Tag Archives: Scotland

Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice, or Midwinter, is celebrated around the world by a variety of cultures.  It marks the shortest day of the year (the longest night), and when the sun is at its lowest on the horizon.  This usually occurs around December 21-22 in the Northern Hemisphere.  From that point onwards, the days continue to grow longer until Midsummer in June.  In Celtic countries, the Winter Solstice was seen as a time of rebirth and renewal, as signified by the return of the light.

The Celtic Midwinter is also known as Meán Geimhridh or Grianstad an Gheimhridh in Irish.  Solstices and equinoxes were thought to be very important to the pre- and early-Celtic people, as seen through the construction of several tombs whose passages align with the solstice sun, such as Newgrange.  These solstices were seen as occurring at the midpoint of each season, hence the name ‘Midwinter’ for the Winter Solstice.

In Druidic traditions, this day is known as Alban Arthan, which means ‘Light of Winter’ in Welsh.  Some also call it Alban Arthuan, or ‘Light of Arthur’, which pays homage to the Welsh legends of King Arthur.  Alban Arthan signifies the time when the archetypal Holly King (who rules from Midsummer to Midwinter) is defeated by the Oak King (who rules from Midwinter to Midsummer) in a great battle.  The Holly King, also seen as a wren bird, signifies the old year and the shortened sun, while the Oak King, also seen as a robin, signifies the new year and growing sun.  Mistletoe is also a symbol of the Winter Solstice, as it was thought that Druids revered the plant as ‘ever green’, which signified continued life over the cold dark winter.  Since mistletoe is thought to be an aphrodisiac, this is where the holiday tradition of ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ could have originated.

In Ireland, Wales, and the Isle of Man, a festival called Lá an Dreoilín, or Wren Day, is celebrated on December 26.  It involves boys dressed in masks or straw suits, called Wrenboys, parading around town accompanied by musicians.  Originally they would hunt and kill a wren, in tribute to the light overcoming the dark, and carry the bird from house to house, stopping for food and good cheer.  Thankfully this tradition now involves using a fake bird.

In Scotland, winter festivities are held on the eve of the New Year, when there is a great celebration called Hogmanay.  It is thought that the Christian church was trying to suppress the pagan solstice celebrations in the 17th century, therefore the festivities moved to the coincide with the new year.  The name Hogmanay could have derived from the Scottish Gaelic word for ‘Yule gifts’.  Hogmanay customs include ‘first-footing’ (trying to get your foot first in a doorway of neighbours houses after midnight), ‘redding’ (spring cleaning), torchlight processions, fireball swinging, as well as giving gifts of coal, shortbread, whisky, or a black bun (fruit pudding).

Wiki – Winter Solstice, Alban Arthan

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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The World of Stonehenge

Neil Oliver, archaeologist and presenter of several BBC documentaries, has created a wonderful series that is highly entertaining and informative.  (It doesn’t hurt that he has a cute Scottish accent!) Highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of Great Britain, particularly Celtic history.

A History of Ancient Britain, Series 1, BBC 2 (2011)
aka The World of Stonehenge, Knowledge Network, USA

Image: A-History-of-Ancient-Britain-Series-1-Cover.jpg

Tapping into the latest scientific detective work and experimental archaeology, Neil Oliver uncovers the story of prehistoric Britain in this fascinating four-part series. Investigating famous sites, as well as little known ones (which hold some of the biggest secrets), Neil travels to Brittany to discover Carnac, where farmers and hunter-gathers clashed 7,000 years ago, to Ireland, where he finds the world’s most extensive Stone Age system of fields and walls, and to Stonehenge, the sacred stone circle where the living could commune with the dead.

