You Don’t Have To Be There – To Be There!

By Bernie Bell

We moved to Orkney in September 2006. That 21st December, Mike and I booked on the last tour of the day at Maes Howe. It wasn’t a very good day for it – not dreadful – but not great either. The guide was hopeful, but the Cloud of Malice over Hoy Hills dashed our hopes.

To my mind a visit to Maes Howe is always worth doing, so we didn’t mind too much. After that we decided that we wouldn’t book again, we’d just take our chances. I also say this to folk who are avid to see the northern lights…..if you’re going to see them, you’ll see them, if you’re not, you’re not, that’s all there is to it.

One day, the 26th of January, 2007, Ben-the-Dog and I had our walk by Stenness loch, looking across the water to all the sites along the way, and I thought it would be a good day to go to Maes Howe. Mike couldn’t take the time to go there that day, so he ran me along and dropped me off in time for the last tour. I went in with a group of people. Remember – this was the 26th January.

The guide took us inside and was telling us about what can happen, but saying it wasn’t likely, as it was a bit late. Then, I saw a thin line of amber light coming quietly down the passage-way, and drew the attention of my companions to it. Everyone got very excited, and pleased, as it was un-expected.

That was the first time I saw the light coming down the passage-way in Maes Howe. I asked if it was O.K. for me to stand in it, and the guide said I could. That was great.

It is a truly marvellous thing to see, and can happen as late as 26th January!  Just pick the right day.
Mike and I both saw the light, another time. Again, I felt that I must go to Maes Howe, and the light came down the passage-way.

The ancient folk used to come from far and wide hoping to see this.  Maybe for the Neolithic people it was something like a trip to Mecca as in if you managed even once in your lifetime to get to Orkney and go into Maes Howe as the light returns, you’d consider yourself blessed.  I honestly think Orkney was that important.

The fact that the light can go down the passage over a good stretch of time in mid-winter, meant a reasonable number of people would get the chance to be there. 

The work being done at the Ness of Brodgar is showing ‘The Neolithic Heart of Orkney’  to have been an important  place of pilgrimage, and possibly to see the sun shine into the mound of Maes Howe was a once-in-a-lifetime, very ‘holy’ thing to do. 

If we have a stretch of clear, sunny days at this time of year I look out and think – “This would be a great Maes Howe day”.  It’s right there and can usually be visited – a bit more regimented these days – but it’s still accessible.  And folk still come on pilgrimage, too. 

Presently, Maes Howe has to be closed due to Covid restrictions – too right in my opinion! Though the Visitor Centre is open for pre-booked visits.

For the last couple of decades a web-cam has been placed in Maes Howe for the mid-winter solstice, and folk from …anywhere in the world,  could see the sun’s return.

This year Historic Environment Scotland have organized an on-line event to acknowledge the mid-winter solstice.

For more information ……..

 You don’t have to be there – to be there!

Maeshowe Neolithic Tomb Orkney credit: Martin Laird

Leave a Reply