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I'm a sucker for standing stones. Basically, unless it's a pile of gravel that's been poured in a circle I'm predisposed to be impressed. This is because Belfast is home to the most rubbish stone circle EVER, which goes by the comedic but utterly misleading name of The Giant's Ring. To any normal person, that's going to imply something that is either huge in stature or made by a giant (and we'll ignore the rude bum-based interpretation, thank you very much). The Giant's Ring disappoints on all fronts. However, it turns out that the Outer Hebrides are positively covered in standing stones and stone circles and most of them are suitably remarkable, even if none of them are quite as inspiring as, say, Stonehenge.
The first one that we went to see whilst on holiday was the standing stone circle at Callanish (or Calanais, depending on how Gaelic you are) on the Isle of Lewis. I confess that I was very distracted by looking for eagles - didn't see a damn one, just a load of seagulls with unrealistic ambitions - and so my boyfriend did the navigation, but we seemed to find it pretty easily, with minimal 'you're going to be turning left in...NOW NOW NOW!' More comprehensive directions can be found at: http://www.callanishvisitorcentre.co.uk/​howtofindus.html, but I wouldn't worry too much about being precise: Harris and Lewis are pretty weeny and most tourist attractions are well signposted, so you should find it without too much bother.
The stones are right beside the road, behind a wire fence (this is designed to keep the sheep out but we saw a lot of sheep poo, so either they're scatological catapulters, or they've grown thumbs and kept that very quiet. Either of those options is a worry, to be honest) so the site is very accessible even for those with mobility problems. I'd say those in wheelchairs would be best visiting in the summer months as the ground could be quite boggy in other seasons. Otherwise, you simply park up at the side of the road or in the visitor car park and dander over.
When we were there it was off-season and a Sunday, so we didn't use the visitor centre which is located nearby, but from looking at their website it would seem that it's well worth a visit as there's a display that's intended to offer an explanation for the stones as well as a café and toilet facilities. Judging from the pictures, the architecture of the place is also quite sympathetic to the stones, which pleases me. Nothing worse than going to see an ancient site and finding the facilities are housed in a god-awful concrete box. If you're not going to use the visitor centre, at one end of the stones is an information board with a few archaeological drawings which is ample to give a reasonable understanding of the place.
~*~The stones themselves~*~
Are really quite something. Don't get me wrong; it's no Stonehenge or Newgrange but some of the stones are absolutely enormous and the place has a real atmosphere that stems from the inherent sense of history and the fact that the site hasn't been messed around with too much. You can still get right up to the stones and walk around them, which I believe is no longer the case at Stonehenge because too many hippies got carried away with having This Is Spinal Tap moments.
The main part of the site is made up of a standing stone circle with a huge central stone and what looks (to my very much un-historically trained eyes) like a stone tomb. Leading up to the circle at the north is a long avenue with shorter avenues at the compass points. Standing at the bottom of the avenue and walking up to the circle gives a great sense of perspective and is very evocative; it really makes you appreciate what a feat of planning, logistics and construction Callanish is. From walking in and around the site, I got the impression that the avenues and stones are roughly cruciform shape but aerial photographs would be the only way to tell for sure. The guidebooks I've read suggest a number of different theories to explain the shape and orientation but none are definitive and range from 'because they liked the shape' to 'they were really quite advanced astronomers and it plots the course of certain stars'. Personally, I rather like not knowing: when things are too defined they lose their sense of magic. Speaking of which, it's difficult to get across in a review just how gigantic and improbable some of the stones are; when viewed close up they are irregularly shaped and have beautiful swirling colour striations. They really are monolithic and some jut out from the earth at an angle that would make you think they should have collapsed years ago. Evidently prehistoric builders had a bit of an edge on the blokes who fitted my bathroom.
Even on the kind of grey and windy day like we had, this is an extremely compelling site to wander round and marvel at for an hour or two. Realistically, there isn't a great deal for children or teenagers to do, but for anyone with a sense of imagination and history this place is an absolute must-see.
~*~With rights come responsibilities~~*~
It may sound a bit naff, but it's worth bearing in mind the motto 'take only photographs; leave only footprints' as you wander round. Historic Scotland has, laudably, managed to look after the stones without insisting that tourists view them only as part of a guided tour or from behind a wire fence. So play nice and don't light fires or leave rubbish at the site.
