Isle of Albion
Unparalleled ancient stones at the edge of the world.
Photographed: Tuesday 13th July 2010
Other Names: Callanish I, Calanais
Site rating:  

Callanish is a monument consisting of a central stone circle surrounding a single megalith and burial chamber. To the north, the circle is approached through an avenue of twin stone rows. Shorter, single rows radiate out to the south, east and west. In total, Callanish consists of around 50 standing stones, all locally sourced coarse Lewisian gneiss.

The central circle and monolith are the earliest structures, dating back to around 2900BC. The circle is about 42.5 feet in diameter, and consists of thirteen stones, varying between 8-13 feet in height. The central stone is 15 feet tall and weighs around 5.5 tonnes.

The avenues were added at a later period. The burial cairn contained within the central circle was the last feature to appear, probably between 1800-1000BC. Shortly after this time, the site was abandoned, and the stones slowly submerged in peat. Their full height was revealed again in 1857AD when the peat was cut back. This led to a discrepancy in the pigmentation of the stones, due to peat-staining on the lower portions.

Much science and speculation exists covering the purpose and alignment of the stones at Callanish. It is impossible to easily summarise that large volume of work. However, one theory worthy of note is that Callanish is aligned to the extreme southern setting position of the 18.5-yearly 'standstill' moon. At this time, the moon rises on the horizon at Mt. Clisham - a landscape feature bearing a resemblance to a reclining female figure, referred to locally as 'Cailleach na Mointeach' - Gaelic for 'Old woman of the moors'. The moon skirts the figure, then some hours later, those standing at the northern end of the main avenue of Callanish will see the moon appear to set, only to rise again briefly between the stones of the main circle. At this time, a person standing on the hillock at the southern end of the site will be silhouetted against the re-risen moon - quite a dramatic effect. It is suggested that this phenomenon is intentional, and relates to a ceremony surrounding the rebirth of the moon.

The stones are also known as 'Fir Bhreig' - Gaelic for 'false men'. This may reflect petrification myths, in common with many other stone alignments and circles. One legend holds that the stones were once giants, turned to rock by St. Kieran when they refused to convert to Christianity. Viewed from the east, the stones stand out on a ridge, silhouetted against the sky, and bear a resemblance to hunched figures climbing a slope.

Another myth holds that a shining figure appears at sunrise of the summer solstice, walking down the northern avenue, heralded by the call of a cuckoo.

Today, the stones survive in remarkably good condition. No reconstruction has taken place at Callanish, barring the re-erection of a single avenue stone.

It is difficult to discuss my impressions of Callanish without putting it in context. This is an island on the edge of the world, barely part of the modern age, and Callanish sits on its border, battered by the winds rushing in from the Atlantic ocean to the west. Getting here is a pilgrimage, only undertaken by the truly dedicated. I did it in stages, staying first on the Scottish borders, then one night in Ullapool before catching the ferry to Stornoway the following morning. However, the direct journey is epic. To provide some context, for my return trip, I arose at 4.45am, to allow time for breakfast and check-in at the ferry terminal. The journey back to the mainland is around 2hrs 54mins (the approach to Ullapool is breathtaking). The drive back to the south of England is around 11hrs if no breaks are taken. This isn't your average day trip.

The Isle of Lewis is a rich and diverse landscape, stunning in its bleak desolation, offset by the majestic mountains of Harris to the south (although Lewis and Harris are referred to separately, they are physically part of the same island). For some further context, the combined land area of Lewis and Harris is around 2,178 km2. Cornwall has a land area of 3,563 km2. Lewis and Harris have a population of around 20,000. Cornwall has a population of around 535,000. This is an empty place.

History hangs heavy in the air here. As late as as the 1960s, crofters were still living in 'blackhouses' - quasi-medieval, thatched stone longhouses, warmed by peat fires and shared with the livestock. These homes were part of a way of living stretching back many hundreds of years. The ancient world is never far away on the Isle of Lewis.

This is the setting for Callanish, and unless you've arrived as part of a sanitised coach tour, it will have permeated your soul by the time you lay eyes on the stones. Most people who visit will have time to reflect, leave, return and reflect some more - because this isn't a place that any sane person comes to visit just once. It demands repeat visits.

So that's my frame of reference. The stones are magnificent - full of character, almost wooden in appearance, sharp and slender for the most part. Each one is unique, shaped and weathered to perfection. They are soaked in history and magic, perched on a plateaux, overlooking a landscape of starkness and isolation that Stonehenge would die for. Never has an ancient site been such a struggle to reach, and never has it been so worthwhile. I can't recommend Callanish highly enough. Make the journey. You won't regret it.

On a final note, it's worth mentioning the visitors' centre. This was built around 1995 and is hidden over the southern rise, obscuring it from view. I consider it tasteful and well-situated. Food is reasonably priced, basic fare, and the views from the cafe area are wonderful. There's even a couple of tables outside for the warmer months. The staff are also friendly and helpful, and the whole experience is a notable contrast to the monstrosity that greets the visitor at Stonehenge. Access to the stones is still free, and the monument is accessible at all hours.