Stanydale Temple is set in the heart of Shetland’s West Mainland, a short walk which will take visitors into Neolithic Shetland and back in time some 4,000 years. The heel-shaped megalithic structure or temple – the only one of its kind in Shetland, remains shrouded in mystery and intrigue, tucked into the empty landscape.
Archaeologists are still unsure what the purpose of this Neolithic/Bronze Age structure was. The heel-shaped façade is similar to that at Islesburgh (Delting) and Punds Water (Northmavine), but the size incomparable to anything else on a local level meaning that the function of this 4,000 wonder remains untold. The beauty, for any escapist, is that its purpose remains locked only in the imaginations of those who visit.
The fascinating thing about Stanydale is its connection to equinoxes and the path of the sun as it moves through the sky. On the approaches to Stanydale, there are two standing stones, demarking a passage of sorts, where the sun’s rays will pass through and into the back of the temple at sunrise on the equinox.
This is something that I was keen to experience, so I went on a showery March morning to meet the dawn of the equinox. It was an almost otherworldly experience; that moment as dawn arrives and the world stops, where just for a moment everything falls silent. The birds stop singing; the sheep grow quiet, the wind lulls and life is suspended as that first ray of sunlight makes contact with the earth.
March brings with it an urgency, an expectation of spring. The light is returning – a welcome sight after a long winter at 60 degrees north and the earth is awakening from its winter slumber. There’s a balance in these days of equal light and dark, but there’s also a sense of polarisation. It feels as if we are hanging on a pendulum in free-fall; suspended as the world is about to be set into motion, like a rollercoaster just before the drop.
Our ancestors were carefully tuned into the cycles of the earth and land; carefully labouring, tilling and ploughing. Sowing the seeds and watching them grow. One eye skyward eyeing the weather, the other embedded in the soil willing growth. Hands ingrained with dirt. Sweat exchanged for life. Just as our bodies are governed by cycles, so too is the earth and the way we interact with it. Farmers are still tuned into this cyclical way of life, but for the vast majority of us, it bears little relevance to our day-to-day lives.
It’s difficult not to wonder at Stanydale’s sense of place in our history. Was there a spiritual significance to its location? Was it a sacred place of worship? Did our pagan ancestors dance around bonfires on these special calendar occasions as folklore would lead us to believe or did it have a much more practical, utilitarian purpose?
These are questions we will never answer, and perhaps that is its greatest lure. The catalyst which leads people to places like this is the questions it prompts us to ask, safe in the knowledge that these age-old questions will remain unanswered for eternity. And in a time of technology, and information at the click of a mouse, this is a novel and comforting reality.
Written by Laurie Goodlad