Winter solstice revisited

Length of day and solar income around the winter solstice. The significance of Maeshowe on Orkney. Importance of the annual temperature lag for farming. The Turning of the Year in the singing tradition. 

From the earliest settlements on these islands, the Winter Solstice has been marked and celebrated as the Turning of the Year. Days will now get longer and the sun rise higher in the sky.

A previous Living Field article on the Winter Solstice gave some explanation of the yearly cycle, the changes in sunrise, sunset, and the various twilights’ at this time of year [1]. The shortest day, usually 21 December, does not coincide with the earliest sunset or latest sunrise. The earliest sunset was about a week ago, but the latest sunrise will not happen for another week. Once that’s passed, the days will lengthen more quickly. 

Fig. 1 Daylength at the winter solstice, 21 December, at a range of archaeological and historical sites. Hours:minutes shown are from sunrise and sunset tables for 2020, excluding twilight. First published at Through the solstice on 28 December 2020.

The map of daylength at the solstice (Fig. 1) shows the great decrease from south to north that early farmers had to reckon with when building their cairns, stone circles and alignments. Daylength is eight and a half hours at Carnac, near the Golfe du Morbihan in Brittany, but only five and three-quarter hours in the north of Shetland.

There was compensation in summer when daylength in the north was much longer than in the south. Provided they could get through the winter, our neolithic ancestors had much more time in summer to tend their crops and livestock. 

Maeshowe Orkney

The Maeshowe mound or chambered cairn, built on Orkney 5000 or so years ago, is one of the neolithic monuments aligned with the solar cycle. For several days either side the solstice the setting sun shines down the passage and on to the back wall. Maeshowe is part of the magnificent set of standing stones and settlements at the heart of Neolithic Orkney, close to the Ring of Brodgar and Stenness.

On the afternoon of Winter Solstice 2021, Historic Environment Scotland broadcast a short film about Maeshowe, introduced by ranger Susan Miller and including people describing its construction and purpose, the runes incised on the stone much later, local folk tales and poems in Orkney dialect. Much of the film was recorded inside the chamber. It can be viewed via the HES web site [2].

Several other neolithic sites are aligned with sunrise or sunset at the winter solstice. Newgrange at Bru na Boinne in Ireland is one of the most famous [3]. At sunrise, light shines through a ‘roof-box’ above the main entrance stones. The cairns at Balnuaran of Clava near Inverness are also aligned with the winter solstice but at sunset rather than sunrise. 

Solar income and the temperature lag

The increasing daylength and twilight may give more time for people to travel and work outside without artificial light, but the plants on which people and their livestock depend are waiting for change in two climatic factors – a rise in temperature enough to encourage seed germination and leaf expansion, and a rise in solar income that the new leaf can use to take in carbon dioxide from the air and grow. The trouble is that the rise in temperature happens one to two months after the rise in solar and that can cause big problems for farming.  

The diagram in Fig. 2 shows the compass direction of sunrise and sunset (the points where each curve rises from and falls to the horizontal axis) and the daily rise and fall of solar elevation in between. The elevation defines the maximum intensity of solar radiation as the sun rises and falls, so the area under a curve represents the total solar income received on a clear day. That received at the winter solstice is also reduced in most years because of cloud. 

Fig. 2 Diagram to show the changes through the year in the rising and setting of the sun and its elevation or altitude at latitude 56N (between Aberlemno and Dunning on Fig. 1). The horizontal axis shows the direction of the sun (at 180 degrees it would shine from the exact south), the vertical axis the elevation or altitude of the sun (90 degrees would be directly overhead). The lower curve is for the winter solstice, the upper for the the summer solstice and the middle for the equinoxes. First published at Through the solstice on 28 December 2020.

