Discover a world of Ancient Wonder
It is only when you visit the Calanais Standing Stones in person and witness the scale of the monument against the glorious Isle of Lewis scenery that you can truly appreciate its power, beauty and resonance with the landscape.
Passing through the circle with its chambered cairn, visitors are compelled to imagine the ceremonies that took place here millennia ago and are drawn to delve more deeply into the myths and legends surrounding the Calanais Standing Stones. The dramatic texture, colour and shape of each individual stone, and the uniqueness of their overall arrangement, inspire new stories and make it easy to see how previous generations regarded the Stones as men who had been turned into stone.
When viewed as a whole, the monument in its dramatic landscape speaks of a powerful sense of human purpose, wonder and sacred heritage.
Calanais Facts, Myths and Legends
People have long speculated about who built the Calanais Stones and how the monument was used. Over time various myths have grown up. From at least as early as 1680, local people believed that the stones were the remains of men who had transgressed and were punished by being turned into stone. In 1695 an early antiquary, Martin Martin, claimed that it was a ‘heathen’ temple, with Druids worshipping there. More recently it has been claimed that Calanais is older than Stonehenge.
Archaeological investigation allows us to understand the monument better, and to bust some myths. Thanks to excavations by Patrick Ashmore in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we now know that the circle was built first, around 2900 BC, and the chambered cairn was added around 500 years later. The rows and avenues could have been added at the same time. And while the circle is indeed earlier than the world-famous circle of sarsen trilithons at Stonehenge, in fact the earliest circle to be built there, of Welsh bluestones, was erected around the same time as the Calanais circle.
Our continuing archaeological work, in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland, continues to shed light on this ancient and inspiring place and on the other stone circles dotted around this stunningly beautiful landscape.
Calanais Standing Stones Facts
For nearly 5000 years, the stone circle at Calanais has stood proud in the breathtaking landscape beside Loch Ròg, on the north-west coast of the island of Lewis, around 17.5 miles (28 kilometres) from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. Visitors to the site can explore a circle of thirteen stones set around a larger monolith, with the remains of a small chambered cairn inside the circle. From the circle, rows of stones radiate to the south, west and east, and to the north runs a long stone avenue. The ensemble is a site of significant scale and impact.
The Calanais Standing Stones’ history began during the Neolithic period, around 2900 BC. The stone circle was built shortly after the one at the Stones of Stenness in the heart of Orkney. Around the same time, other circles (in timber and in stone) were being built at Temple Wood in Kilmartin Glen and Machrie Moor on Arran, and also at Stonehenge in southern England – not the world-famous sarsen circle, but an earlier one of Welsh bluestones that formed the first-phase monument there.
A MONUMENT BUILT AND MODIFIED OVER TIME
The archaeology of the monument indicates that It was not all built at the same time. The first structure was the stone circle and its central tall standing stone, erected around 2900 BC. Between 400 and 500 years later, a new use was made of the monument as first a timber structure, then a small chambered cairn, used to house the dead, were erected inside the circle. It’s likely that the southern, eastern and western rows, and the avenue to the north, were also added at this time.
The avenue reorientated the monument from being one that focused on midwinter sun celebrations to one focusing on a special lunar phenomenon, the ‘maximum standstill’, every 18.6 years. The avenue also funnelled people towards the circle and the very important person, or people, buried in the chambered cairn. At least one other person was buried here, just outside the circle, between 2150 and 1750 BC, and somebody deposited a pot on the cairn between 2000 and 1700 BC, either as an offering or to accompany a body. People were farming right up to the stones during that time.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
A Unique Place for Ritual and Reflection
In keeping with much of the geology of the Western Isles, the Calanais Stones are of Lewisian gneiss – at three billion years old, the oldest rock in western Europe – and they stand out against the green of the surrounding landscape. The location for the monument was carefully chosen. The Stones are spectacularly positioned on a ridge leading up to Cnoc an Tursa, a natural hill with a cave-like feature, which may have been regarded as a sacred place.
The Calanais Stones’ History and Heritage
The standing stones are the frequent subject of accounts from noted visitors, going back as far as the seventeenth century. One such famous antiquary was William Stukeley, who in 1743 described the site as a Druidical Circle and serpent, adding to a growing list of Calanais Stones myths.
Archaeology Meets Astronomy
Many claims – some based on careful calculation of the position of the sun, moon and stars in prehistory, some on patient observation, and others on ill-informed fancy, have been made about the astronomical orientation of the Stones.
In fact, the monument’s orientation seems to have changed over the course of its long life. The stone circle forming the earliest part of the monument may have marked the position of the sun on and around midwinter, when it shone through a gap in the nearby hill Cnoc and Tursa, sending a ray due north, in line with the central standing stone.
