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Callanish: Stonehenge of the North

by Elizabeth Buie (copyright notice)

Scottish Radiance
Site of the Month, January 1998

Contents

Introduction

On a remote Scottish island called Lewis, I leaned against a fifteen-foot standing stone and thought about another prehistoric site, twice as far south of me as Washington, DC is from Buffalo, New York. Vandalism and crowds, I knew, had prompted the caretakers of Stonehenge to begin keeping their visitors at a safe distance.D

Photo of the circleBut here at Callanish, late-morning cloud shadows dappling the heathery hillsides, I wandered almost alone inside a circle of stones more than twice my height. Sitting in the center of the 40-foot circle, I imagined myself surrounded by celebrants dancing in an ancient rite. I savored the aura of mystery. And no one had charged me admission. No sharp-eyed watchers warned me against touching. A small sign at the entrance announced the caretakers' only request: "Please close the gate."

The Standing Stones of Callanish expect no vandals but sheep.

Stone circles have always fascinated me. There is something archetypal about a circular arrangement of tall shapes. And Callanish is unique. Not only does a chambered tomb lie inside a well-preserved circle, but straight lines of standing stones radiate from the circle toward the four points of the compass. Of the thousand-odd stone circles found in the British Isles, Callanish alone is shaped like a cross.

But Callanish was not built by Christians. It is far too old.

The Isle of Lewis

To visit Callanish I journeyed to the Isle of Lewis, northernmost of the Outer Hebrides, thirty-five miles from the northwestern Scottish mainland across The Minch. Lewis is a Siamese twin: a formidable mountain range connects it with its southern neighbor Harris, making the two some 65 miles long and 30 wide. Together they form the largest island in the Hebrides.

(See external links to info on Callanish and the Isle of Lewis.)

Lewisians thrive on sheep, the Free Church of Scotland, and Gaelic — not necessarily in that order. Their farms furnish the wool for their famous Harris tweed. Hardly a roadside turnoff lacks a sign for sweaters or woolen fabric. Craft shops line the fishing-village streets of Stornoway, Lewis's only town of any size.

The islanders' religion is most evident on Sundays. The Free Kirk, a form of Presbyterianism, requires strict observance of the Sabbath. Shops and restaurants close; no one works. Or plays. Even the children's playground in Stornoway is locked on Sundays.

Through love of their language these people reveal their intense ethnic pride. Gaelic conversation fills the shops and streets of Stornoway, although everyone also knows English. The Western Isles Islands Council actively promotes its use in everything from schools to road signs. But the language is difficult, especially to pronounce. Even though I have a Gaelic surname (from Buidhe, meaning "golden") and had studied my map, I had to consult the tourist brochure for help with the likes of Eadar Dha Fhadhail (Ardoil) and Gearraidh Na H-Aibhne (Garynahine).

The first thing I noticed about Lewis was its rockiness. Sheer stone cliffs lined the hills. Gray-white boulders imitated sheep dozing in the meadows. Rocks of all sizes from tulip-blossom to amaryllis lay strewn about the island as if scattered by a giant's flower girl. This island, I thought, must be the stoniest place in the world.

Yet the isle's Gaelic name, Leodhais, means "a marsh." Sky-colored amebas shine from every low spot on the terrain. At first I thought this abundance of lakelets a weird contrast to the rocks, as if the land were uncertain whether to be wet or dry. But the Lewisians find it perfectly normal. "It's wet because it's rocky," one resident pointed out. "The soil is very shallow," he explained, "and the water cannot go through the rock beneath." If Lewis were a golf course, the water hazards alone would make every hole a par-6.

The building of the circle

Callanish has intrigued scientists ever since they discovered it in the late seventeenth century. Through excavation and astronomical measurement, archeoastronomers (specialists in ancient sites with astronomical significance) have learned a great deal about how and when Callanish was built and what solar and lunar events it marks. Because of its excellent condition and unique form, many consider it the second most important group of standing stones in the world. Callanish is known as the Stonehenge of the North.

