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Issue 78 - As Old As Time

Scotland Magazine Issue 78
December 2014


This article is 3 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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As Old As Time

A temple of the past in the Outer Hebrides

Standing tall against the relentless salt winds of the Atlantic Ocean on the exposed eastern coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis are in the region of 50 standing stones of different heights. In their midst is a small, chambered cairn.

The stone circle and the north avenue are believed to have been built before 2,000 BC, while the three single lines and the tomb were most probably added around 1,500 BC.

Yet nobody knows how or why they came to be there or what they were for, although there is no absence of debate on the subject. As with Stonehenge, 700 miles to the South in England, or The Ring of Brodgar 230 miles away on Orkney, the mystery of their being lingers on.

Archeologists have revealed that a small settlement existed at Callanish until 800 BC, but thereafter heavy peat deposits smothered the stones. What became of the inhabitants is lost and it was only after a depth of almost 6ft was cleared on the site around 1857, that the stones re-emerged in their full glory and speculation began.

Was this some great out-of-doors temple created for sacraficial pagan worship? Or more simply, a giant chronometre or sun dial marking out the phases of the lunar cycle? Images of long ago druid rituals flood the imagination.

One story has us believe that back in the mists of time there were three giant islanders who refused to abandon the Old Religion and the Christian missionary St. Kieran, in the best Greek Medusa tradition, turned them into stone. But that unfortunately doesn't account for the remainder.

There is also an apocryphal association with a range of mountains 30 miles to the south where Lewis meets Harris and which is known locally as the Sleeping Maiden or Sleeping Lady. Viewed from a distance, these undulating, treeless hills form the silhouette of a horizontal woman, her hair flowing over her shoulders and into the landscape. On the summer solstice between 22 and 23 June, it is said that the moon rises at her feet and travels along her body to her breasts, where it catapults into the heavens.


Callanish Visitor Centre

Callanish, Isle of Lewis HS2 9DY. Open Monday to Saturday.
Tel: +44 (0) 1851 621422