  • Age of Ice – Neil Oliver travels back to ice age Britain as he begins the epic story of how our land and its people came to be over thousands of years of ancient history. This week sees a struggle for survival in a brutal world of climate change and environmental catastrophe.
  • Age of Ancestors – Neil Oliver continues the story of how today’s Britain and its people were forged over thousands of years of ancient history. It’s 4,000 BC and the first farmers arrive from Europe, with seismic consequences for the local hunter-gatherers.
  • Age of Cosmology – Neil Oliver continues his journey through the world of Ancient Britain as he encounters an age of cosmological priests and some of the greatest monuments of the Stone Age, including Stonehenge itself. This is a time of elite travellers, who were inventing the very idea of Heaven itself.
  • Age of Bronze – Neil Oliver reaches the end of his epic tour of our most distant past with the arrival of metals and the social revolution that ushered in a new age of social mobility, international trade, and village life.

A History of Celtic Britain, Series 2, BBC 2 (2011)
aka The World After Stonehenge, Knowledge Network, USA

Image: A-History-of-Celtic-Britain-Cover.jpg

Neil continues his landmark investigation of how Britain and its peoples came to be. Over the course of four episodes, he tells the story of a developing nation, from a population of self-sufficient farmers in 500 BC through the Iron Age and the Roman conquest. He also addresses one of the greatest mysteries of history: who, what and where were the Celts? They may never have existed as a genetic people, but as a culture the Celts generated extraordinary riches – warriors, druids and the first kings.

  • Age of Iron – Diving for 3,000-year-old treasure and pot-holing through an ancient copper mine he discovers how a golden age of bronze collapsed into social and economic crisis set against a period of sharp climate change… eventually to be replaced by a new era, of iron.
  • Age of Warriors – Neil Oliver explores the age of Celtic Britain – a time of warriors, druids, and kings of unimaginable wealth. Neil encounters a celebrated warrior from 300 BC, owner of the finest Iron Age sword ever discovered. He tries his hand at divination in an effort to discover the power of Celtic priests and searches into his own DNA for clues to Celtic identity.
  • Age of Invasion – Neil Oliver explores the remains of brutal Iron Age battles and Celtic rebellion as he reaches the moment when Celtic Britain was ripped apart by the world’s great empire – the Roman army.
  • Age of Romans – Neil Oliver completes his epic journey through thousands of years of ancient history with the modern marvels of Rome. Digging beneath a London tower block, discovering building work from a massive stadium, and encountering the remains of an African woman who lived in York 1800 years ago – all evidence of the extraordinary multicultural modern world of Rome.

DocuWiki – A History of Ancient Britain Series 1, A History of Celtic Britain
Knowledge Network – The World of Stonehenge, The World After Stonehenge

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Standing With Stones

Standing With Stones: A Journey Through Megalithic Britain
(DVD, 2008)

I watched a very interesting movie on the ‘standing stones’ of Britain, the megaliths, henges, stone circles, cairns and other neolithic structures built thousands of years ago across the British Isles.  Everybody knows about Stonehenge and Newgrange, but what about the other ones?  How many different megalithic sites are there?  What are their significance?

Types of Megalithic Sites (wiki)

Standing Stones – (aka megaliths) solitary stones set vertically in the ground
Stone Circle – a monument of standing stones arranged in a circle
Stone Row – (aka stone alignment) a linear arrangement of upright, parallel standing stones set at intervals along a common axis or series of axes
Dolmen – (aka portal tomb, portal grave, or quoit) a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of three or more upright stones supporting a large flat horizontal capstone (table).  Usually covered with earth or smaller stones to form a barrow.
Cromlech (Welsh) – usually refers to dolmens, however it is widely used in French and Spanish to describe stone circles
Cairn – a man-made pile (or stack) of stones, often erected as landmarks
Barrow – (aka tumulus, burial mound, kurgan) a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves.  A cairn might also be originally a tumulus.
Henge – features a ring bank and internal ditch surrounding a central flat area.  May contain ritual structures such as stone circles, timber circles and coves.
Cist – a small stone-built coffin-like box or ossuary used to hold the bodies of the dead, perhaps under a cairn or long barrow
Cursus – (Latin for “course”) large parallel lengths of banks with external ditches, thought to be early Roman athletic courses

We journey through the UK and Ireland, staring in Southern England, making our way through Wales, Ireland, Northern England, Scotland, and the remote northern Scottish Isles.  One thing is abundantly clear – nobody really knows why these megalithic structures were built and what their exact purposes were.  Theories abound, however these ancient structures are still shrouded in mystery.

