Years ago, I was a fledgling renting a box room in London. I was as confused as the birds that kept me awake all night because it did not get dark. The radiation glow of street lighting that never switched off made insomniacs of us all and briefly, each solstice, I remember this as my sleep patterns shift into summer gear and my usual early-to-bed-early-to-rise rhythms get thrown out of shape.
The steps we take towards solstice or Midsummer – strange because doesn’t it mark the start of summer, not the midpoint? – are baby steps. All through May and early June the day length stretches almost imperceptibly; islander activity, birds and blooms alike, they all eke out the extra minutes until finally solstice arrives and for a brief moment we are suspended under a midnight sun or, more likely, an eerie half light reminiscent of an eclipse.
Grian-stad means literally sun-stay, the Scots Gaelic aligning with the barebones meaning of solstice, Sol-Stitium or sun stands still; when the sun is directly above the northernmost point, marking the beginning of summer and giving cause for celebration.
Druids, Mayans, Romans and Egyptians, all aligned their sacred sites to the solstice sun and held celebrations to honour the light, the strength of the sun and its power to create life. At the Great Pyramids the solstice sun crowns the head of Sphinx. At Stonehenge, which predates the Druids 5000 years ago, thousands visit to mark the event and celebrate the cycles of nature and witness the turning of the wheel of time. The Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone are aligned with the sunrise and it is believed to have been an astronomical calculator as different stones are aligned with different dates in the calendar.
There are several groups of stones on Skye that may have played their part in the island’s past at Solstice times of the year. North of Kensaleyre you will find the Eyre Alignment, or Sornaichean Coir Fhinn.
Now 2 stones standing but there once were 3, forming a row. They stand a few feet from the edge of Loch Eyre and close by are 2 burial cairns, which are thought to be Bronze Age. Local folklore talks of the stones being erected by the mighty Fingal, as uprights for his massive cooking pot for his boiling venison.
Fingal was the hero of an epic poem by James McPherson (1792), based on the character of legend, Fionn mac Cumhail.
Another set of stones stand near Kilmarie at Strathaird. Na Clachan Bhreige are 3 stones standing with one fallen. In researching the name, I could only find reference to false stones or men turned to stone but could unearth little background for this intriguing idea, sadly.
There are other examples below Dun Cruinn, the Iron Age Hill Fort at Loch Snizort Beag, there’s a single beautiful stone stands above the village of Uig and another Stone Row at Borve.
Besides these, many other stones stand on Skye with varied histories attached to them, like the folklore around the rock-scape of The Old Man of Storr, which tells a tale of a giant buried, following a skirmish with Men, leaving his thumb exposed, as the stack we see today!
With just a few days until solstice, I’m willing the skies clear enough for me to be there at dawn to see some Skye standing stones in the light of a solstice sun and make my own celebration of the turning of nature’s wheel.
Standing Stone images courtesy of the Megalithic Portal website.