Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and ScotlandBelfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides
After I visit places such as Callanish I am always bewildered, as I am sure that I can’t satisfactorily answer any of the obvious questions – why was it built, how was it built, who built it, what was the reason for building it here rather than on any other hillock in the area? Even the question as to when the site was constructed is open to discussion.
Callanish comprises several different elements – a stone circle containing a central monolith and a chambered tomb, three rows of stones intersecting with the circle, and an avenue of stones heading roughly northwards away from the circle. All the stones are Lewisian gneiss and were quarried locally.
The stone circle consists of thirteen stones, with an average height of 3 metres. The circle is not quite perfect as the east side is slightly squashed. The circle covers an area of 124 square metres with a diameter of 11.4 metres. The circle was built between 2,900 BC and 2,600 BC making it slightly older than Stonehenge.
The 6.4-metre-long chambered tomb, in the central part of the circle, was almost certainly added after the circle was set up and was used for many centuries, as not only local pottery was found, but also Beaker vessels dating from 2000BC.
The central monolith stands 0.8 metres west of the true centre of the stone circle. The monolith is 4.8 metres high and 1.5 metres wide. This stone is on an almost perfect north to south axis, making me wonder how people 5,000 years ago could align a 7-tonne stone so accurately.
In his 1726 work on the druids, John Toland specifically identified Diodorus Siculus’ Hyperborea with Lewis, and the “spherical temple” mentioned by Diodorus with the Callanish Stones. Diodorus was a first century BC Greek historian, best known for writing the monumental universal history Bibliotheca historica, much of which survives, between 60 and 30 BC. A Scottish writer Martin Martin visited Lewis in 1695, researching his book A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, and was told that Callanish was “a place appointed for worship in the time of heathenism, and that the chief druid or priest stood near the big stone in the centre, from whence he addressed himself to the people that surrounded him”. This is an interesting explanation, but doesn’t provide an insight into when the ‘time of heathenism’ was.
I first saw the stones silhouetted against the sky when I was driving from the airport to my hotel for the night. I could have visited the stones, even at 9pm, because the site is free and open to all, the way it should be. I pulled over to the side of the road, because it was difficult for me to comprehend that 5,000 years ago, I could have stood in exactly the same spot I was now and seen the same view I was seeing now. 1,825,000 days ago, the view would have been the same. For me, that is an amazing feeling to have, and ultimately the fact the stones are still there is more important than the reasons why the stones were placed where they are. It made me feel very small underneath the universe.