Photo of the center 
         of the circle, showing the northern 'avenue' beyondThese stones have stood here for four to five thousand years. During the late Neolithic or early Bronze-Age period, the builders of Callanish split the 12-foot slabs of Lewisian gneiss from nearby hills, dragged them just over a mile, and erected them in a circle around a 15-foot stone. According to archeoastronomers Gerald and Margaret Ponting, as few as fifty workers could have accomplished this feat but could have erected only one of those fourteen stones each year.

(See external link to Gerald Ponting's pages on Stone Circles in Britain)

DSome time after completing the circle, the builders added the lines. Single short rows they extended toward the south, the west, the east. And toward the north they pointed two long, almost-parallel rows -- an avenue. Thus Callanish took the shape of a Celtic cross 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. For centuries it retained this form.

But Callanish still wasn't finished. Much later another group moved into the area and took over the site, adding the two-chambered tomb between the central menhir (standing stone) and the eastern edge of the circle. They used Callanish for a relatively short time. By about 1000 B.C., the tomb had been filled in and crops were grown on the site. And by 1680 A.D. (the earliest known mention of the standing stones), five feet of peat covered the tomb and the lower part of the stones.

A primitive calendar

Photo of the central menior standing above a burial chamber DIf nothing else, Callanish is a primitive calendar. It marks not only the beginning of spring and fall but certain movements of the moon as well. Its forty-nine sentinels guard East Loch Roag from a low ridge in western Lewis. Atop a nearby knoll, looking down at the ancient structure, I wondered what else Callanish had meant to those who built and used it. Was it a cathedral, a holy place? Were religious rituals -- perhaps fertility rites -- celebrated in the circle? Did priests come here to study the movements of the heavens? Or did Callanish have a darker side? Was it a place of death, of sacrifice? Images whirled through my mind.

I sighed. Maybe Callanish was just a community meeting place.

But prehistoric peoples did need to know the movements of the heavens, for practical reasons if nothing else. An accurate calendar was necessary for trade and agriculture: communities could plan meeting dates as well as planting and harvest times. (Such calendars have been used by primitive groups in more modern times.) And Lewis is an island. The ability to predict the state of the sea (spring tides, for example) would certainly have improved the lives of its inhabitants.

Primitive peoples also worshipped the heavens; sun-gods and moon-goddesses are quite common throughout ancient history. The spiritual leader of a community such as Callanish would certainly have needed some understanding of astronomy. And an astronomer-priest who could predict eclipses would be well-respected indeed!

Folklore

Callanish surrenders its sacredness reluctantly. Its Gaelic name is Tursachan -- "place of pilgrimage." Less than a hundred years ago, couples still came to the stones to marry or become engaged. Even today, many visitors to the tea room across the road describe the stones as foreboding or friendly, harmful or healing. Callanish continues to work its magic.

The legends of the Outer Hebrides include tales of Callanish. The pillars are giants turned to stone as they plotted to protect Lewis from a new religion called Christianity. Several families -- said to be "of the stones" -- held responsibility for maintaining the old celebrations and were in return allowed to experience the mysteries of Callanish. And the Beltaine festival (May Day) was once convened by cuckoo's call. It is said that each cuckoo arriving on Lewis in the spring still flies straight to the stones to give its first call. Sitting in the circle's center, surrounded by 12-foot graynesses, I could well imagine the whisperings of plotting giants.

Not everyone, however, regards Callanish with reverence. Many tea-room visitors declare that the stones are "just stones." My hosts, English transplants to Lewis, told me they often picnicked there. Once, they confided, they even took their children and some friends to Callanish for an Easter Egg hunt!

Astronomical alignments

Mystical meaning or no, its uniqueness gives Callanish a special feel. And its apparent astronomical alignments are remarkable for a culture we think of as primitive.

DSome of the Callanish stones point to events in the sun's yearly cycle. In the northern hemisphere, sunrise and sunset swing from northernmost at midsummer to southernmost at midwinter, appearing due east and west at the spring and fall equinoxes. In the early June of my visit, the days seemed incredibly long. Dawn came about 3 and dusk about 11, with lightness showing on the northern horizon all night.

