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:
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:
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).
There is a burial chamber at the centre:
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)
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.
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!