Isle of Lewis: Callanish

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Scotland was the tour of Isle of Lewis. I'd been looking forward to this for a long time. Last week I covered the ferry trip from Ullapool to Stornoway. Today I want to cover the first stop on our tour, the Callanish Standing Stones. (Calanais in Gaelic.) I've admired photos of Callanish for years and dreamed of visiting. It's such a beautiful and mystical place.

The road across Lewis
 Much of the Isle of Lewis is barren moorland and peat bogs. People here still dig and stack peat for fuel to heat their homes, especially with the rising cost of fossil fuels. But there are also a few forests and woodlands which have been planted. We drove past a large range of mountains where the tour guide told us about the rare eagles that nested on the cliffs.

Beautiful lochs and mountains of Lewis.
 The day started out sunny and beautiful (as you probably saw on my post for last week), but as we rode closer and closer to Callanish, a light misty rain started. I was hoping for some great light at the site but it was mostly dark and cloudy. The site was crowded with all the people on the tour, so it was difficult to get a picture of the whole standing stone circle without someone being in the shot but I was able to get a few. A tour like this is also rushed because we were to visit two more historical sites that day. We had to visit the circle and eat lunch within a limited amount of time. There is no such thing as fast food in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Most restaurants and cafes take their time in food preparation. In all fairness, the cafĂ© was packed full with our tour group and we had to eat outside at a picnic table under an umbrella. It had mostly stopped raining by then so it was no problem. I enjoyed eating out there. Just wish we'd had a bit more time to visit the standing stones longer. They also have an Interpretation Centre nearby which we didn't have time to visit.

Callanish is beautiful, atmospheric and mystical just as I'd imagined from all the photos I'd seen of it over the years. Carbon dating has shown that Callanish is older than Stonehenge. They were erected between 2900 and 2600 BC. It is believed that people lived here as far back as 3000 BC. This is around the same time period that Skara Brae was settled on Orkney.

Callanish stands on a prominent ridge and is visible from miles around.

We learned Callanish isn't just one standing stone circle but that there is a whole complex with many standing stones in the surrounding area. It includes eighteen sites. We didn't get to visit any of them but they include Clach Stei Lin in Airidhantuim, Clach an Truiseil in Ballantrushal, Steinacleit in Lower Shader, Kerb Cairn in Breascleit and several others. Some are chambered burial cairns. Most of them have interrelated sight-lines which means they have a close relationship to the main circle at Callanish. This may have once been the most important spot on Lewis for political or religious reasons.

Experts believe that the main circle at Callanish was designed over a long period of time and may have had input from seaborne travelers because of the similarity between Callanish, Stonehenge and Avebury in England and Carnac in Brittany.

central burial cairn
 Callanish was almost hidden, buried beneath the deep layers of peat for many hundreds or perhaps over a thousand years. A nearby chambered cairn was just discovered in the 1990s and it is believed more standing stones and other ancient monuments could still lie beneath the peat at various places around Lewis waiting to be discovered.

I love the view from here.

Callanish is a circle with 13 main stones with a central monolith and five radiating rows of stones. The two rows of stones which form an avenue, aligning almost true north, links with Stonehenge, Avebury and Broomend of Crichie in Aberdeenshire. Some say the overall layout of Callanish is a Celtic cross design although it was built in pre-Christian times. The stones are 1 to 5 meters in height and they are made from local Lewis gneiss stone. The tallest marks the entrance to a burial cairn where human remains were found. The site was excavated in 1980 and 81 and they discovered the cairn was a later addition to the site. Experts believe the stones were a prehistoric lunar observatory. Others believe there is a relationship between the stones, the moon and the Clisham range on Harris.

Click to enlarge. This shows the neolithic sites in Scotland.

The first documentation of the stones was by a Lewis native, John Morisone. In 1680 he wrote "great stones standing up in ranks were sett up in place for devotione." Local tradition on the island say the giants who lived on the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were turned to stone as punishment. Another belief says that at sunrise on midsummer morning the "shining one" walked along the stone avenue, "his arrival heralded by the cuckoo's call." This legend could go all the way back to the original significance of the stones.

