Learn About The
Calanais Standing Stones
A Heritage Across the Landscape
The Calanais Stones (sometimes referred to as ‘Calanais I’) are a remarkable and evocative Neolithic monument, but as visitors to the Outer Hebrides soon come to realise, it is not an isolated site, and there is far more to be discovered within the dramatic Calanais landscape. In addition to the fascinating range of prehistoric archaeology waiting to be uncovered, visitors continue to be drawn to the area’s folklore, mythology and profound sense of wonder.
Calanais I lies in a landscape rich in prehistoric archaeology. There are at least 11 stone circles and 9 individual standing stones within a few kilometres, some intervisible with Calanais I. Many of these could have been erected around the same time as the main circle at Calanais I – we just can’t tell, until these sites are scientifically dated. Historic Environment Scotland manages and preserves the Calanais I site as a Property In Care. Access to the Stones is free, all year round. You can find out more about the monument by checking out the HES website and reading their Statement of Significance.
A Spiritual Insight
The unique monument at Calanais I, along with the other stone circles and standing stones in the area, offers contemporary visitors an insight into the spiritual, social and physical lives of our distant ancestors. These monuments also show us how sophisticated, skilled and well connected were the Neolithic people who built the Calanais I circle around 2900 BC, and the Copper Age people who added the chambered cairn, the rows and the avenue around 500 years later. Visit Outer Hebrides has a range of easily accessible information relating to Calanais I and some of the other megalithic monuments in the area, and you can uncover the detailed archaeological facts on these sites in the Canmore website and in Patrick Ashmore’s excavation report.
EXPLORING THE CALANAIS SITES
CNOC CEANN A’GHÀRRAIDH (CALANAIS II)
This is, perhaps, the next most impressive of these other monuments in the Calanais area. Located closest to Calanais I, and not far from Cnoc Fillibhir Bheag (Calanais III), it comprises five standing stones and two fallen stones, forming an oval; a further, shorter stone lies pointing towards the centre. There may originally have been more stones in the ‘circle’. Its diameter of nearly 20 metres makes it almost twice as big as the circle at Calanais I (which is around 11–12m across). Inside the ‘circle’ is a low round cairn that was probably a later addition; it will have contained a burial chamber, but it has been badly damaged. When peat was first cleared away from this monument, shortly after 1857, people found traces of pebbles that had probably supported upright wooden posts inside the ‘circle’.
To find out more about this monument, click here. Access is free, all year round. To get to it from the Calanais Visitor Centre, head east onto the A858, turn off on the first minor road on the right, and then follow the signposted path.
A Pathway Between the Stones
Calanais II is situated on slightly raised level ground which drops to the sea on the south-western side. Upslope of it lies Calanais III, and Calanais I is clearly visible from both monuments, to the north-west. Whether people processed from one monument to another during the Neolithic, we simply don’t know. Nowadays they are linked by a road that passes close to all three monuments, with signposted paths taking you from the road, right up to the Stones. It takes just a few minutes to travel between the monuments.Calanais II is situated on slightly raised level ground which drops to the sea on the south-western side. Upslope of it lies Calanais III, and Calanais I is clearly visible from both monuments, to the north-west. Whether people processed from one monument to another during the Neolithic, we simply don’t know. Nowadays they are linked by a road that passes close to all three monuments, with signposted paths taking you from the road, right up to the Stones. It takes just a few minutes to travel between the monuments.
CNOC FILLIBHIR BHEAG (CALANAIS III)
Located on the summit of a low ridge upslope of Cnoc Ceann a’Ghàrraidh (Calanais II), and within sight of Calanais I, Cnoc Fillibhir Bheag appears to consist of two concentric, unevenly oval settings of stones, with eight upright and five fallen stones surviving in the outer setting, and four upright stones in the inner setting – there may originally have been more. The stones are propped up in their sockets by small boulders. When was this monument built? Was the inner setting built before or after the outer one? What ceremonies took place here? We just don’t know. For now, the site retains its secrets.
You can find out more about this monument here. Access is free, all year round. To get to it from the Calanais Visitor Centre, head east onto the A858, go around 300 metres past the turn-off to the first minor road on the right, and then follow the signposted path.
Come and Experience the Stones
When you’re ready to visit the Isle of Lewis and experience these ancient and intriguing monuments in person, don’t forget to call in at the Calanais Visitor Centre, to find out more in our Display area, have a delicious meal or snack in the café and browse in our shop. You can book your visit to the Calanais Visitor Centre’s Interpretative display here.
A Timeless Heritage
The bedrock of the Isle of Lewis is Lewisian gneiss, the complex crystalline rock from which the Calanais Standing Stones are formed. Ranging between 3.0 and 1.7 billion years old, this rock is the oldest in western Europe and among the oldest in the world. The beautifully banded standing stones, with their glittery hornblende inclusions, carry within them a geological history of massive tectonic shifts that shaped the world millions of years ago.
