ORKNEY'S SHORTEST DAY

~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, December 20th 2012

The best time to go to Orkney is mid-winter. That’s not what the Scottish tourist board would tell you, of course. They’d have you visit in June when the sun barely sets, the islands spill over with light, and even at midnight there is what the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown described as "a glow under the northern horizon like a banked-down forge". 

But sunshine is easy to squander; darkness concentrates the mind. And, with minimal light pollution, Orkney enjoys real darkness. At this time of year, dusk gathers about 3pm. By four, if you are sitting indoors, it feels as if squares of black velvet have been pinned to your window panes. In the hours before bed, you can read a whole book, or tackle that long letter you’ve been meaning to write all year. On clear nights, the sky swarms with stars, and occasionally (though they’ve always eluded me) the technicoloured aurora borealis. 

Because the hours of daylight are short, you make the most of them, and there is much to explore. The 70-odd Orkney islands have been consistently inhabited for over 5,000 years, and almost wherever you turn you are aware of a great sweep of history—not parcelled up as heritage, but folded into the landscape. There are the Churchill Barriers, constructed by Italian prisoners of war to make Scapa Flow impenetrable to U-boats; and the great red-sandstone cathedral, built by Durham masons in honour of the islands’ saint, Magnus. There’s the Neolithic village of Scara Brae, unveiled one winter’s night in 1850 when a storm ripped the grass from a stretch of coast; and the Ring of Brodgar—27 ancient slabs of stone standing round a grassy disc: a place of worship? Sacrifice? Nobody knows. 

Perhaps most enthralling of all is Maeshowe, a grassy hillock grazed by sheep and enclosing the most sophisticated chambered cairn in north-west Europe. Viking crusaders broke in here in the twelfth century and scored the walls with runic graffiti; but the lives and beliefs of the men who built the tomb remain shadowy. 

All we know for sure is that they were subtle architects, sensitive to symbol. As the sun sets on the shortest day of the year, it points a finger of brightness directly through the long, low mouth of Maeshowe: a promise, as the year dies, that the light will return. 

Five millennia on, clouds permitting, you can witness this phenomenon from anywhere in the world, courtesy of a webcam. Visit maeshowe.co.uk just after 3.15pm tomorrow. Then make plans to get to Orkney before the winter ends. 

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life, director of the Royal Society of Literature in London and the award-winning author of "George Mackay Brown: The Life"