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Callanish Standing Stones
Isle of Lewis, Scotland

[Monday - 10/24/94] Dating back over 4000 years, the Callanish Standing Stones rank second in terms of importance only to Stonehenge. This is a wonderful and awe-inspiring stone monument, undoubtedly the most famous prehistoric site in Scotland. It stands on a rise and is visible from a wide area around, paticularly when picked out by the shifting rays of sunlight through the broken clouds of a Lewis sky. Visitor numbers are now such that a path has been laid around the perimeter of the site by Historic Scotland to lessen the damage to the interior of the avenue and circle. We, however, had free run of the monument just prior to the restrictions. With no one else present, we had the entire site to ourselves for several hours.

The 53 pale grey stones of Lewisian gneiss were buried in peat up to about the height of an adult before they were cleared in the year 1857. There are several elements to the site. A ring of large stones about 12 meters in diameter encloses a huge monolith at its center. Also in the middle of the ring are the remains of a chambered cairn, revealed when the peat was cut away. As the cairn appears to have been added to the circle, and chambered cairns are considered to be Neolithic in date, it seems clear that the site in general is also Neolithic. (Standing stones and stone circles elsewhere are often stated to be Bronze age, but without dating or stratigraphical evidence. Some are just as likely to be of stone age date).

Running north from the stone circle are two parallel lines of stones forming an avenue about 80 meters long. There are now 19 stones in the avenue. Any visitor entering the site from the north will feel impelled to walk up this avenue to the circle, which, of course, we did!

Also running from the circle are single lines of stones to the east (4 stones), west (4) and south (6). In plan, the site has the form of a cross.

Much work has been done over the last 80 years on the astronomical orientations built in to the monument at Callanish, some of which are still controversial. Boyle Somerville suggested in 1913 that the northern avenue was positioned to indicate the rising of the star Capella about 1800BC. He pointed out that the west row indicates the setting sun at the two equinoxes. He also suggested that a line between the two stones outside the circle (to the north-east and south-west) indicated the moon at its maximum (major standstill). This was the first time a surveyor introduced evidence for a lunar line for any prehistoric site in Scotland.

More recently researchers have suggested that the avenue should be viewed as pointing south, to the position of the setting southern moon at the major standstill, though the horizon is blocked by the rocky knoll to the south of the site. The southern line of stones together with the large monolith in the center of the circle has a bearing of 180.1, and is an accurate indicator of the meridian, true north-south. There are other many examples of meridional stones in this guide. Such a line indicates to the north the 'pole' around which the stars of the night sky appear to revolve, and to the south the highest position the sun and moon attain in the sky on any day.

Inside the circle are the remains of a chambered round cairn of Neolithic type, but archaeologists are undecided whether this was built before or after the stone circle and stone rows. There are also several foundation-like structures which may have been from homes built within or near the site, including the birthplace of Bran Trefonnen!

Local tradition explains the presence of these stones by saying that when giants of old who then lived on the island refused to be Christianized, St.Kieran turned them to stone. Another local belief of this Gaelic-speaking community was that when the sun rose on midsummer morn, the 'shining one' walked along the stone avenue, his arrival heralded by the cuckoo's call.

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Last modified on Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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