In 3000 BC the climate of Lewis was warmer than it is today, the sea level was lower and the land was better for farming. This was proven by the farming tools found beneath the peat. It is believed that a cult or religion swept through the British Isles at that time which involved the building of large henge monuments and stone circles.

Looking up at a tall stone. See the lichens growing on the rock?

I'm trying to stay warm and dry.

 One explanation for Callanish is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills like a god visiting earth. Wise people who lived long lives must have noticed this unusual occurrence. A thousand years after it was built, Callanish was abandoned and the area inside the circle leveled. It is not known whether this was for agriculture of for ritual cleansing. The climate started to change around that time, becoming colder and wetter. This climate change caused the peat to grow deeper and deeper until the stones were almost buried. When the peat was cut in 1857, their true height was again revealed. In the 17th century local people called them "false men." In 1885 the main circle was taken into state care.

a distant view of the standing stones
Hope you enjoyed this visit to Callanish! Next week we'll continue our tour of Lewis.

Beautiful and fiercely protective of those she loves, Lady Seona Murray captured Keegan MacKay’s attention when she first set foot in Dunnakeil Castle. Though she is a chief’s daughter and forbidden, Keegan has fallen in love with her from afar and burns to possess her. But so does the clan traitor, Haldane, an obsessive outlaw bent on murder and kidnapping.

Sinfully handsome, Keegan MacKay is a fearsome guard as well as the chief’s cousin, but Seona’s father would never consider him a worthy husband for her because he is not a titled laird. Seona has secretly watched the sensual, tawny-haired warrior from across the crowded great hall for months, but when he is tasked with escorting her across Scotland, back to her home, their simmering attraction flames into sizzling passion with just one kiss.

Though she fears she is endangering Keegan’s life, Seona cannot resist his seductive charm or his spellbinding kisses. Keegan sets fire to the memories of her sad past and shows her what it means to truly live. But her father has other plans. He’s arranged for her to marry a wealthy Lowland laird. Is Keegan daring enough to steal her away? Or will the vindictive Haldane snatch her first?


Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

What a fun tour. Loved the pictures and the map. I had no idea there were so many sites. I tweeted.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks so much, Ella!! I appreciate the help! Scotland does have a lot of neolithic sites.

Clover Autrey said...

These are awesome posts, Vonda. I don't always comment, but I enjoy them all.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks, Clover! I'm so glad you like them.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Fantastic photos and information, Vonda. We got to see some of the stone circles, but didn't get to this particular island. I loved the one where you shot up the stone. How fun to see you as part of the photos. :)

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks, Paisley! I love all the neolithic sites I've visited. I find each one unique and fascinating in its own way.

Vanessa Holland said...

What an amazing and beautiful place. Terrific pictures!

Terry Spear said...

Beautiful, Vonda!!! Just love it! :)

Vonda Sinclair said...

Vanessa, thanks! I'm glad you like the pics. It did feel like an amazing and special place.

Thanks, Terry! It was a wonderful site!

Carly Carson said...

Great pictures and history. I so want to go to Scotland and my husband has recently informed me he never wants to go back there. Sigh.

Lana Williams said...

So fascinating, Vonda! Love it!

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks, Carly! Maybe you will have to go with friends or other family members, or on a coach tour. Fortunately my husband loves Scotland as much as I do. He's always talking about wanting to go back.

Lana, thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Gerri Bowen said...

Loved this, Vonda. Thank you for sharing!

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks for checking it out, Gerri!

Julie Robinson said...

Standing next to those stones would fill me with awe. I'm fascinated by 'pre-history' archeology that shows we've been around a lot longer than thought. Great map, too!

Unknown said...

That's amazing, Vonda, that people still use peat for burning. I've got to visit Lewis the next trip. So beautiful, and so much there to learn about for my stories!
Thanks for sharing these gorgeous photos.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Julie, yes it was awe-inspiring to stand there and think how long ago the stones were placed there.

Mairi, thanks! Yes, it is interesting they are still digging peat and burning it. We saw some that had been dug and stacked. Hope you get to go to Lewis. You'll love it.

Terry Spear said...

Love them, Vonda. Beautiful pictures!

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks tons, Terry!! :)