By the spring equinox on 21 March (the middle curve in Fig, 2) the solar curve has greatly increased: for instance, the elevation at midday is more than half that to come at the summer solstice. There is plenty of solar radiation at this time to support the growth of plants.  But look at the agricultural calendar – and spring crops are just being sown, winter crops have hardly recovered from the preceding cold and much livestock farming still relies on last year’s grass, hay and silage. There is little new growth because the temperature is still too low. In consequence, most of the solar income between winter solstice and spring equinox is ‘wasted’ as far agriculture is concerned. 

Fig. 3 Annual curves of daily incoming solar radiation (solid line) and daily average air temperature (dashed line) at latitude 56N, showing the curve for temperature lagging behind that of solar by about six weeks [4].

The lag in the annual cycle of temperature, illustrated by the curves in Fig. 3, is typically between one and two months, but is highly unpredictable. Although the rise in solar drives the rise in temperature, the two are only partly coupled, because at any point in the solar curve, change in weather patterns across the north Atlantic can bring in colder, warmer, drier or wetter air.

If the curves for solar radiation and temperature behave themselves, then good management can achieve very high yields of crops and grass. But if the year or the farming gets it wrong, there can be crop failure, and in the past, hunger and sometimes famine. The two to three months after the winter solstice are crucial therefore. This is one reason why so much of the singing Tradition deals with The Turning

Winter song

Solstice time meant a lot to those who relied on the land and the weather. A couple of hours after the broadcast from Maeshowe [2] on 21 December, the Yorkshire-based Melrose Quartet performed their seasonal songs and tunes online via Live to Your Living Room [5]. They included some of the traditional folk carols are still sung in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire (and other places). Some originated hundreds of years ago. Their popularity hasn’t died. The tradition is thriving.

Many performances of traditional carols are available online [5]. They Melrose Quartet also sang songs that were crafted more recently and in ways so close to the spirit of tradition that they have become part of it. Here’s an extract from the Sheffield Wassail by Pete Smith: “God bless the old and weary | whose time is nearly run | and all the unsung careers | who are paid a paltry sum’.

The ‘Turning of the Year’ is celebrated in tradition and song throughout Britain [5, 6]. The Living Field’s Winter solstice page in The Year gives some examples and links. The compendium of song named Midwinter – A celebration off the folk music and traditions of Christmas and the Turning of the Year – with text by Nigel Schofield and produced by Free Reed, remains one of the most comprehensive surveys of midwinter traditions in the British Isles. 

And finally, a reminder that the season meant death and life to those that tilled the land. Snow Falls by John Tams begins: ‘Cruel winter cuts through like the reaper | The old year lies withered and slain | Like barleycorn who rose from the grave | The new year will rise up again. Then the chorus: And the snow falls | And the wind calls | And the year turns round again.”

So here’s to Christmas and all the Midwinter celebrations, astronomical, vocal, whatever.  

Sources | links

[1] The article Through the solstice, containing a description of change in daylength, twilight and solar income was published on this site on 28 December 2020 and gives methods and sources of data used in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2.

[2] Maeshowe on Solstice day 2021: Historic Environment Scotland’s New online film celebrating the winter solstice on Orkney. See also the entries for Maeshowe at Orkneyjar and Canmore.

[3] Newgrange, Bru na Boinne. For the history of excavation and some early photographs: (a); (b) the Fr. Michael O’Flanagan History and Heritage Centre; (c) The stones of time by Martin Brennan (1994, Inner Traditions).

[4] The curves in Fig. 3 are central to understanding the effect of weather and climate on agriculture here, and need to be accounted for when predicting the effects of change in climate. The original curves are presented in a recent James Hutton Institute research paper in the journal Plants published 2021.

[5] Folk carols and other winter songs: search Yorkshire / Sheffield / Derbyshire carols for various live videos. For records and books: (a) Broadcast live on solstice day 21 December 2021 via Live to your Living Room, a gig by the folk group Melrose Quartet, based in Sheffield: their CD containing carols and songs, The Rudolf Variations, can be bought at their online store. (b) The Mainly Norfolk web site lists a range of carol albums, e.g. A People’s Carol, On this delightful Morn, Hark, Hark! What news, and many others, mainly from Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. (c) The web site Village Carols gives Links to carol traditions in various parts of the UK and under the Publications tab lists books and recordings, including The Sheffield Book of Village Carols by Ian Russell (2008, Elphinstone Institute Aberdeen University). Also Winter Solstice at the Year on this site.

