The Isle of Lewis in Scotland is home to Callanish’s standing stones, one of the best preserved and most complete Neolithic monuments in Europe. The purpose, construction, and meaning of these megaliths may be a mystery, but one thing is certain—they are a must-see on a Scotland Slowly expedition!
Just imagine being amongst these giant stones on a moonlit night, witnessing an ancient, mysterious Stone Age ritual nearly 5,000 years ago. From below the rise of the hill, you hear the constant rhythm of a drum in synchrony with chanting voices. The sound is moving closer. A single flickering fire throws sparks into the night. A goat bleats at the moon. You’re spellbound.
I have no idea if this would have happened here, but no one can tell me for certain it didn’t either, so my imagination is free to wander—and wonder. Questions ignite my mind: who erected these massive stones? How did they do it? How long did it take? Why choose this spot? What was its purpose? What did it look like originally? While we can observe and measure, we cannot fully answer any of these questions. Truth is, we don’t know much about the Callanish Stones on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis.
Here’s what we do know: this assemblage of fifty megaliths was erected over a long span of time beginning about five thousand years ago—before Stonehenge, and more than two thousand years before the Egyptian pyramids of Giza. The builders were farming people of the Stone Age, but much more than that, we cannot say.
Archaeologists figure the site was used for about two thousand years throughout all of the Bronze Age. Since it was used for so long, the question of how it was used may have changed over time, along with its physical appearance. Then it was abandoned around 800 BCE, though we don’t know why.
The formation commands a hilltop overlooking Loch Roag, a deep inlet on the northwest coast of Lewis. To the north is the small, present-day settlement of Callanish. To the west are the hills of Great Bernera. Within view is a section of skyline known as theOld Woman of the Moors, perhaps a resting goddess that had something to do with the rituals performed here.
From a central circle of thirteen stones, arms composed of more stones extend away in the shape of a cross. The longest of these arms is composed of two parallel rows of stones, creating an avenue between them. At one time, there was a burial crypt within the central circle. The centre was likely the first structure built here, while the other elements were added afterwards.
The stones themselves are all the same type of rock: local, three-billion-year-old Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in Britain. The tallest monolith is 4.8 metres high and weighs about seven tonnes. The full height of the stones was not revealed until 1857, when 1.5 metres of peat was removed from the site’s grounds and exposed more of their bases. From a distance they are a warm grey, but upon closer examination they reveal black flecks and soft, orange-brown tones. Their texture resembles deeply etched and weathered wood grain.
The stones of Callanish (or Calanais in Gaelic) were first described in 1680 by Lewis native John Morisone, who wrote that they were men “converted into stone by ane Inchanter” and set up in a ring "for devotione." Another tradition has it that they are giants who were petrified for not converting to Christianity (although this is doubtful, since they had fallen from use by the time Christianity rolled around).
A more scientific explanation is that they had an astrological function associated with the lunar cycle. Geophysical analysis has revealed that it is the site of a massive lightning strike. Did that event trigger the initial construction, or did it take place later? Archaeologists have found evidence of cremated bodies here, so ritualistic or ceremonial use is quite certain.
Perhaps these rituals and ceremonies were to honour the dead, express power, celebrate life or the change of seasons, or pay homage to the gods. Surrounded by over twenty other ritualistic sites in the region, it is an impressive centrepiece in a significant ceremonial landscape.
The entire formation of Callanish’s standing stones is one of the finest, best preserved, and most complete Neolithic monuments of Europe. The site begs comparison to the younger Stonehenge, which was a more amazing feat of engineering, but the stones of Callanish win any competition for drama, beauty, and connection with the landscape.
These were the stones that were used as a model for the fictional stone circle in the popular Outlander television and book series. On your visit here, you can walk right up and touch these stones to make your own connection with the seekers of long ago. Just don’t utter any magic words or you might find yourself whisked away to ancient Scotland!
Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.
For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.