Photo of the circle at duskCallanish's western row points closely to sunset at the equinoxes, when the days and nights are of equal length. The southern row points almost due south; the central menhir lines up with it. Standing at the end of the row, I sighted along the stones and marveled at the accurate alignments accomplished without modern techniques.

The area around Callanish is virtually littered with stone circles; I could make out three or four smaller ones from the main site. Some students of the stones have suggested additional solar alignments, including sightings over these other circles. Archeoastronomers are still investigating the possibilities.

Star alignments have also been the subject of speculation. Neither the northern avenue nor the eastern row points exactly north or east, and both have been calculated to align with the rising of certain constellations around 1800 B.C. Star rise, however, is not easy to observe, and there is no obvious reason why the builders of Callanish would have needed to know star positions.

Unfortunately, neither morning of my stay on Lewis was clear enough for me to see any stars at all, let alone pinpoint their rising positions. I can't add anything to the star-rise debate.

By far the most intriguing alignment belongs to the moon. Compared to the sun's, the moon's apparent path across our sky follows a very complex pattern. Before I visited Callanish, I had known only that the moon waxes and wanes every 29 1/2 days, rising and setting about fifty minutes later each day. Although I had known my visit wouldn't coincide with the full moon, I'd thought I could still get some interesting photos of the moon over the stones, and I had used the fifty-minute rule to estimate the best time.

As it turned out, my calculations were fine. The weather, unfortunately, wasn't.

The lunar maximum

I did learn, however, that the moon has other cycles. One of them is also monthly -- sort of. Just as the moon rises at a different time every day, it also rises over a different place. (Funny, I'd never noticed this before.) Every 29 1/2 days, the position of moonrise swings between northeast and southeast, while moonset mirrors this movement in the west. But here's the catch: the width of these swings has its own cycle. Just as the moon's appearance goes from full to new and back, its monthly swings go from widest to narrowest and back. The widest swing is called the lunar maximum.

The entire cycle from lunar maximum to lunar maximum takes 18.6 years. And Callanish marks this event.

At lower latitudes the monthly swings of moonrise and moonset are less obvious, but Lewis lies as far north as Juneau, Alaska. Every 18.6 years, when the maximum swing reaches its southernmost point, the full moon rises shortly before midnight. It skims the horizon for a few minutes and sets. I would like to be at Callanish then, standing at the end of the 270-foot northern avenue, looking toward the circle. I would see the moon set between those parallel rows, disappearing directly behind the circle.

My hosts were excited about the lunar maximum. A big celebration, they told me, was planned for its next occurrence.

"Great!" I exclaimed. "When will that be?"

"Next Thursday," they replied. I had missed it by exactly one week.

My questions about the meaning of Callanish will probably never be answered. But somehow that's okay -- my imagination is bound to be better than the facts. Besides, mystery is part of the appeal.

I am sure of one thing, though. I'll be back in 2006.

For more photographs of Scotland,
see Æsthetic Images Photography.

Note: I did not, in fact, go back in 2006. I was in the middle of a remodeling project, and although I figured the celebration would be sometime in the late winter, I never managed to find out just when it was going to occur.

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For some high-resolution images of Callanish, see Diego Meozzi's Scotland Stone Circles site.

This article appeared in the travel section of the April 10, 1988, issue of The Washington Post, under their title "The Secret of the Stones." In addition, the Post, without my permission and without purchasing electronic rights, also published this article in their former online service, Digital Ink. This article and all photos are copyright © 1988, 1997, Elizabeth A. Buie. All rights reserved (except, of course, first North American serial rights, which the Post did purchase). Permission is granted to print this page or link to it, as long as such use is personal or educational and is not for commercial gain or profit. This article may not be republished or redistributed without permission.
Contact me for more information or to ask about usage permission.

Other articles I've written on travel to Scotland

Last updated 15 September 2009, to replace the photo of menhir and tomb