Posted by: christinelaennec | May 5, 2015

The stones of Callanish / Calanais

I have neglected to follow along with Katharine Stewart’s A Garden in the Hills recently, as I’ve been posting about my trip to Harris.  Interestingly, her essay for the 1st of May overlaps with something I wanted to show you:  standing stones.  So I will weave them together.

On the last day of my time in Harris, I drove up to Callanish in Lewis.  You may have heard of the amazing standing stones there.  They are believed to date back to the 3rd century B.C.

Coming up the path to the stones, I had a flashback from when the Dafter was very young.  You can’t see the stone circle from the car park, or indeed until you’ve climbed up the gravel path to the top of the hill.  I suddenly remembered a small Dafter entranced by the pieces of golden gravel:  “So pretty – the stones of Callanish!”  For her, those small, slightly polished, loose stones on the path were reason enough for an hour’s journey in the car.  We had a hard time tearing her away from her own “stones of Callanish” and I’m sure she came away with a few in her small fists and pockets.

Here is what grown-ups refer to as the Stones of Callanish:

As you enter

As you enter

They are located on the edge of a very ordinary Lewis township – or more accurately, a township sprang up next to them.  The stones form the shape of a Celtic cross, with a circle in the middle.  Many believe that the circle was planned as a kind of early observatory, aligned with the planets and stars.  In the words of Historic Scotland, who care for the site:  “The layout of the site, along with many others across the British Isles, appears to have an association with astronomical events, the precise nature of which cannot be determined.” (from this page)

Here you see the top branch of the cross, an avenue of stones:

The ??? avenue, with houses behind.

The north avenue, seen from the centre of the circle, with houses behind.

In the centre of the cross there is a circle.  According to the Historic Scotland website, the central stone is a “monolith” measuring 4.8 meters (a little over 15 and a half feet).

Centre

Centre

There is a burial chamber at the centre:

Centre

Centre of the stone circle (with a young visitor snapping away as well)

In her May Day essay, Katharine Stewart writes about the tradition of going outside to bathe her face in May Day dew (meant to keep one beautiful); and about visiting a well of which only she seemingly still knew the location.  The area where the well was located had been planted with trees.  What struck me about Stewart’s thoughts was the feeling of somehow touching people of the far distant past, a feeling that being at Callanish gives one.

“Here, once, a stone-age dwelling stood, the outline of the foundation still clearly visible.  Here, before the trees were planted, I had come on arrow-heads and a scraping tool on the fresh-turned furrows.  … Pulling aside the ferns and rushes, I gaze into the water.  It’s still dark and clear.  I scoop up a handful and drink it slowly, relishing every drop.  I gaze into the water again and put up a small plea, not for healing or protection for myself, but, perhaps, for the earth, for the whole earth which is in more danger than any of us.

I imagine a man of the flints, tired and thirsty from the hunt, coming for a drink of the water, the water that meant life as surely as fire did.  As he stooped over the smooth surface and saw his face reflected there, did he stop for a moment to wonder where he came from, where he might be going?  I think he did, for he spent so much of his strength hauling those enormous stones and standing them upright, pointing to the sun, moon and the stars.  That labour did not profit him or his family in any material sense, but it must have given him immense satisfaction.” (p. 65)

Visitor centre

Callanish visitor centre

Although it isn’t as famous as Stonehenge, I think Callanish is just as impressive.  Of course, Scotland is peppered with stone circles.  I wrote about one in Aberdeenshire here.

I knew that gales and rain were to come in from the west that afternoon, and I arrived at the stones when the wind was merely icy.  I always enjoy walking around them, along with other people who have come.

Regular readers will know me well enough by now to surmise that going inside for something warm to eat and drink afterwards was just about as much of a pleasure to me as seeing the stones themselves.  The Callanish visitor centre is beautifully designed.  It nestles into the landscape below the hill where the stones are, as you can see in the photo above and below.

