The name Callanish evokes an air of ancient mystery, mist-shrouded valleys, and secretive lochs. This village, on the west cost of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, is home to a group of standing stones of the same name, easily equal to Stonehenge in age and myth, yet as they are located on the remote Isle of Lewis, not nearly as well known.
We visited the Outer Hebrides in March this year having not been able to manage a visit in 2015 during our stop on the Isle of Skye. Back then we had time, booked out ferry services and closed ferry terminals against us. This time, I pre-booked everything before I left. Deciding to fly in to Stornoway from Glasgow and pestered the ferry company with emails and tweets right up until our arrival to make sure I had everything organised.
The Callanish Standing Stones were top on my list of places to visit. They sit on a ridge overlooking the sea loch, Cann Hulabhig. In the distance, is the Cailleach na Mointeach, the Old Woman of the Moors. We approached the village on the Achmore Road from Stornoway. We’d driven along Pentland Road to Achmore. Pentland was narrow and doesn’t save you any time at all, but the view of the moors as you drive is quite pretty. We have a tendency to find the more indirect routes, which gives us time to compare our navigational skills with our desire to visit places less visited.
The drive to the Stones brings you up from the moors to the rolling hills that surround the sea lochs on this side of Lewis. No sooner had I said, “So where are these stones?” Did we round a bend and there they were, rising out of the ground like fingers pointing to the wide blue sky. A frisson of excitement went through me. We’d viewed Stonehenge from a distance a week or so earlier; not willing to share it with busloads of other visitors. I wanted more than a ticked box and snapshot proof of my brush with the ancient past.
On the Orkney's (back in 2015), we’d visited standing stones as part of a bus tour, not a large group, but still we were organised, guided, scheduled. I wanted some alone time and as we approached Callanish, saw the car park was empty, I realised that finally, alone time was only a few steps away. We parked and walked in.
The stones stand in what has been described as a Celtic Christian cross pattern. At ground level, their pattern is indeed structured. The stones stretch across a small field in a straight line with arms out to the sides and a circle in the centre. But a Christian cross? They’re too old for that. The stones pre-date Christianity by several thousand years. Any similarity to that symbol is either coincidental or contrived (perhaps the design of the Celtic cross is based on this grouping of stones?).
Walking through the stones is similar to walking along a tree-lined promenade, where the trees are ancient and loom, and one can imagine they rustle to their own breeze-driven melody. You almost feel the need to whisper, hold your breath and lower your face in respect. The age and majesty of these stones is a first-hand experience. Pictures and books will never do them justice.
The stones themselves are no mystery. They are local Lewisian Gneiss (a type of granite over a billion years old). In comparison, Stonehenge is made up of a variety of different rock types the most common being “bluestone” from Wales. The Lewisian rock would have been cut from the ground within a mile of their hilltop making their transport from point A to B a reasonable journey, even if fraught with the same issue of weight and size as Stonehenge.
The purpose of Standing Stones is a hot topic of conversation wherever they happen to be. Each community that has lived within the reach of the stones would use them appropriate to their culture whether that be Christian or Druidic or something else entirely. I like to think of them as symbolic of worship to the Cailleach and considering the distant Old Woman of the Moors they were probably used in this way at some point in time. The land around them, and across the other Scottish islands collectively known as the Outer Hebrides, and the Inner Hebrides as well (probably all across the United Kingdom if one were to look hard enough), is littered with references to this old woman. She is everywhere.
Callanish doesn’t derive its name from the Cailleach though. It’s been gaelicised as Callainais, but according to Gerald Ponting’s guide to the site, it’s actually derived from an Old Norse name for the promontory: Kalladarnes.
So, what is the purpose of these Standing Stones?
If I could travel back in time, I would be able to tell you. Unfortunately, no written record exists outlining the intentions of the original builders. Historical records, and stories passed down through generations (which also equate to historical records in my opinion), indicate that they most likely would have been the heart of the community’s spiritual life. Considering that in times gone by that there was no particular division between spiritual and everyday living, it’s quite possible that they were a central meeting place as well (that’s my opinion as well).
One interesting use is as a calendrical marker, particularly as a lunar calendar. As I’ve mentioned, with spiritual and the everyday combined, I’m sure the importance of a calendar was quite significant. But the interesting part is that every 19 years, the moon, having reached its most southern extreme, rises from behind the Old Woman of the Moors, skims the horizon and “appears” within the stone circle; as a deity before her people no doubt. This event is called a lunar standstill and once known as “when the moon walks the earth.” The next such occurrence is expected in 2024 (do you think it’s too soon to start packing?).
The earliest written record available of the site was published about 1680 and the first plan was produced in about 1700. The 1680 description includes a line: It is left by traditione that these were a sort of men converted into stones by some Inchanter…’ The gent who produced the plan reported that it was: … a place appointed for Worship in the time of Heathenism…”. (Callanish & other megalithic sites of the Outer Hebrides – Gerald Ponting).
In 1857, the first excavation of the site took place. A good 5 feet of peat was removed, and a burial chamber or cairn was discovered. Within were found the charcoaled remains of bones. None of the chamber’s contents remain today.
Nearby are two or three more groups of standing stones. Not as magnificent as the main grouping but perched on their little hilltops they are in line of site of Callanish 1 and are also worth visiting. They’re not far, but by the time we reached them (and we drove so we’re talking five minutes tops), the sun that shone down on the main hill was replaced with grey clouds, mist, and a chilling breeze.
Our morning visit was truly inspiring. I did have the feel of being in a cathedral and would love to be present during a traditional ceremony. How close to their gods must people have felt in this place, surrounded by sacred lochs and mountains, connected to Otherworlds by the holy Standing Stones?
Now, to the Woman in the Stone, the title of this article. In my Crossing the Line series, starting with Keeper of the Way, stone and the Cailleach are important aspects of the Otherworld that are utilised, for good or ill, to bring forth ancestor spirits and wreak a little havoc (did I say little? Oh dear, the mistress of understatement).
While on the Isle of Lewis, I came across a beautiful card based on an original work of art by local artist, Christina Walczuk. It’s called Woman in the Stone and I was stunned at how directly the artwork seemed to connect with the spiritual side of the story I’m writing. By the time I visited Callanish, Keeper of the Way had been published and to see this beautiful image after visiting the Standing Stones, seemed to me a sign that the story I was exploring was waiting to be told, that the “woman in the stone” was waiting for me to recognise her significance in all of our lives. And I can't help feeling that as I continue writing Crossing the Line, time will truly tell.