Places to Visit in Scotland
- Standing Stones of Calanais
Biggest Tourist Attraction on Lewis
The biggest tourist attraction on the Isle of Lewis is undoubtedly the Standing Stones of Calanais (the Gaelic spelling has been adopted by Historic Scotland and others rather than the previous form of "Callanish" or "Callanais"). Situated near the west coast of the island, around 50,000 tourists visit these standing stones each year and the visitor centre has had to been expanded to cater for a rise in numbers. Quite an achievement for a location which is in one of the remoter parts of Scotland.
It has a unique arrangement, with lines of stones radiating in four directions from a central ring. There are 13 primary stones forming a rough circle, flattened on one side, about 13 metres (42 feet) in diameter, with a long approach avenue of stones to the north which narrows as it approaches the centre - archaeological research suggests that initially there was only one line of stones before the "avenue" was created. There are shorter stone rows to the east, south, and west. The overall layout of the monument recalls a distorted Celtic cross. But remember this was built around 2900 to 2600BC.. The individual stones in the centre vary from 8 to 13 feet tall, and are of the local Lewisian gneiss. They surround the tallest stone on the site which is 16 feet high and weighing about 5.5 tonnes. Some time later a stone tomb was added to the centre of the circle, nestled against the tallest stone.
Situated on a prominent ridge, Calanais is visible from miles around. And it is the centre of a further dozen or more sites of standing stones in the immediate area, showing how important the area was to prehistoric peoples. The existence of other Bronze Age monuments in the area implies that Calanais remained an active focus for prehistoric religious activity for at least 1500 years. Archaeologists usually refer to the main monument as "Calanais I" to distinguish it from these other sites.
Why Was Calanais Built?
It's not often that you can view a major monument created by people 5,000 years ago, long before the Great Pyramid of Egypt and about 500 years before the construction of the better known Stonehenge in the south of England. But that's what Calanais on Lewis offers.
Prior to the erection of the standing stones, the area had been used for traditional farming for several thousand years by the early inhabitants of the island. Its original purpose is shrouded in the mists of time but the monument and the central circle were perhaps used for rituals and the layout of the site, along with many others across the British Isles, may have had an association with astronomical events, the precise nature of which cannot be determined. It has been speculated, among other theories, that the stones form a calendar system based on the position of the moon. It has also been suggested there is relationship to a distant mountain called Clisham in a range of hills know as the sleeping beauty or the old woman of the moors. When the moon reaches its southern extreme for one year in every 19, it seen from Calanais to rise from behind this hill range and skim the horizon for four hours till it gently sets again behind the Harris hills. This very landscape was recently under threat from a controversial wind farm development!
Local tradition once said that giants who lived on the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were turned into stone as a punishment. Another local belief says that at sunrise on midsummer morning, the "shining one" walked along the stone avenue, "his arrival heralded by the cuckoo's call."
Other seasonal events have also been linked to other lines of stones at Calanais but despite careful modern calculations of where the sun and moon and prominent stars would be in those days, there is no certain explanation. Critics argue that several alignments are likely to exist purely by chance in any such structure. The Scottish legal verdict of "Not Proven" seems appropriate here.
The Changing Face of Calanais
Some centuries passed before the roughly 3/5 feet high tomb was built with its walls sloping with a longer stone spanning the space to provide cover. Originally built perhaps for some important personage, pottery remains found in the tomb suggest that it was used for multiple burials over a number of generations. At some time in the second millennium BC the tomb became dilapidated and apparently despoiled on purpose by ploughing across it. It has been suggested that this was done to make sure that inconvenient ancestors would not come back and trouble the next generations! The whole site was abandoned around 800BC (give or take a century or two). Blanket peat (an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter which forms in wetland bogs and moors) began to form and covered the lower parts of the stones.
Over the centuries, this layer of peat rose around the stones, masking their true height (and helping to preserve them from the ravages of centuries of wind and rain). In the 17th century, the local people called them "Fir Bhrèige" - false men who had been turned to stone by an "enchanter" and there were theories that they had been set up by Druids, a priestly and learned class active in Celtic culture more generally, during the final centuries before the Christian era. More modern research dismisses such claims.
The peat was gradually removed, initially in the course of locals taking peat for burning and latterly to find out more about the true nature of the stones.
Further Sources of Information
There are lots more photographs of the Calanais standing stones in my YouTube slide show (accompanied by "The Sands of Time" sung by Scottish singer Moira Kerr. The location of Calanais can be seen on Google maps and even better is Google Earth where you can get a panoramic view of the location.
Return to Index of Places to Visit
Where else would you like to go in Scotland?
News & Views>
All Features Index>
Search This Site>
Scottish Pictorial Calendar>
Places to Visit>