The Stones have also witnessed major changes in the environment over their millennia of existence. The landscape had been used by farmers for growing crops and grazing animals since around 3700 BC and was already largely cleared of trees when the Stones were erected. Subsequently, the Stones experienced the effects of climate change as conditions became cooler and wetter. By around 900 BC, blanket peat encroached on them, eventually growing to a depth of nearly two metres and enveloping the chambered cairn inside the Circle. While this peat growth made the Outer Hebrides less suitable for farming, the Stones have stood the test of time.
Evocative History at Your Fingertips
Perhaps this is the secret of the power and mystery of the stones, felt by so many visitors today. In a fast-paced world, these sites, and the Calanais Stones in particular, are evocative and unchanging markers of the past.
Calanais in Context
The archaeology of the Calanais Stones links the prehistoric inhabitants of this part of Lewis with their counterparts elsewhere in Britain and Ireland. The farmers who cultivated the land before any stones were erected have left their traces elsewhere in the Outer Hebrides, including at several crannogs (artificially built-up islets in lochs). We know these early farmers travelled to Ireland and to Orkney: they used axes made with axeheads of porcellanite from County Antrim, and some of their pots can be matched in Orkney. What’s more, the stone circles are part of a broader phenomenon, inspired by the Stones of Stenness in Orkney. Similar circles can be found in Kilmartin Glen and at Machrie Moor on Arran, in western Scotland. The inhabitants of Lewis could well have visited the people living at the world-famous Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae.
Beyond the Standing Stones
The spectacular natural landscape of Lewis offers a perfect backdrop for the prehistoric monuments. It allowed the builders of Calanais to mark special times – from the shortest day of the year at winter solstice to the setting full moon’s movement during its major standstill every 18.6 years – in a most dramatic and theatrical way, with processions and ceremonies.
People used the landscape in other ways, too. We know that farmers in the Outer Hebrides were cultivating crops (wheat and barley) and keeping domesticated animals (mostly cattle and sheep) from as early as around 3700 BC, long before the Calanais Stones were erected. They also built imposing monuments to house their dead, including passage tombs such as Barpa Langais on North Uist.
THE NEOLITHIC CRANNOGS OF LEWIS AND THE UISTS
In several lochs in Lewis and the Uists, early farmers artificially built up little natural islets using stone and wood, to create what are known as crannogs. They were linked to the shore by causeways. Most of these seem to be too small to have been occupied all year round, but clearly people were cooking and eating food on them, to judge from the many Neolithic potsherds and other objects found on the beds of the lochs. Perhaps some were used to entertain visitors from Orkney, at feasts. These sites were in use before the Calanais I stone circle was erected, at a time when people were living and farming at Calanais.
The Neolithic crannogs of the Outer Hebrides are the subject of a current research project, Islands of Stone, led by Fraser Sturt (Southampton University), Duncan Garrow (University of Reading) and Angela Gannon (Historic Environment Scotland). You can follow the progress of this fascinating project here.
AN INTERCONNECTED NEOLITHIC WORLD
What is certain is that the people who built the stone circle at Calanais I around 2900 BC were well connected with the outside world. They had been inspired to build the circle after seeing the magnificent Stones of Stenness in Orkney, a five to six-day sea journey away in a Neolithic boat. Our research work at Urras nan Tursachan (The Calanais Stones Trust) seeks to enrich this narrative of the Outer Hebrides’ fascinating prehistoric past, and to discover more about the ancient sites, still rich with wonder today.
AN EVER-DEVELOPING PICTURE
Our research work at the Calanais Visitor Centre seeks to develop a deeper understanding of the narrative of these ancient sites, still rich with wonder today. If you’d like to support our Calanais 2025 project , you can discover how we are investing in the future whilst uncovering the secrets of the past here.
An Expert View
ARCHAEOLOGICAL HERITAGE MEETS NATURAL HISTORY
For a deep dive into the archaeology of the Calanais area, try out Canmore, Scotland’s national online Sites and Monuments record; the Outer Hebrides Historic Environment Record; Melanie Johnson’s report on Edinburgh University excavations at Calanais Fields, and the Megalithic Portal site. You can also browse the books on sale in the Calanais Visitor Centre shop.
When visiting the archaeological sites in the area, you can’t fail to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and wildlife. NatureScot is an excellent place to start if you want to discover more about Scotland’s natural history.
Join the Calanais Stonechat
Leading experts have also contributed to our growing Stonechat resource, which includes our Calanais Conversations mini-podcasts and provides regular updates and information on our events, projects, discoveries and progress. From learning about Professor Duncan Garrow’s recent work excavating a Neolithic crannog (humanly-enhanced small island) in Loch Bhorgastail to updates on our Year of Coasts and Waters project, this is the ideal resource to return to time and time again. And if you want to stay up to date with our plans to redevelop the Calanais Visitor Centre, check out our Calanais2025 project.
Explore the stones in person
Pre-booking essential for groups.