Here is a list of sites discussed in the DVD:

Western England
Ballowall Barrow
Mên-an-Tol
Rocky Valley
Nine Stones (Dartmoor)
Yellowmead

Southern England
Knowlton Henge
Chestnuts Long Barrow (Medway Megaliths)
London Stone
Wiltshire
Stanton Drew The second largest stone circle in Britain
Barrows
Rollright Stones
Stonehenge (Winterbourne Stoke, Barrows, North Kith, Cursus, Normanton Down Barrows, Darlington Walls, Woodhenge, West Kenet, Long Barrow, Silbury Hill)
Avebury – The largest stone circle in Britain
Goldrum
Priddy Nine Barrows
Stoney Littleton
Wayland’s Smithy
Belas Knap
Also: Uffington White Horse, Long Man of Wilmingdon

Wales
Gors Fawr
Ysbyty Cynfyn
Bryn Celi Ddu
Druid’s Circle (Anglesey)
Barclodiad-y-Gawres
Pont-y-Pridd
Rocking Stone
Tinkins Wood
Cerrig Duon / Maen Mawr
Pentre Ifan
Llech-y-Tripedd
Moel-y-Uchaf

Ireland
Castleruddery
Carrowmore
Maeve’s Cairn
Shronebirrane
Poulnabrone
Beaghmore
Browne’s Hill Dolmen
Creevykeel
Labbacallee
Urach
Ardgroom
Newgrange / Knowth / Dowth (Brú na Bóinne)

Northern England
Arbor Low
Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor
Bleasdale Circle
Rudston Monolith, Cursus
Long Meg and her Daughters
Formby Point
The Chasms
Mull Circle
Devil’s Elbow
Cashtal yn Ard
Castlerigg
King Orry’s Grave
Cursus
Langdale Axe Quarry
Druid’s Circle
Sunkenkirk

Scotland
Clava Cairns
Twelve Apostles
Cairnholy
Glenquicken
Cairnbaan
Achnabreck
Kilmartin Glen
Leys of Marlee
The Recumbents

Scottish Isles
Callanish (Calanais)
Maeshowe
Ring of Brodgar, Stenness – The third largest stone circle in Britain.
Grey Cairns of Camster
Skara Brae
Tomb of Eagles

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Hogmanay

‘Hogmanay’ is celebrated in Scotland on the last day of the year, with festivities often extending until the first or second day of the New Year.  Also known as Ne’erday (Netherday, New Year’s Day), Hogmanay is thought to be related to pagan celebrations such as the Winter Solstice and Yule.  The origin of the term ‘Hogmanay’ is debated, but the festival has been an integral part of Scotland for centuries.

Hogmanay

Hogmanay took centre stage in Scotland after Christmas was banned by Protestant reformists in the 17th century for being ‘too Catholic’.  Even after laws were changed in the 1960s, Hogmanay remains an important Scottish celebration.

Local customs include ‘first-footing’ (trying to get your foot first in a doorway of friends/neighbours houses after midnight), ‘redding’ (spring cleaning), torchlight processions, fireball swinging, and singing Auld Lang Syne to harken in a good new year.

David Gifford

A variation on Hogmanay is Up Helly Aa, which is held in the remote Shetland Islands of Scotland around New Year’s Eve.  Celebrating their Norse background, local revellers hold great festivals of fire, where they dress up like Vikings and burn replica Viking longships.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hogmanay
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Helly_Aa
http://www.martinfrost.ws/htmlfiles/hogmany.html

© The Celtic Journey (2012)

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