the moonset on the winter solstice. My earlier post wasn't inspired by the Winter Solstice so some of the information today may be a little different.

There are cremated remains at the base of some of the upright monoliths, buried under small cairns (piles of stones mounded up). It’s thought the burial urns and beakers found there were possibly buried during the construction of the circle approx. 4000-5000 years ago. There are also cremated remains beneath the large cairn of stones which once filled the interior of the standing stone circle at Loanhead of Daviot. Though whether this burial area predates the construction of the circle, or whether the grave area was set out sometime after, is unknown. And sometime later, between 1500 and 500 B.C., a nearby circular area was also used as a cremation cemetery, an excavation in the 1930s finding remains of over 30 individuals.

The cremation evidence gives indication that the site was possibly used for ceremonial purposes of some sort and seems to indicate some link with revering the dead who were buried there. Whether there was any particular use of the circle at Loanhead of Daviot, and indeed all of the other Neolithic circles, during the winter solstice is unknown, but it is an intriguing possibility. The physical human effort expended in creating the circles was huge and to not use them regularly over the millennia and centuries seems wasteful.

It’s not known if druid winter solstice festivals were common among the indigenous late Iron Age tribes of Aberdeenshire. However, since there is some evidence of parallels in Celtic roundhouse dwelling and lifestyles, it’s possible that the ritual and belief system across Aberdeenshire was similar to the druidic customs of south western Britain and parts of mainland Europe. If some form of druid conducted ceremony was common before the invasion of the ancient Romans then there were plenty of ancient stone circles and potentially sacred groves to choose from! 

Many winter traditions in Scotland have very ancient roots, like the festivals of Yule and Hogmanay, and I suspect some traditional pagan use of the standing stone circles of Aberdeenshire lingered well into the Christian era, even though the use would maybe have been frowned upon by the local Christian church. The remoteness of many of the circles from what would have been the towns and cities of the day would have meant that old pagan rites could have quite happily co-existed with Christian ones, even if conducted in a semi-clandestine manner.

It’s historically documented that the Christian Church, in its earliest centuries, quite readily used existing popular pagan festival times, renaming them as Christian celebrations. The re-use of pagan temples as Christian churches is also documented across the later Roman Empire and (I think) ‘absorption’ of sorts may have happened with some popular pagan sites, and maybe even of the associated rituals, in Scotland.
Midmar Kirk- Wikimedia Commons
Midmar Kirk in Aberdeenshire, ~10 miles from my house, is a perfect example of the practice of building Christian monuments adjacent to Neolithic sites (also found elsewhere across the UK). At the Midmar Kirk site, there’s a recumbent stone circle, a Christian church and a Christian graveyard all within a small area. There's open farmland around the church so, even during the time of the church construction in 1787, there would have been other sites to choose from for building a new church at Midmar. However, it’s documented that the site was purposely chosen because there was an 18th Century belief that the stone circle was a Druid religious structure and that Druidism was thought (at the time) to be an offshoot of Christianity. I'm not sure yet how local a thought that might have been. 

At Midmar, excavations have revealed what was probably a Neolithic cremation cairn at the centre of the standing stone circle, though the evidence has largely been destroyed at some past time—possibly when the church was built in 1787. What’s also interesting about Midmar is that the standing stones have been ‘tidied up’ in the past, possibly also around the time of the church construction. One of the stones is probably not in its correct order around the circle since the upright stones in a recumbent stone circle usually range in order of highest stones flanking the recumbent stone and grading down to the smallest on the opposite side of the recumbent.

The building of a Christian church at Midmar indicates that reuse of a spiritual area that had been used by ‘pagans’ for thousands of years wasn't in conflict with local Christian doctrine. The graveyard you see in the photograph was used for burials from the early 1800s, close up to the ancient stones. That isn't unusual in Aberdeenshire, either. The visitor to the shire will find many churchyards which contain ancient menhirs, Pictish symbol stones dated from post AD 400 after the Roman invasion of Britain, and gravemarkers from medieval times to more recent ones...but they will have to be covered in another blog post.


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