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Outer Hebrides - Callanish
Haunting and truly ancient, the stones of Callanish on Lewis remain an enigma to explore in solitude that is impossible at Stonehenge © Swen Stroop, Shutterstock
Evocative, haunting and believed to be older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza, the standing stones of Callanish are by some distance the most visited site in the Outer Hebrides.
Hewn from otherwise undentable Lewisian gneiss, a central monolith some 3½m high is surrounded by a circle of 13 stones, while lines or avenues of other stones lead away to all points of the compass. There’s a graceful symmetry to the site, enhanced by the patterning of the gneiss visible on the rough-cut surfaces of the stones. Their texture is mesmerising, the gneiss stones fine-grained, pea-green and as thin as a finger in places but – and please don’t try this, just in case – utterly unsnappable.
The stones were erected around 4,500–4,900 years ago but the site is known to have been cultivated by farmers planting barley even earlier, around 3500bc. At the time, the climate was less wet and windy. A ring of stones with the monolith was erected around 2900–2600bc. Around 2600bc, a small burial cairn was placed in the stone ring and the rows of stone that run north from the central site may have been added at this time. By 2000bc, the chamber was encased in a cairn with cremated bones and pottery placed inside. Significant changes happened from 1500bc onwards: farmers ploughed the area and peat smothered the site and by the time it was excavated in 1857, the peat had settled 1½m deep.
You can take your pick from the many ideas put forward to explain what Callanish represented; the current prevailing view is that the site is tied into lunar events. Research shows how, at certain points in its cycle, the moon skims along the silhouette of the skyline of hills that make up Uig and Great Bernera to the southwest, an outline known as Cailleach na Mointich, the Old Woman of the Moors, which is thought to depict a sleeping woman.
Patrick Ashmore, former principal inspector for Historic Scotland, who excavated the site in the 1980s, calculated that every 18½ years the moon skimmed especially low over the southern hills ‘like a great god visiting the earth’. He suggested that knowledge and prediction of this ‘heavenly event’ gave ‘earthly authority to those who watched the skies’.
In 2016, Ashmore published what is widely regarded as the definitive report on Callanish, in which he revealed that, when a small burial chamber surrounded by a cairn was made in the ring, rituals were carried out in an enclosure built just outside. He described the depth and complexity of the archaeology in the ring as ‘exceptional’
Remarkably, up to 20 smaller, satellite, sites have been identified in the surrounding landscape. Quite how these interacted with the central stones is unclear – some of them probably did not – but collectively they testify to a landscape that was of huge ritual importance to Neolithic peoples. Two of these sites, Callanish II and Callanish III, are substantial and worth visiting, as is Callanish IV, an elliptical ring of five standing stones. Callanish II and III can be inspected on a pleasant walk from Callanish I; Callanish IV is located across Loch Ceann Hulavig in a magnificently featureless slice of moorland, 1½ miles south of the main site and accessed via a gate just to the west of the B8011. Another ensemble of gneiss, Callanish VIII, comprises a half-circle and is to be found on Great Bernera.
As impressive as anything else about the stones is the near absence of commercial activity. Infrastructure is low key: there is no entrance fee, no timed ticket, no gate locked after hours, though there is a car park with spaces for coaches and a modest visitor centre and café all tucked away out of sight.