From an archaeological and historical point of view the standing stones at Callanish are of equal importance to Stonehenge. Yet whilst the latter recently received over 36,000 visitors in a single day for the summer solstice (21st June 2009) Callanish receives only a few thousand visitors every year. This is due entirely to Callanish's location on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, which is just about as remote as you can get within the British Isles.
I have always known about the existence of the standing stones at Callanish but only took a real interest in them earlier this year when I was planning my visit. I have seen Stonehenge hundreds of times, my brother used to live in the next village, and even now it never fails to turn my head, but they have become far too commercial for my liking in recent years. The sheer remoteness of the Callanish stones has always made them that little bit more magical to me.
The Isle of Lewis is packed full of attractions but so very few of them are even marked on maps let alone sign posted. The Callanish Stones are however an exception to this rule and appear on road signs right across the island and even at the ferry terminal at Tarbert on Harris. You do need to bear in mind though that most road signs on the island are only displayed in Gaelic and it's a bit confusing since the Gael's have two different names for this place; Chlachan Chalanais or Tursachan Chalanais depending on which side of the island you are on.
Archaeologists usually refer to the stones that most visitors come to see as Callanish 1. There is a large visitor centre and car park and this is where the tourist signs will take you. There are however two other similar but smaller stone circles nearby which are known as Callanish 11 and Callanish 111 but more about those another time.
Callanish 1 comprises of thirteen large stones arranged in a huge circle and leading off from this there is a corridor of smaller upright stones arranged at a north, south, east and west orientation. If you imagine the arrangement of these stones from above then it roughly resembles the shape of a Celtic Cross with a circle around the point where the horizontal and vertical lines meet. The diameter of the outer circle measures around 13 metres and the average height of the stones is 4 metres with the tallest central stone measuring just over 5 metres. It is possible to see these stones on top of the hill from quite afar but it is only when you get up close that you can really appreciate them and ponder over their meaning.
There is no admission fee to visit the stones and the visitor centre is open daily (except Sunday) from 10am until 6pm. You can still walk around the stones on a Sunday but the centre will be closed and to be honest it really is worth checking out if you want to learn about the stones. I was eager to find out how old they were who put them there and why?
Sadly even the visitor centre couldn't answer all of my questions and I think I came away with more questions than when I arrived but I did discover that the stones were constructed between 2900BC and 2600BC and they are all of local Lewisian Gneiss.
There are some wonderful myths and folklore attached to the Callinish stones and one of my favourites is that when Saint Kieran arrived from Ireland in the 1st century BC to convert the locals to Christianity those that refused were turned to stone. However let's not get too carried away and take a look at the facts. What we do know is that whilst Stonehenge relates to the sun Callanish appears to relate to the moon. That is to say that the setting of the moon on midsummer's day aligns perfectly between the top of the tallest stone and the peak of the islands highest mountain Clisham in the distance. In fact when viewed from the south the midsummer moon appears to sit right on top of the tallest stone. This has led some historians to believe that these stones were a type of calendar system but most favour a religious use. Archaeologists have discovered that this tallest stone marks the entrance to a burial tomb where prehistoric human remains have been found but there is no evidence of sacrifice. This burial chamber is also a late addition to the site and was probably added around 2000BC, just 300 years after this date is when the site was probably last used. Furthermore it is now thought that whilst these stones were erected between 2900 and 2600BC they occupy a much older site, possibly going back at least a further 1000 years.
As there are no written records from 4500 years ago when the people that built these stones were still around we will probably never really know their true origin. In many ways this helps to keep the Callanish Stones alive and interesting. I think we can rule out St Kieran turning the locals to stone or alien intervention but there might just be some weight being the stones referring to some extinct super race of people because this is an amazing achievement even by modern standards. Each stone weighs several tonnes and were probably transported from the south west of the island or even Harris (50 to 100 miles away) where this type of Lewisian Gneiss rock is most prominent.
I found the Callanish Stones fascinating and I was impressed that it is possible to walk freely around them. You can touch the stones if you like or just have your photo taken in front of them. Unlike Stonehenge there are fences to keep out the hordes of tourists. If you are ever on the Isle of Lewis you really can't leave without seeing the standing stones at Callanish.
Calanais Visitor Centre
Isle of Lewis
Isle of Lewis