Sympathetic architecture, Callanish visitor centre

Sympathetic architecture, Callanish visitor centre

Best of all was that I was able to meet a friend for lunch.  My delicious soup and bread and coffee was enjoyed over a long catch-up.  As we sat there, the rain moved in from the west, but we were snug in the restaurant, looking out over the moorland and lochans as the windows were pelted.

Callanish is a very special place.  The kind of place that puts one’s problems and indeed existence into perspective!

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Responses

  1. A wondrous place to visit, that I have enjoyed on many occasions. I also am a great fan of the visitors centre and loved some of the wonderful craft items on sale in there.

  2. Again, you have written such a beautiful post about this special place. Yes, it does remind me of Stonehenge which I have been fortunate to visit. I’m putting the Hebrides on my list of places to visit. It’s truly beautiful. My best to you. Hugs, Pat

  3. Fascinating photos and story Christine. I always love the atmosphere when your are in these ancient sites – there’s a real feeling of quiet and timelessness. Many years ago we lived quite near Avebury stone circle and I always felt lost in time when I wandered around there. Love Judy X

  4. Beautiful words and photographs.

  5. Really enjoyed your story and photos, interwoven with Katharine’s account. Lovely, Christine!

  6. “Regular readers will know me well enough by now to surmise that going inside for something warm to eat and drink afterwards was just about as much of a pleasure to me as seeing the stones themselves.”
    Yes, I have noticed this aspect to your character . . . and I feel great empathy. In fact, take the same view. I remember places as much by the coffee I had there and who I was with at the time, as by the more traditional landmarks.

  7. Thank you so much everyone! Yes, the visitors’ centre does have a great gift shop with Scottish crafts.

    oldblack, you made me laugh out loud! I am less attentive to the finer points of coffee than you – who are very knowledgeable. But it’s true that sharing a meal or coffee with a friend is an important part of our memories.

  8. The feat of moving a large stone anywhere is noteworthy to me, but especially so with the interesting and exacting placement of them in places such as Stonehenge and Callanish. I especially enjoyed Stewart’s musings about the folk who moved such stones so long ago.

    A Cautionary Tale
    One of my uncles who lived in Stoneham, Massachusetts, was thoroughly annoyed with a more than man-sized rock that was in the middle of his backyard. He had no idea how deep in the ground the rock was planted but in his retirement he decided to dig a hole next to the rock. He was intent on digging a hole deep and wide enough that he could roll the rock into the hole and in effect bury it and even out the surface of the backyard. One day when he was down in the by then deep hole, the rock decided to roll onto him! A photo of him being rescued by the fireman from the fire department made it onto the front page of his local paper, I believe. In spite of this calamity my humbled uncle lived in fairly good health until he was into his 90’s! 🙂 xx

    • What a story! I’m glad he was okay and lived a good long time afterwards – though no doubt had to get used to some teasing! Yes, seeing these stones is amazing when you try to imagine how people transported them and erected them – and why they felt this was so very important to do.

  9. The stones really are amazing! Just thinking of all the work and engineering it took to put them in place. Again, more beautiful views and scenery!!! (Wanted to see a picture of that cup of tea and bowl of soup. 🙂 )

  10. OK, Christine. I have to know. Have you watched the Outlander series? If so, what do you think of it? (Just finished the first season.)

    • Kathy, I have to say I have avoided learning much at all about Outlander. It’s not really my thing, but I know people who really enjoy it. Roobeedoo tried listening to it as an audio book in the car and said you definitely can’t have the window down! I remember being told about it years ago when it was little-known cult fiction. Now I see there are knitting patterns inspired by the series. So I remain blissfully (I guess) ignorant.

  11. Magical descriptions from you and Katherine Stewart! I get that sort of feeling in museums as well, thinking about how something in front of me was made by somebody thousands of years ago – more so if you’re allowed to touch the exhibits!

    • Thank you sakthi. It’s so true that being able to touch these ancient stones is really thrilling. Mind you, just looking at the chisel marks on the blocks of granite in Aberdeen (waiting for someone to answer the door, for example) always made me feel a bit connected to the quarry workers of a hundred and fifty years ago.


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