[6] Scotland has its share of winter traditions. Local is best! Newburgh, a village in Fife, holds its unique Oddfellows Parade on 31 December, cancelled this year (but see photosbyzoe) and is acclaimed for its Wonky Christmas Lights (BBC news item). See also Stonehaven Fireballs at midnight on 31 December and the Up Helly Aa in Shetland later in January.

Labours of the Months

A note to the Living Field’s exploration of The Year. The Labours in Medieval art and craft. Labours in the remaining Easby church murals, Yorkshire, ca 1250. Adam and Eve in the tradition: delving and spanning. The reformer John Ball. Modern Labours and the Crow. 

The ‘Labours of the months’ was an artistic theme that recurred in cathedrals and churches across Europe in the middle ages, typically 1200-1400 AD or 800-600 years ago [1]. The Labours, depicting rural activities through the year, were sometimes paired with the signs of the zodiac. They were crafted in stone, wood and stained glass and occasionally in wall paintings (murals). The great cathedrals of France and Italy display many fine examples.

The Labours  had a role in reinforcing power and privilege. In the Très Riches Heures for example [2] the paintings show well turned out peasants about their seasonal activities, but overlooked and dominated by great palaces and castles. And not all the Labours were about the agricultural year: hunting with hawk and dog would also have been the preserve of the wealthy.

So now to Yorkshire …

The Easby Murals

In the church of St Agatha at Easby [3] Yorkshire, four of what are thought to have been 12  murals remain of these Labours of the Months, dated to around 1250 along with several murals depicting scenes from the Bible. There are apparently very few other wall paintings of ‘The Labours’ from medieval Britain, and none to compare with these. 

These murals were originally painted on dry plaster, but found covered with lime wash, presumably to prevent them being seen and defaced during Henry VIII’s purges of the monasteries in the mid-1500s. They were uncovered in Victorian times and restored again in 1994 [4]. The remaining 8 have not survived.

A notice in the church states that two of the remaining Labours are from spring, sowing and pruning, and the others, digging and hunting, from winter. Those of sowing and pruning are the best preserved.

The church at that time was next to a monastery, Easby Abbey, now a well kept ruin [5], and the resemblance of monks’ hair styles (tonsures) in the labourers depicted suggests that the painter’s models were working canons from the Abbey rather than common people.


Yet the presence of this ‘Labours’, so close to central Christian themes, and in a humble church, shows the importance of the year’s cycle to the people and the beliefs at that time. As in the great cathedrals, hunting on horseback with a hawk features in one of the four (lower right in the images above). The hawk itself looks more like a crow and not too different from the crow observing the sower.

Who was then the gentleman …?

Another of the murals, not part of the ‘Labours’, but one of a set on early Christian themes, shows Adam digging and Eve sat on a rock or tree stump spinning, symbolic mundane tasks that they would have to do for eternity after their ejection from the Garden in the book of Genesis.

lf_ntsmgs_stgth_dgspn_gs_750These symbols of husbandry and craft have resonated throughout recent history, not least when the preacher for social justice and equality, John Ball [6] wrote in the 1300s not long after the Easby murals were painted:

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman.”

He was querying why privilege and power should still so dominate and make miserable the lives of working people in what was purportedly a Christian country. That power was uncomfortable with the idea of social justice and John Ball came to a violent end, being cut into pieces and displayed in different parts of the country.

John Ball’s memory has also been kept in writings and songs, notably that by Sydney Carter [6].

In the mural at St Agatha’s, Adam is fully clothed, and Eve not quite, but in the folk tradition they can be without. In the song “Old Adam” – which has a delving and spanning refrain –  is the line “he never paid his tailor’s bills because he wore no clothes” [7].

