Callanish stone circle and its alignments – The Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides

In the far northwest reaches of the British Isles, off the coast of Scotland on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, lie the Hebridean Islands or the Western Isles. Mountain and sea, white sand and rock, peat moorland and heather combine to form one of the most remote and magical areas of Britain. At the northern end of this long chain of islands are the isles of Harris and Lewis, the home of one of the most outstanding and unique prehistoric monuments in Britain – the standing stones of Callanish.

Sited on a ridge of moorland near the west coast of Lewis, overlooking the waters of East Loch Roag, with the moors sweeping away to the distant hills and mountains of Harris, the tall slender stones of Lewissian Gneiss (a hard volcanic rock) rise up beneath the vast expanse of the northern sky.

The village of Callanish and its outlying crofts nestles in the moorland beside the stones, which stand like guardians, or perhaps wise grey elders at the entrance to The Otherworld. Only the islands of St Kilda and the fairy-inhabited Flannon Islands separate the Western Isles and the stones of Callanish from three thousand miles of ocean.

Five thousand years ago the Neolithic peoples inhabiting the islands erected this great monument. They appear to have been built as a spiritual centre in which to perform their religious ceremonies and magical rituals, and as a symbol of the power and spirit of their people. A circle of tall standing stones was erected surrounding a single giant monolith at its centre, with a small chambered cairn beneath it. An avenue of standing stones was built leading to the circle from the north east, with three other rows of stones radiating out from the circle – running to the east, the south, and the west, the completed monument spreading out like a massive Celtic cross 400ft long and 150ft wide. The stones resemble fingers of stone pointing into the heavens, and mark the journey of the sun, moon and stars through the cycle of the seasons. Images and stories of funeral pyres and sacrifice, the journey of the soul, giants and enchanters and petrified figures, of tribal gatherings and the spirits of the ancestors rise and fade within the mystery surrounding the stones. As with other megalithic sites their exact purpose has been obscured by the mists of time.

Legend has it that a great king had organised the building of this pagan temple. He had come with a fleet of ships bringing with him the great stones, together with an entourage of priests and African slaves. The slaves erected the stones, and those who died were buried within the circle. The king then departed, leaving his high priest and others to practice their religious ceremonies and magical rites together with the local inhabitants. The priests were described as wearing robes made of feathers of many kinds. The high priest was said in legend to wear a robe of white feathers with a girdle of luminous mallard-neck feathers, and to appear always with wrens flying around him.

In the 19th century some of the local Hebridean families were described in Gaelic as ‘belonging to the stones’, and were regarded with high esteem. At Beltane and Mid-Summer people at this time still visited the stones, and it was said that at sunrise on the Summer Solstice something described as ‘the Shining One’ (similar to the Tuatha de Danaan in Irish legend) came to the stones, walking down the avenue heralded by the song of a cuckoo. These visits by local people continued in secret after the minister forbade such gatherings, as it was said by the countryfolk that “it would not do to neglect the stones”.

The stones of Callanish themselves could well be described as the Shining Ones, their crystalline structure reflecting a silvery light of their own. A powerful atmosphere of peace and stillness surrounds the stones, especially at sunrise and in the twilight sunset. In the remoteness of the moorland landscape, the air filled with the drifting scent of the crofters’ peat fires, the veil between the physical and spritual worlds is thin. The stones of Callanish stand as timeless guardians on the threshold.

- © Simant Bostock