The Ancient Callanish Standing Stones Of The Outer Hebrides

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I had been wanting to visit the famous Callanish Standing Stones, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, for a long time. But I was unprepared for what I found when I got there. To my surprise I discovered that there is not just one stone circle, but several, scattered around the island.

The Stones Of Calanais

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

Callanish standing stones
Calanais – the largest stone circle on Lewis

There is a burial chamber in the middle of the circle. However this was added later, and the exact purpose of the original site is unknown. It is likely that there was some religious purpose, and there are also 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! What we do know is that later ritual activities took place here, and that use of the site continued into the Bronze Age.

Callanish burial chamber
There is a chambered tomb at the centre of the Callanish Stone Circle

Stone Circles And Standing Stones

The first inkling I got of the existence of the other stones on the island was when the owner of our holiday cottage 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 numbered sequence of stones goes right up to Callanish XII. These sites are a mixture of smaller 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)

I walked up to Callanish II and Callanish III. These are both small circles, but Callanish III (also known as Cnoc Filibhir Bheag) 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 I could see both I and III. Presumably it was deliberate that they were all in the same sight line: local lore says that if you look at the stones and the hills they stand on from a distance they resemble the shape of a reclining woman, known as Cailleach na Mointeach (“old woman of the moors”).

Searching For The Callanish Stones

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

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

On our last day I 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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Callanish At Sunrise

I was lucky enough to be staying in a cottage which had a view of the Calanais stones, spread out like a line of teeth on a nearby hilltop. Because it was so close I could walk up to the stones at the beginning and the end of each day. So I got to avoid most of the tourists (at the time I visited overcrowding wasn’t really an issue here, but more recently concerns have been raised about visitor numbers – see below).

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

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…

Calanais at sunrise
Calanais at sunrise

Visiting The Calanais Standing Stones

  • Lewis is in the Western Isles, part of the Outer Hebrides. Ferries run to Stornoway, on the eastern side of the island, from Ullapool on the mainland.
  • Buses run from Stornoway to Callanish I; alternatively you can take your car on the ferry.
  • The Calanais Visitor Centre at Callanish I is currently closed for redevelopment but it is hoped it will reopen in 2025.
  • An increase in large cruise ships stopping in Stornoway means that the main stone circles on the island can get very crowded at certain times. Current visitor numbers are around 120,000 per year and are predicted to increase. Visiting at the beginning or end of the day and exploring the smaller sites are both advised as ways of avoiding the crowds.
  • Staying on the island for one or more nights will provide the opportunity to explore more of the sites, and to avoid potential crowds at Callanish I. Have a look at the accommodation options on booking.com.
Group of stones on the side of a hill leading down to the water.
The stones of Callanish VIII

More Stone Circles In Britain And Ireland

If you would like to explore some more of the stone circles of Britain and Ireland have a look at some of these posts:

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6 thoughts on “The Ancient Callanish Standing Stones Of The Outer Hebrides”

  1. We’re fascinated by these archaeological sites. Love the article and just enough explanation to get one’s curiosity going. And love the photos.

    1. Hi Carol, there are lots of these stone circles (and other neolithic sites) all around the British Isles, and on mainland Europe too. Hopefully you’ll be able to see some of them…

  2. The Callanish Standing Stones may be famous on your side of the pond, Karen, but I’ve not previously heard of them. thx for enlightening me. It looks like quite a magical place.

    1. Hi Doreen, Callanish is quite famous over here, but nowhere near as well known as Stonehenge! In fact I wasn’t really aware of it myself until a few years ago…

  3. We have to be honest and tell you we had never heard of the Callanish Standing Stones. These archaeological sites are so interesting to visit, as they start a flood of questions about their purpose. Now that you have piqued our interest, we will need to learn more about this site.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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