One of my very favourite places, and evocative just by its name, Callanish really needs no introduction. Situated on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, at the very edge of the known world at the time of its conception, this is Britain’s most majestic and awe-inspiring stone circle.
Callanish (also spelt Calanais) is thought to have been built between 2900 and 2600 BC, making it earlier in origin than the main circle of Stonehenge. At its heart is a burial chamber dating from a few generations later, in which human remains have been discovered.
Even in bad weather, the long slender stones make an arresting sight as they dominate the horizon and draw the eye from all directions. Sunk into the peat of a remote, windswept hillside, they appear to be reaching upwards to the sky, like the remnants of some long-forgotten connector between heaven and earth.
As you approach on one of the footpaths, you are struck afresh by the impressive size and scale of this site. Although it’s hard to tell from ground level, it forms the shape of a Celtic cross, with ‘arms’ radiating to the east, west and south. A long avenue of stones leads in from the north, and the ring of taller central stones is dominated by a single monolith 4.8 metres in height.
Hewn from massive chunks of Lewisian gneiss, the stones themselves are rough and very touchable, embedded with bands and folds of quartz crystals and adorned with grey-green lichen. Weather-worn and cracked, they still have a presence that is not totally explicable by modern-day logic.
According to Historic Scotland, in the late Neolithic period the climate of Scotland was much milder and warmer than it is today, and the sea level was lower. The people who built Callanish hunted salmon and deer, and probably kept sheep and cattle in the surrounding fields.
But why was Callanish built in the first place? One legend says that the stones represent giants who refused to be converted to Christianity by St Kieran. Many other stone circles throughout the British Isles have a similar story attached to them… mortals or other beings, punished for their wickedness by being turned to stone. Another, more interesting story, says that, at midsummer sunrise, a vision called ‘the shining one’ walks down the long avenue towards the circle, heralded by a cuckoo’s call.
As you’d expect, this latter tale regularly inspires lots of visitors at midsummer, but ‘the shining one’ could just as easily be an interpretation of the sun itself. In the 1980s one of the best known archaeologists and researchers into stone circles was Professor Alexander Thom, who offered an alternative explanation: the avenue, when viewed in the opposite direction, aligns with the setting of the moon at midsummer.
Another expert, Patrick Ashmore, suggests that “every 18.6 years, the moon skims low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies.”
Whatever the reason for its erection, Callanish was abandoned about a thousand years after it was built. The climate had cooled in the succeeding centuries, and layers of peat formed, eventually engulfing the whole site to a depth of six feet.
The stones were dug out again in 1857, when the Victorian era sparked a fresh interest in archaeology. Newly exposed, some of the stones suffered damage: fragments were deliberately or accidentally broken off, to be discovered later in boundary walls. According to Undiscovered Scotland, the tip of one stone was snapped off by a drunken traveller who was whiling away the time as he waited for a boat!
It surprises some visitors to discover that there are more stone circles in addition to the main one. Callanish II comprises ten stones set in a circle 18 metres in diameter, and Callanish III, to the south-east, contains 20 stones in a double ring. These smaller sites don’t inspire the same sense of awesome majesty, but they have an intimate feeling all of their own.
Our visit to Callanish was on a cold day in September, under an unusual sky which made an almost surreal backdrop. There were only two other visitors. I remember being almost enchanted by the stones themselves, their age, their texture, their presence.
This is what I want to know: what have the stones of Callanish seen? What were the people like, how did they feel, what did they believe? I would love to have seen it when just completed, witnessed the celebration or ceremony, and heard the people’s voices.
About Callanish: The main circle and its two smaller siblings are in the care of Historic Scotland. There’s a visitor centre close to the main circle, with walk-through displays, a café and a well-stocked bookshop. Admission to the Callanish stone circle is free.
If you’d like to know more about Lewisian gneiss, check out my article ‘Britain’s Oldest Rock Bands‘.