I had been wanting to visit the famous Callanish Standing Stones, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, for a long time. I finally got my chance last summer, during a road trip around Scotland. The stones were everything I had expected, but I was unprepared for the fact that there is not just one stone circle, but several, scattered around the island.

Callanish standing stones
Calanais – the largest stone circle on Lewis

The Stones of Calanais

The largest and most famous stone circle on Lewis is known as Callanish I (or Calanais in Gaelic). Built around 2900 BC it consists of a circle with a central monolith, so that the whole construction is like a cross. An avenue of stones leads towards the main circle.

Callanish stones
An avenue of stones leads away from the main circle

There is a burial chamber at the centre of the circle. However this was added later, and the purpose of the original site is unknown. It is likely that there was some ritual aspect, and there are theories about astronomical measurement. At one time people believed that it was a group of giants who had been turned to stone for refusing to convert to Christianity!

Callanish burial chamber
There is a burial chamber at the centre of the stone circle

Callanish at Sunrise

We were lucky to be staying in an AirBNB with a view of Calanais, spread out like a line of teeth on a nearby hilltop. Because we were so close we could walk up to the stones at the beginning and the end of each day. So we got to avoid most of the tourists (overcrowding isn’t a major problem here, but there is the occasional coach party).

Calanais at sunrise
Calanais at sunrise

But the main benefit was being at Callanish at sunrise. Being in such a remote location, with hardly a sign of human habitation, it would be easy to assign a mystical quality to the light creeping over the stones. One arm of the cross seemed to be pointing towards the sun, the shadows of the stones aligned with one another. However I accept that this might be coincidence…

Callanish standing stones
Pinnable image of Callanish I and Callanish VIII

Stone Circles and Standing Stones

The first inkling I got of the existence of the other stones was when the owner of our AirBNB said we would be able to see two stone circles from our front door, and that there was another within easy walking distance. In fact, the sequence goes up to Callanish XII. These sites are a mixture of stone circles, individual standing stones and other ancient structures.

Callanish II
Callanish II (look carefully and you’ll see Callanish I on the hilltop in the distance)

We walked up to Callanish II and Callanish III. These are both small circles, but Callanish III is the more complete, with eight stones on the outer circle (some of these are thought to represent an ancient Celtic goddess). From Callanish II we could see both I and III – presumably it was deliberate that they were all in the same sight line.

Looking for the Callanish Stones

Some of the sites were easier to find than others. But the search took us to places we might not have visited otherwise, like the tiny island of Bernera. And, because the sites tended to be built on hilltops, we were rewarded with some stunning views.

Steinacleit, Isle of Lewis
Steinacleit – is this an ancient site or not?

On our last day we came across the site of Steinacleit. This was discovered as a result of peat digging in the 1920s, and is not part of the Callanish sequence. It appears to be a stone circle with a cairn, surrounded by a much larger circle. However, no-one seems to be quite sure what it is, or even whether it is an ancient monument at all. Obviously the island is still holding on to some of its mysteries!

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