The Calanais Standing Stones

Our next destination was somewhere I was particularly keen to visit – the The Calanais Standing Stones. They stand on the outskirts of the small village of Calanais (Callanish in English) on the western side of the island so to reach them we had to drive through the increasingly heavy rain along the A858 which traverses the boggy interior of Lewis.

The monument is in the form of a cruciform with a central stone circle. All the stones are Lewisian Gneiss. It was erected about 5,000 years ago, during the late Neolithic era and pre-dates Stonehenge. This area was clearly of major importance during pre-historic times as there are a number of other circles nearby – 11 other circles and 9 individual standing stones have been discovered within a few kilometres of the main site.

The Stones are managed by Historic Environment Scotland and there is a Visitor Centre operated by Urras Nan Tursachan (The Standing Stones Trust).

The central circle comprises thirteen stones with a central standing stone. The cross is formed by five rows which connect to the circle – two of these running parallel to each other creating an avenue.

Plan showing the arrangement of the stones – By Henry Jamesderivative work: Pasicles (talk) – Rude Stone Monuments in All Countries: Their Age and Uses, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35571041

Today we think of Lewis and the other Scottish Islands as isolated backwaters, but in Neolithic to probably right through to the Medieval period times this was far from the case. Travel overland was difficult but communication by sea was much easier. The islands of the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland were at the heart of the sea lanes and trading routes. The presence of numerous prehistoric monuments like the Calanais stones and ancient structures such as the the many brochs on the islands is evidence that an advanced society developed on the islands during the Neolithic period. But why they built monument such as those in the vicinity of Calanais remains a mystery.

The original plan for the afternoon was to set out on a walk on the coast from Calanais, but with the weather having a turn for the worse we settled in the Visitor Centre and warmed ourselves with a brew!

Rejoining the minibus we drove a few miles further up the coast to take a look at another ancient structure, the Iron Age broch of Dun Carloway. Although a ruin, it’s an impressive structure which stands on raised ground overlooking the nearby countryside and the sea. Unfortunatly, it is undergoing restoration and much of it was shrouded in scaffolding, but it was still an impressive sight.

This impressive example of Iron Age architecture may have been designed to make a bold statement of status, wealth or power. It was also easily defended, sitting high on a rocky outcrop, with wide views for miles around. 

The broch tower is in an excellent state of repair. It’s the best-preserved Iron Age building in Lewis, and at 9m tall, one of only a handful of broch towers surviving to near its original height. 

The collapsed area of wall reveals  a perfect cross-section of the broch. Its main features include: 

– a double-skinned wall with two tiers of internal galleries
– a ground-level low entrance passage into the broch
– a small cell, possibly a guard-room, off the passage
– a stairway that originally led to the upper floor(s)
– a stone ledge, or scarcement, on the inside face of the wall which probably supported the upper floor

Historic Environment Scotland website

Looking down from the monument, close to the modern buildings, we could see the remains of a “Blackhouse“. The walls apparently intact and still at their original height, but with the thatched roof well gone

We returned to the minibus and set off back to Stornoway, taking the ‘Pentland Road’, over the peat moors, which follows the route of a proposed railway from Carloway and Breasclete on the west coast to Stornoway. The railway ran into legal and economic problems and was never built. Driving across the moors we passed evidence of former shielings and old and new peat banks, but there were no settlements until we neared Stornoway. The general feeling of the group was that it would be very unfortunate if the mini bus had broken down on this desolate wilderness! Fortunaely, we made it back in one piece!

12 thoughts on “The Calanais Standing Stones

  1. The stones are beautiful, their shape is different. I learnt a lot of things by reading this post. Thank you for sharing a bit of this island history.

    • They were certainly large enough! I can’t compare with the Dartmoor stones for, alas, that’s somewhere I’ve never ben although I feel I know it through reading your posts

  2. Isn’t it nice to get up close and personal with ancient history? It’s what is best about being out of the tourist way, so much that you can’t get near anymore, close but not too close. Glad you made the trip!

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