Maeshowe cameras go live

Winter has well and truly arrived in Orkney. The days are short and sky is dark, apart from a glimpse of the low sun as it burns through the clouds.

And it’s the winter sun that plays a central role in one of Orkney’s most spectacular events. Every year, at midwinter, the setting sun shines down the entrance passage of the Neolithic tomb at Maeshowe, illuminating the back wall with beautiful, bright light.

It’s a phenomenon that has been well discussed over the years, and you can even see it for yourself, without braving the Orkney winter weather. Images from the event have been broadcast over the internet for nearly twenty years now by local author and photographer Charles Tait. We’ve asked him to share his experiences of the winter solstice, and Maeshowe...

The setting sun shining through the entrance at Maeshowe

It has long been known that the setting sun shines directly down the passage of Maeshowe at the winter solstice. Much speculation has been published over the years about this.

Recent research by Victor Reijs and myself has shown that the sun illuminates the passage and interior of Maeshowe for several weeks on either side of the solstice. Since the original layout of the outer part of the passage is unknown, present events may differ from those of 5,000 years ago.

From mid-November until mid-January the sun shines into the chamber at sunset and lights up the back wall, gradually creeping down the passage and across the floor. At the winter solstice the shaft of light hits the back wall at about 1440 GMT, and by 1505 the sun has set behind the Ward Hill of Hoy.

As the winter solstice approaches, the sun sets progressively further south until eventually it disappears behind Ward Hill. For several days it reappears some minutes later on the north side of the hill, sending a beam of light down the east side of the passage and lighting up a patch on the back wall. About 22 days before the solstice the sun briefly flashes before setting, but for the next 44 days it does not reappear in this fashion, as it is too low in the sky.

Maeshowe during an Orkney winter

Maeshowe was most carefully placed in its environment. Today it is impossible to identify the original layout, since many standing stones and other features have been destroyed, and thus further alignments may well have existed. What is clear is that the builders had a definite vision and purpose. Ceremonies were undoubtedly held here, which would have included those for the dead, but also for the living and perhaps the return of the sun.

I was first introduced to Maeshowe at midwinter by my grandfather, who himself had been taken there as a young man. There is no better time to visit and view this structure than on a winter afternoon with a clear sky to the west.

The Maeshowe Internet Project

We first broadcast images from Maeshowe in November 1997. Victor Reijs first visited Orkney that year on account of his interest in archaeoastronomy. He made a series of measurements in and around Maeshowe, which suggested that the structure may have more complex alignments than the well known winter solstice event.

Visiting Maeshowe had for a long time been a family event for the Tait family. My grandfather, Charles William Tait, had written an article for the Orkney Herald in about 1925. He took a great interest in all things antiquarian and archaeologists such as Gordon Childe were frequent visitors to Buttquoy House, his Kirkwall home. I fondly recall many midwinter visits to see the light in the chamber as a little boy, in a time when very few people were interested in such events.

The winter sun illuminating runes left in Maeshowe by Viking invaders during Orkney's norse past

In 1997 the Internet was still a slow, dial-up, system. Considerable technical issues had to be overcome in order to beam images from Maeshowe to Tormiston Mill and then upload them automatically to a web server. Initially we used a wireless network to send images from a single camera over to the Mill. The connection was frequently lost due to large trucks cutting the signal. We also encountered many problems keeping the Internet connection live.

However we were able to conclusively demonstrate that "flashing" did in fact occur on 2nd December and 11th January, which several academics had refused to believe. Historic Environment Scotland very helpfully had an ISDN line installed in Maeshowe for the 1998 season, and in 1999 we upgraded the system to have two internal cameras and one external.

Each year upwards of 40,000 visitors viewed the website. We had problems due to power cuts, lightning strikes and rats eating cables, but each year we managed to broadcast all the good sunsets. In 2012 the cameras were upgraded again to full HD, Power over Ethernet devices, which no longer required a computer in Maeshowe and are remotely controllable.

The broadcast has been instrumental in bringing many visitors to Orkney. Over the years many organisations have sponsored the event, including Historic Scotland, HEAnet, SURFnet, Orkney Tourist Board, Highland Park, Sheila Fleet and others. Victor Reijs, myself and my son Magnus have financed cameras, computers, routers, software and spent a great deal of time keeping the system operational. Throughout the years Historic Environment Scotland has been very helpful too.

There is conclusive proof that Maeshowe has a complex series of solar alignments. Combined with the Watchstone, and probably other long-gone markers, a highly redundant Neolithic system existed to determine the exact day of the solstice, doubtless New Year for these people.

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Future Plans

We acquired three new cameras in 2012 and the next step is to upgrade the website and make time lapse videos of the best sunsets available. Reliability has been greatly enhanced along with picture quality. We hope to be able to records video sequences at several of the key locations, including the Watch Stone, Ring of Brodgar and from the Ness of Brodgar site. The Ring of Bookan also has solar alignments over Hoy.

All of these depend on actually getting clear skies, of course!

The winter sun setting over Orkney's Ward Hill, viewed from Maeshowe

Running this Internet broadcast has been expensive. We have had constant support and co-operation from Historic Scotland, not least in providing the telephone line and broadband connection. We have had sponsorship over the years but this has only covered a small fraction of the costs. The camera and equipment upgrade in 2012 cost Magnus and I about £3,000, not to mention many hours spent on the website and on setup or maintenance visits to Maeshowe.

During 2013-2014 we had a lightning strike which disabled the telephone connect and damaged equipment. We replaced it at a cost of nearly £1,000. We also had very kind and helpful sponsorship from Sheila Fleet Jewellery but were unable to interest any other sponsors.

Intense lightning storms occurred over several days in early December 2014 which caused extensive damage to the telephone system in Orkney. In our case the router, power over Ethernet switch and the phone box were all fried, but luckily not the cameras. Lightning has been the biggest technical problem, along with rodents chewing cables.

As previously stated many visitors have based their decision on having followed the Maeshowe website. We continue to operate the broadcast purely out of interest and commitment, but would greatly appreciate any assistance that might be available. Webcams are of great interest to potential visitors and we would be happy to explore other uses for the cameras. Orkney Tourism Group is strongly in favour of this broadcast.

See it all for yourself by visiting the Maeshowe Internet Project website. The cameras wil be broadcasting until early February 2017.

For more details on the author and his work, visit Charles Tait's own website. You can also visit the Historic Environment Scotland site for information on visiting Maeshowe. Book your trip to Orkney via Visit Orkney. Newsletter

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