Modern labours

The Labours of the months was given a new treatment by the writer and artist Clare Leighton in her ‘The Farmers Year’ published in the 1930s [8]. She begins with the Labours of Lambing, Lopping and Threshing, then in the month of April, Sowing; and the time of the engraving is more than 500 years after Easby, yet the farmer is broadcasting by hand, carrying the grain in a basket slung in front of him.

Her sower strikes a similar pose to that in the Easby murals, but with right arm back after flinging the seed. Her sower is more rugged, of the earth, not with smock and tonsure but with weathered face and trousers tied below the knee and having a wife waiting for him at the farm.


Though she admits most sowing and other field work was then done with machinery, Clare Leighton chooses to engrave this sower, and writes ” ….. but here and there a farmer remains who still feels some warmth come up to him from the earth as he strides his fields, and to whom the land is a matter of emotion as well of economics.”

The crow?

The presence of the crow, following the Easby sower, recurs throughout the tradition. Crows observe the human condition, taking advantage where they can. In traditional song, two crows find a ready meal in a new-slain knight, deserted by his dog, his hawk and his lady. The crows are thinking aloud about which of them will feast on the eyes.

Of contemporary artists, Alan Stones has a special eye for crows and ravens [9]. In his lithograph – Brother Sun – a crow observes a man, a shepherd, coiling barbed wire. Another crow flies away low over the field. In a charcoal drawing, two crows peck before a gnarled hawthorn tree. His series ‘Divided self’ show crow-type birds standing on sheep and the series ‘Raven’ brings out the unearthly power of the great black birds.

The murals at St Agatha’s, Easby, are part of a European heritage and a continuing tradition [including colouring-in if that’s your fancy 10].

Contact / author:, visited St Agatha’s on 9 July 2017.

Sources, references, links

[1] Labours of the months: for general background and examples, see the Wikipedia page; and The Paradoxplace web site shows Labours and Zodiac in stained glass at Chartres, France c1217

[2] The illuminated manuscript, Très Riches Heures can be viewed at Public Domain Review:

[3] Easby Parish Church – a brief guide. Bargate Publications, Richmond, North Yorkshire, A notice on one of the walls states that the murals were originally painted on dry plaster and pre-date the Florentine Giotto (c. 1267-1337) and the Sienese Duccio (active 1278-1319). The church contains a replica of the Easby Cross, of sculpted stone, now in the V&A London. The photographer and historian Stiffleaf has a bank of images at

[4] The Easby Church guide states: ‘…. they were uncovered during the Victorian restoration and restored again in 1994 by Perry Lithgow (a company specialising in architectural restoration) assisted by a grant from English Heritage.’ More photographs of the murals can be viewed at

[5] Easby Abbey was founded in the 1150s for the Premonstratensian Order, itself founded in about 1121 in Prémontré, in France. The Abbey was destroyed in the 1540s in Henry VIII campaigns. Information at English Heritage

[6] John Ball: the Wikipedia entry gives general background. Sydney Carter wrote the song ‘John Ball’ for the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Perceptive commentary at ‘Songs that grow like trees: an appreciation of Sydney Carter (1915-2004)’ on the web site Early Music Muse – musings on medieval, renaissance and traditional music by Ian Pittaway. Chris Wood sings ‘John Ball’ on his album Trespasser:  ChrisWoodMusic.

[7]  The traditional song “Old Adam” is performed (2016) by Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party on the CD album Old Adam, 2016, Soundpost Records,

[8] Clare Leighton, 1898-1989, writer, artist and engraver. For examples of works, see Source: Leighton, C. 1933. The Farmer’s Year – a calendar of English husbandry. Little Toller Books, Dorset.

[9] Alan Stones at  ‘Brother Sun’ and other early lithographs can be viewed at Lithographs – Farming (1984-1992); crows and ravens at Lithographs (1996-1999).

[10] Institute for Medieval Studies University of Leeds
Downloadable page for colouring, Labours of the Months, January to March


[Edited 17 September 2017]