Stone Circles: Calanais

Scotland, and in fact the whole of the British Isles, is liberally scattered with ancient stone monuments. These take on many different shapes and alignments, but one of the most common is the circle. The circle is a universal symbol with many meanings including wholeness, totality, the Self, eternity and the cycle of time and seasons.  Often seen as protective symbols and containing symbols, they have no begining or end, and have frequently been used to symbolise the sun. Dating back 5,000 years, these old stone circles whisper to us of long forgotten ancestors, who lived and laughed on this same small patch of the earth as we now find ourselves. They were in no way any less intelligent than us, and they were certainly just as adaptable and creative. We can never fully know the way in which they viewed this world of ours, but we do know that they revered the natural world of which they were part. Living closer to the elements than most of us now, and being fully dependant on the bounty of the world around them for survival, I imagine that they were far less disconnected from their animal nature. They knew the frailties and vulnerability of life and survival, and yet chose to spend valuable energy and resources constructing these vast stone circles.  

 This particular stone circle is called Calanais, or Callanish, and sits on the North West wing of the Isle of Lewis, which itself sits as far North and West as you can go in the British Isles. Part of a string of islands now called the Outer Hebrides, its shores are washed by wild Atlantic waves which have travelled here from warm sun drenched Carribbean shores. Now wild and remote, this Isle was once at the heart of a great sea kingdom, and before Vikings and Gaels ever walked it’s paths it was famous as far south and east as modern day Syria. The Phonecians, the ancient Greeks and the Cartheginians all told tales of the land beyond the north wind, were the gods were born. They said that among round stone temples the gods still walked the earth when the moon and stars aligned. Perhaps these tales give us some clues about what our ancient ancestors were thinking as they built these monuments. This one on a seemingly remote Scottish Island is thought to predate Stonehenge by atleast 500 years, and it’s setting and atmosphere is far more impressive. 

 The Calanais stone circle is built from Lewisian Gneisses, which at 3 billion years old is the oldest rock in the British Isles, and one of the oldest found anywhere on earth today. Two thirds of the age of the earth itself, and glittering prettily with Quartz and Feldspar in bands of pink, white and grey, it seems like the perfect choice for a sacred circle.  How could they have known?  On the day I took these images the sun glinted and glittered off the stones, casting strange and dramatic lights and shadows, while it peeped in and out between the windswept clouds. In among the circle of stones the air was still and the wind among the outer stones threw strange whispers inwards to the centre. The sense was of stepping into another space beyond the hills and heather clad moors, and the sea lochs and sand of Lewis, and of tumbling inwards towards myself.

 The modern Gaelic name of Calanais was originally Callernish and even earlier Classerniss, and it stands as one of the most complete stone circles in Europe. The tales and myths which swirl around the circle take on many shapes, and in the 17th century local islanders knew the stones as fir bhreige, or false men, and it is said that the stones were men enchanted by a sorcerer. They do indeed seem to cluster together as though they were people sharing secrets, and each one has its own face and character. Other tales from around the Isles speak of standing stones as pot stands for the cauldrons of the mountain Giants, the Feinian, who ruled here before men, while others say the stones themselves are petrified giants who refused conversion to Christianity. The ancient Greeks called the isle Hyperborea,  and claimed that it was the birthplace of Apollos mother Leto. The more local Celtic deity Mac nOg, (an Apollo of the north), was the son of Bu-vinda the White Cow, and a local tale speaks of a Gaelic speaking white cow emerging from the sea during a time of famine. She gave a bucket of milk to anyone who visited her at the stone circle. Local legend states that at the summer solstice The Shining One still descends and walks along the stone avenue at dawn to the song of a cuckoo, blessing all who witness this.

 The circle itself is made from 13 stones, clustered around one central pillar which stands nearly 5 meters high. Radiating out from the circle are the four arms of a cross, with the northern arm consisting of a double row or avenue of stones about 80 meters long. The southern line of stones have the bearing of true north, pointing to the northern area of the night sky around which all the stars revolve, and to the area of the southern sky where the sun and moon reach their highest point each day. One of just over 20 megalithic sites on Lewis, this circle seems to be intimately connected with the ancient earth goddess locally called The Sleeping Beauty, or the Cailleach of the Moors. From the circle every 18.6 years the moon can be seen to roll closely along the contours of the hills of Sleeping Beauty. So much mystery and so much beauty all gathered into one stone circle by our ancestors 5,000 years ago, it would be a shame not to visit if you get the chance. Rest if you can in the very centre of the circle and find your own still and central space, from which to go forth outwards into the world once more.

About greenmackenzie

Hi, I'm Seonaid, and I share my home on the shores of Loch Ness deep in the Scottish Highlands with my husband, my son and a couple of dogs. I love art which is here now and gone food and nature...but also have a passion for vintage and the ancient past! Nature is my favourite muse, with her wild ever shifting seasons. I have been using and teaching mindfulness and relaxation for over 12 years, and have yet to become any sort of expert :-) I'm a Psychotherapist and Cancer Support Specialist in Maggies Highlands
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45 Responses to Stone Circles: Calanais

  1. Lynne Ayers says:

    Beautiful images. An impressive site, and sight. 🙂

  2. Liana says:

    Love seeing them . . . reading the stories in your utterly Divinely authorized style

  3. Beautiful photo’s… I came via Brenda’s Link..

  4. pommepal says:

    I love the different light and angles you have caught as you move around Seonaid. The atmosphere changes from dark and foreboding in the first back lit ones to light and happy in the last photo. What a magical place and what a history it has. I’m sure that not being fenced off and being able to walk among these towering monuments you will feel the magic

  5. restlessjo says:

    I love the way you connect to the past through your surroundings, Seonaid. I can almost hear these guys talking to each other. 🙂 I noted Sue’s comment about the weather and can’t help but feel it would be pretty bleak up there on a day like today, but there’s certainly a magic to them. You draw me into their spell 🙂

  6. No wonder, books have been written about people slipping from the present into the past while among these stones! Utterly magical…who couldn’t marvel at the purpose of these stone rings? And the construction alone without modern transportation and rigging machines…

    • It is amazing to consider the sheer human effort involved, and I can only assume they were a relatively rich society to afford to spend human resources in this way….but I’m so glad they did!

  7. LB says:

    Oh I do love visiting here, Seonaid. So much to learn and to ponder.
    Thank you for the lesson and or course, the wonderful images to match

  8. ladyfi says:

    Wow – fabulous shots! So much history there…

  9. Sharon says:

    Calming, wondrous and mystical, as always. Your words took me right back to last summer in the British Isles. Stone Circle visits were the highlights of the trip. But even if I’d not visited your lovely country, seen its beauty, felt the magic, your posts would take me right there. Thank you.

    What a gorgeous place this is……..I’d love to see it one day.

    By the way, serendipity stopped in and said hello the other day. She said to tell you hi. Stop over to The Hour Of Soft Light to see what I mean……….


    • Thanks so much Sharon, its always lovely to hear how much some one enjoyed tumbling into an image or a story. The stone circles of Britain do have a certain magic, and last summer I visited some stone monuments on a tiny island in the Mediterranean…there was the same timeless feel…hard to explain but wonderful for sitting and contemplating in!
      Oh and I do love it when serendipity visits!!

  10. icelandpenny says:

    Thank you for this, I have long been fascinated by standing stones, have grateful memories of time with them in Orkney & Guernsey, so glad to see your record of these as well.

    • Penny, lucky you, Orkney is definitely on my list of places to get to soon….despite being just off the north coast it’s quite a journey over there apparently!

      • icelandpenny says:

        And I dream of those outer islands — once looked into island-hopping from Iceland to the Faroes & on & on until I finally dropped down onto ‘mainland’ Scotland. Then I saw the cost of that kind of one-off custom travel, & realized it would stay a fantasy.. But wouldn’t that have been extraordinary?

      • It would indeed, and I would have loved to have joined you…what an adventure! There is something about all those islands washed by the wild atlantic…so much space for thinking and dreaming!

      • icelandpenny says:

        Yes, it is entirely different looking out over the Atlantic than over the Pacific …

  11. Lucid Gypsy says:

    These images make my skin go funny, they pop out as if they’re three dimensional, amazing!

    • That’s a great compliment Gilly, the light was very special and the stones themselves seem to shimmer and shift….must be all that sparkly Quartz….never the same twice when you look at them✨😊✨

  12. Thank you for these marvelous, magical pictures. Stonehenge cast its spell on me in 1971. It was like stepping into another dimension.

    • I think that’s what I love about these old sites…that feeling of slipping between the threads of time into somewhere eternal and enchanting. I did enjoy Stonehenge although found its scale a little disappointing, and not being able to walk between the stones now also reduces the atmosphere somewhat. I was more enchanted by the Avebury circle😊✨

  13. Sue says:

    Beautiful images, Seonaid! I saw Callanish in miserable weather in the late 1990s – most disappointing 😦

  14. Rachael Charmley says:

    I so enjoyed your words and pictures Seonaid. Thank you. I am utterly drawn to this neck of the woods just now… xx

    • Thanks Rachael, the western isles do have a strange compelling power, which is hard to resist. I hope you make it up soon, or at least continue to enjoy stories and images of the area😊✨

  15. dairiel says:

    Dear Seonaid you had such good light. Thank you for sharing the photos and the words. So nice to see it again through your eyes. Will share this again…

    • We were so lucky with the light, and we visited several times at different times of the day as we were staying very close to the stones. I had hoped to get some night shots with stars, but alas each night the clouds closed over the sky😞 Oh well it’s a great excuse to head back again✨💕✨

  16. The Calanais circle is very impressive and your post certainly makes me want to go (we have vague plans for island hopping this year). It reminds me of climbing the hill behind Dunvegan to get a close-up of the ancient standing stone that commands the view over the village … only to realise it was erected in 2000 to mark the millennium 😦

    • Well Calanais will certainly not disappoint, and if you can try and visit either early in the day or in the evening when there are less visitors. I love island hopping, and hope to do some more myself this year too. Enjoy it when you get there😊

  17. gwynnrogers says:

    I so love the history of your beautiful land. I’m also a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s (sp?) books so I envision walking between the stones and falling back in time. The stones appear to be having a meeting. I wonder if at night they take on another shape so they can slip off to explore under the cover of darkness. Beware of the night creatures! You have such a lovely land and your pictures bring out the creativity of the world. Thank you for the history lesson and sharing the beauty of Scotland.

    • There is a strange feeling of stepping into somewhere different when you walk in among old stone circles like this Gwynn….I’m certain that Diana was inspired to write her stories by visiting places like this. I do love the weaving together of layers of history, and of course a few mythic tales and goddesses only add to my interest!! It’s always a pleasure to have you come visit and comment Xx

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