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.