Stonehenge Solstice from 1874 with Love

by MJ Wayland

We have all seen the photos and footage of revellers at the rise of the sun on the longest day of the year at Stonehenge.  Stonehenge solstice brings a mixed band of hippies, druids, neo-pagans and the religio-curious gather for..well something. Maybe its the drinking or the spectacle of a man dressed as King Arthur knighting people as the sun rises?

This rite of passage certainly isn’t something modern, if we look Summer Solstice 1910, the Hull Daily News wrote, “2000 people see sunrise…enthusiasts travel to the ancient Druidical temple at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain to witness the sun rise over the hills on the longest day of the year and cast its first rays on the altar-stone took place yesterday morning.

All through the night the customary loneliness of the locality was disturbed by the hoots of the motor horns, the singing of the crowds who journeyed on foot, and all kinds of vehicles, whilst from the military camps of Regulars and Territorials came large numbers of non-commissioned officers and men.

An enterprising coffee-stall proprietor did a roaring business supplying refreshments to the waiting crowds, whilst one tourist brought in his motor-car a capital gramophone and scared the ghosts of the old druids with up to date songs and marches.”

No doubt the National Trust would not be happy with that kind of thing happening now.

In 1938 a similar scene occurred, “People who waited at Stonehenge..were rewarded by seeing the spectacle under ideal conditions. Many young people who had travelled some distance spent the night singing and dancing to accordion and gramophone music. Others were in evening dress; while late-comers who had left their beds hurriedly, had not even bothered to change from their pyjamas.”

I wanted to see the earliest reference to the gatherings at Stonehenge, aside from a few mentions of Druidic activities in the country but no clear mention of Stonehenge, the solstice gathering is mentioned in the Scotsman, July 1874.

“On the morning in question a party of Americans, who left London for the purpose visiting Stonehenge for the purpose of witnessing the effects of the sunrise on this particular morning.  They were not little surprised to find that, instead of having the field all to themselves, as they had expected, a number of people from all parts of the countryside, principally belonging to the poorer classes, were already assembled on the spot. Inquiries failed to elicit any intelligible reason for this extraordinary early turn out of the population, except this, that a tradition which had trickled down through any number of generations told them that at Stonehenge something unusual was to be seen at sunrise on the morning of the summer solstice.  This piece of rustic information put my informant who is an of antiquarian turn of mind on the qui vive (alert).”

The correspondent of the Scotsman continues to relate how the Sun seemed to rest “like an immense ball” on top of the “altar stone”.  He also remarks about Stonehenge “they were the hastily erected trophies of victories, and set up by people who lived in the very darkest epoch of our history – from 400AD to 900 AD”.  I would have thought my 1874 this was a very out of date thought, but the condescending nature of the article only reflects on the journalist rather than Stonehenge itself.

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