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.
A path leads up the hillside, giving views of the broch and the surrounding countryside. The side facing you is built above steep rock, and most of it remains as originally designed. As you round the broch to the entrance, on the north side, you are presented with a different picture. From here you can see that the most easily accessible parts of the wall have been removed. What you are left with is a life-size cutaway model, exposing sections through the walls and showing clearly much of their structure.
Inside the broch a number of chambers are accessible at ground floor level, an area which would probably have been used to house farm animals. The human residents would have lived 2m higher, above wooden flooring supported on a ridge that can still be seen running around the inside walls. As in other brochs, stairs are fitted within the thickness of the walls, and there would probably have been several floors of accommodation beneath a conical roof.
The stones of the eastern side of the avenue have only three-quarters of the height of the stones on the western side. When I saw this, I wondered whether this was deliberate or just accidental – why would these details be important to the people who created the site? Do we try and provide explanations for the reasons why things are a certain way at ancient sites, when in fact the creators of these places meant nothing by them? Did the stones of the North Avenue fan out deliberately the further away they went away from the stone circle or was it because the people creating the avenue didn’t have accurate measuring devices or just didn’t care whether the distance between the stones was the same all along the avenue – i.e. they just wanted an avenue of stones heading in a roughly northern direction? I believe they did care, as the central monolith was so accurately aligned north to south, therefore the fanning out was deliberate, but what was the reason for this? Was it meant to represent something? If so, what?
Another confusing feature are the three rows of stones that join the southern end of the stone circle. One row comes from the direction of east-northeast, one from the south, and one from the west-southwest. The east-northeast row comprises five stones, the southern row also has five stones and the west-southwest row four stones. None of the stone rows is aimed at the centre of the stone circle. Again, is this significant, or have the stones just been displaced over the thousands of years of their existence? It’s worth mentioning the stones at Callanish were abandoned, for whatever task they were intended, around 800BC and that not much is written about them until 1857, when over 5 feet of peat was removed from the site, revealing the chambered grave and the true height of the stones.
The broch is next mentioned in a report by the local Minister in 1797. By this time, brochs were believed to be watchtowers used as defense against, or by, Vikings. Dun Carloway featured prominently in reports on Western Isles brochs in the latter part of the 1800s, and as a result it was one of the very first ancient monuments in Scotland to be taken into state care. By this time a large a part of the wall had been removed, probably for recycling into the blackhouses built nearby: including the one whose walls still stand nearly complete below the access path.
Today Dun Carloway is approached from the car park past the Doune Broch Centre, built largely underground, and containing an exhibition giving a sense of what life in the broch might well have been like. This is run by Urras nan Tursachan, The Standing Stones Trust (as is the nearby Calanais Visitor Centre), and the broch itself is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland..
Dun Carloway, or Dun Charlabhaigh, is a remarkably well preserved broch in a stunning location overlooking Loch Roag on the west coast of Lewis.
Dun Carloway was probably built some time in the last century BC. It would have served as an occasionally defensible residence for an extended family complete with accommodation for animals at ground floor level. It would also have served as a visible statement of power and status in the local area.
The broch at Dun Carloway is extremely well preserved. It was built at a time when brochs were already starting to be replaced by other forms of housing less demanding on scarce resources (and wood in particular), and it is not known how long it remained in use. It seems to have been still largely complete in the 1500s when some of the Morrison clan sought refuge inside the broch after being discovered stealing the local MacAulays’ cattle. Donald Cam MacAulay climbed the outside of the wall and threw in burning heather, smoking the Morrisons out.
Photographer Murdo MacLeod makes one of the world’s most spectacular and remote road trips, taking in wild landscapes, ancient ruins and enduring traditions on his way to west Lewis in the Outer Hebrides