Later on, when the avenue and rows were added, the monument was reorientated to focus on a remarkable lunar phenomenon. Every 18.6 years, when it reaches its ‘major standstill’ position in its long cycle, rising and setting to its furthest points, the setting full moon appears to skim along the horizon to the south – distinctively shaped, forming the silhouette of a lying-down woman, known locally as “Cailleach na Mointeach” or “The Old Woman of the Moors” – before disappearing and reappearing, lighting up the centre of the circle. People would have processed southwards along the avenue to celebrate this awe-inspiring occurrence.
So, one of the mysteries of the monument is solved: around 2450 BC it was turned into a place where major ceremonies were held every 18.6 years to mark the most auspicious, cosmologically significant point in the moon’s long cycle.
The Calanais Landscape
To the builders of prehistoric monuments, the landscape and skyscape were key factors in their location. It wasn’t just the shape of the terrain that mattered, but also beliefs about the spirits that inhabited various places: the land was a living, powerful entity in its own right, which needed to be respected and which could confer some of its power on the people who built on it. And the movements of the planets and stars would also be a major consideration dictating where a monument was built.
At Calanais, we see all three come together to produce a monument that had maximum spiritual significance to the people who built and used it.
By positioning the monument on a prominent local ridge, on a peninsula jutting into Loch Ròg, this ensured that people could see the stones silhouetted against the sky from far and wide. And the dazzling 360-degree views from the high ground upon which the monument sits would have allowed extensive views over the landscape.
Why this ridge on this promontory? Cnoc Coig, the natural hill immediately to its south, could have been regarded as a sacred natural place since at midday, the midwinter sun’s rays travel down into a cave-like formation and emerge, shooting a ray due northwards. The tall central stone in the centre of the circle aligns with this. A person standing in the ‘cave’ at that time would receive whatever ‘solar power’ people believed that the sun’s rays could confer.
The landscape’s natural north-south orientation also lent itself to the observation of the spectacular passage of the setting full moon across the suggestively-shaped horizon every 18.6 years, during the moon’s ‘major standstill’. This enabled people to carry out night-time ceremonies of high drama as the moon disappeared then shone bright above Cnoc Coig, lighting up the centre of the circle, and silhouetting anyone standing on the top of Cnoc Coig as ‘the Man [or Woman] in the moon’ . The avenue would have funnelled a procession towards the circle at this time.
Calanais is not the only stone circle in the area. Within just a few kilometres there are at least 11 other stone circles and nine single standing stones. Some are intervisible with the main Calanais monument. We don’t know whether they were built at the same time, but they indicate that many people were keen to have sacred monuments of their own.
Climate Change at Calanais
We do know that there was very little activity at Calanais after around 1500 BC. Climate change brought colder, wetter conditions and by 900 BC blanket peart started to encroach on the Stones, eventually reaching a depth of nearly 2 metres. It wasn’t until 1857 that Sir James Matheson (then owner of the Isle of Lewis) gave instruction to remove the peat, revealing the lower parts of the stones and the chambered cairn that you can visit today.
The Protection of a Powerful Legacy
Interest in the Calanais Stones’ history continued to grow, and a significant Government-funded programme of excavation and survey by Patrick Ashmore between 1979 and 1988 revealed invaluable information about the sequence of activities and about the changing environment of the Stones. Artefacts including sherds of pottery and a set of fine arrowheads made from quartz and Skye mylonite were also found. The Stones are one of Historic Environment Scotland’s Properties In Care, preserved and looked after as a precious part of Scotland’s rich archaeological heritage for generations to come.
By the 1990s, the local community wanted to create a Visitor Centre to share the fascinating history, archaeology and folklore of the Stones with the world and to create a welcoming place for visitors to enjoy local food and local crafts. Urras nan Tursachan (the Calanais Standing Stones Trust) was established, and in 1995 the Calanais Visitor Centre was opened.
THE CALANAIS COMMUNITY – FOLKLORE AND FRIENDSHIP
You can discover how the Urras nan Tursachan works with the local community at Calanais here.
TALES FROM THE STONES
One traditional folk story imagines the stone rows as fir brèige or ‘false men’, humans turned to stone through sorcery or the power of the Gods. A different tale describes a king arriving at Calanais and proceeding to build the stones in a show of power and faith, whilst another describes how a magical white cow, wandering the stone circle, fed the people of Calanais during a time of famine.
Linking these stories and countless other Calanais Stones myths is the belief in an otherworld or supernatural force at work at the monument, and there is no denying the power and impact of the Stones, felt by visitors to this day.
Contributing in a major way to both the local and national economy as the most popular heritage attraction in the Outer Hebrides, the Calanais Stones attract over 120,000 visitors from around the world each year, as well as myriad online visitors. The Visitor Centre plays a key role in the local community. The centre is currently closed as plans are afoot to redevelop the Visitor Centre, to help develop sustainable heritage tourism in the Outer Hebrides.