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Callanish Stones (Isle of Lewis)

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Callanish, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

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      22.06.2002 06:15
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      ~ ~ The Callanish Stones are located on the western coastline of the Isle of Lewis in Outer Hebrides of Scotland, and are often called the “Stonehenge of the North”. Many experts consider them to be the second most significant standing stone circle in the world, after Stonehenge itself, and it is a humbling thought that they have stood here in their remote location for some 4,000 to 5,000 years. It’s to my eternal discredit that despite the strong links I have with Lewis, (my late mother was born here) and despite having visited the Hebrides many, many times in my lifetime, it was only during our family holiday last year (2001) that I visited this historic site for the very first time. ~ ~ My cousin is a teacher in the nearby village of Uig, and it was on a trip over to visit him that we took the opportunity to visit the Stones. We could have picked a better day however, as it was blowing a gale and lashing horizontal rain. (typical August weather in the Hebrides) But a good pair of wellies and some stout raingear saved the day. So if you ever get up this way and decide to have a look, be sure to keep some waterproofs or a change of clothes in the boot of the car, as this site really is in the back end of nowhere and as exposed as it gets, sitting out on exposed bog and moorland. ~ ~ Stone circles, rows of standing stones, and single standing stones are not an unusual site in the British Isles. Indeed there are many of them here in Ireland, my adopted home. But the Callanish Stones are unique in the way they are set up and structured. There is a 15ft tall central stone, surrounded by a circle of thirteen smaller stones ranging in height between 8ft and 13 ft. There are then rows of smaller stones leading out from the Circle itself, to the south, east, and west, with a double row of stones forming a sort of avenue to the north. The striking resemblance to the shape of a very large Celtic Cross is unmistakable, and a very large cross at that, measuring some 400ft in length by 150ft in width. But what is intriguing is that the stones were all erected in an era long before the advent of Christianity! Even its name in Scots Gaelic, (the main language of the Hebrides) “Tursachan” translates into “a place of pilgrimage”, suggesting their sacred heritage. There is even an old Lewis legend that the Stones were old giants turned into stone by God as they conspired to protect Lewis from the ‘strange new religion’ of Christianity. But if this is the case, they didn’t succeed very well, as the Islands today are a stronghold of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, a very devout and strict Protestant faith. (My cousins are all ‘Wee Frees”) You’d be well advised to take note that EVERYTHING except the churches close down in Lewis on a Sunday, and if you choose the Sabbath to visit the Stones, then you will be badly frowned upon by the locals! ~ ~ Just less than 100 years ago, many local couples still chose to be married within the Stone Circle, and there are still local families who are considered ‘Guardians’ of the Stones, and who it is rumoured may have knowledge of many of the old rites and practices that were carried out here. Another piece of old folklore maintains that the first cuckoo to visit Lewis every Spring flies directly to the Callanish Stones before heralding in the new season with its distinctive cry. ~ ~ The land that the Stones stand upon is owned by the Matheson family, who have been the ‘Lairds’ for centuries. Indeed, it was Sir James Matheson who first uncovered the Stones back in 1857. Over the centuries, the Stones had become surrounded and covered by peat bog, which had grown to a depth in excess of 5ft, so that only the tips of the very tallest stones were actually visible. Peat is still one of the main fuels of the Lewis Islanders, who cu t and stack it beside their cottages in the summer months, in preparation for the long, bleak winters. They had began to cut peat from the area around the Stones, and Sir James became intrigued and decided to finish the job, which revealed the cairn and all the stones that were less than 5ft high. There was also a tomb discovered underneath the main stone, and some locals maintain that it contained human remains, but this has never been definitively proved. ~ ~ Some of the Stones were in a bad state of repair. One that was lying on its side was reset in concrete, and some ‘improvements’ were made during the Victorian era to the cairn itself. But they are still mostly original, as peat is a preservative, and had protected the Stones from the worst vagaries of the harsh Lewis weather down through the centuries. It was because of the peat that the actual age of the Stones was first guessed at, as there was no peat at the base of the Stones, which meant that their construction had predated the peat bog itself. Since the main site was discovered, there have been some ten other smaller sites unearthed in the surrounding area, and two of these, ‘Cnoc Ceann’ (Callanish II ) and ‘Cnoc Fhillibhir Bheag’ (Callanish III ) are visible from the main road leading to the site, and three or four other smaller sites are visible from the main site itself. ~ ~ Callanish has been the topic of much discussion and debate within the scientific community for generations, and many theories have been put forward as to its true significance and meaning. Some say it is a relic of the old religion of the Druids, to whom it was a holy place, used for old religious rituals and fertility rites, and perhaps animal and even human sacrifice. But what is certain is that people used it in olden days to mark the passage of the seasons, the summer and winter Equinox. It’s likely that the Stones were used to give the island p eople an idea of the best time to plant their crops, and to take in their harvest, as well as informing them of the different tide movements. Recent research has shown that it was most probably used to chart the passage of the moon (rather than the sun) through the heavens, as distinct from its sister site, Stonehenge, where the midsummer sunrise was marked by the stones. And it is well known that ancient people worshipped the sun and the moon long before the advent of Christianity. ~ ~ In the past couple of years a new, modern visitor’s and exhibition centre has been erected. This not only has a fascinating video presentation of the history of the Stones, but also incorporates a well stocked gift shop, where you can purchase small souvenirs of your visit, or perhaps buy a length of Harris Tweed or a hand knitted woollen jersey, for which the area is famous. It has a small (if basic) restaurant area and tearoom, which was a very welcome site for sore eyes and feet on the day of our visit. The homemade vegetable soup was absolutely delicious, and slipped down a treat, and was just the job for cold bones. (Less than £20 for a light meal for four of us) There is no cost as such for visiting the site, but you will probably end up spending a fair few pounds in the exhibition centre. ~ ~ To get to Callanish, take the main road to Tarbert in Harris out of Stornoway. (the main town of Lewis) After ten miles or so there is a well signposted turn off for Uig and Callanish, and the journey will probably take you just over an hour or so. Drive carefully though, as most of the roads are single track, and you have to be prepared to pull into ‘passing places’ if a vehicle approaches from the opposite direction. Callanish is truly a place of ancient mystery, and well worth the effort to visit if you ever find yourself in this glorious part of Scotland. ~~~~~~~~~~~~

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