2200 BC: People on an island off the coast of northern Scotland selected beautiful, monolithic stones filled with quartz and hornblende (a dark, crystalline mineral) and moved these massive, multi-ton stones for several miles across the land. They erected the Callanish circle on a hilltop with a view of Loch Roag and the mountains to the south. And they probably aligned these stones with lunar cycles.
2012 AD: I spent three days at that ancient stone circle, Callanish (or Calanais in Gaelic). Why did I fly to the remote Isle of Lewis on the outermost, windswept Hebrides with no other agenda than to look at a bunch of old rocks? That’s hard to explain to anyone who’s never been captivated by these mystic sites, built during prehistoric times in what’s now Britain, Ireland, and France.
My obsession with standing stones could be because the purpose of these stones is a riddle that will never be solved. Archaeologists, astronomers, and ethnologists can hypothesize, but we’ll never know the complete “truth.” Stone circles are at the intersection of myth and reality, so in an age when we seek scientific answers to every conundrum, their mysteries intrigue me.
Or maybe my love of stones has to do with their strength and durability. A 4,000-year old-circle embodies permanence. My own life span will come and go, but these stone structures will last forever—or at least a whole lot longer than me.
Beauty in Rock
Regardless of esoteric pondering, Callanish is simply beautiful. Its stones are delicate, interestingly shaped, crisscrossed with grain, and crusted with crystals and lichens. And it’s a joy to watch the light change on them.
Every evening after dinner—which I ate at the Calanais Visitor Centre because there are no other restaurants nearby—I wandered among the stones as the golden sunlight peeped out from behind the clouds and made the stones glow.
Early evening happens to be when the crowds who come on tour buses have gone, and a devotee like myself can spend some quiet time in the circle.
My first evening at Callanish, when I was massively jetlagged after that day’s journey from Colorado to Scotland, I had a half-hour to say “hello” to the stones with no one else there. In private, it’s wonderful to hug a stone, to run your hand over its textured lumps and crevices. Some people will do this in public, but it’s nicer to have some privacy. I’m shy about such things; I think the proud stones might likewise be a bit sheepish about public displays of affection.
The following two evenings, the weather was clearer, and the serious photographers with their tripods and long lenses appeared as the sun sank on the horizon. The photographers are a quiet lot, mentally calculating F-stops and ISO settings and deciding where and when the sun would turn the sky peach, then pink, then hopefully salmon and crimson. I was busy snapping shots too, although at sometime every evening I would sink into the grass with my back against a stone and bathe in the warm rays as day faded.
Nightfall comes again, as it has for four millennia in the memory of stones.
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor
Seeing the Stones
- There is no admission fee to the Callanish Stone Circle, and you can visit anytime, day or night.
- The Calais Visitor Centre is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. April through September. During winter months (October through March) the Visitor Centre is open Wednesday through Saturday). It contains a very nice coffee shop/restaurant, gift shop, and toilet facilities.
- Unlike at Stonehenge, visitors can walk through the circle and touch the stones. Although there are no signs forbidding it, I suggest that people not climb on the stones in order to protect this beautiful site—and to avoid having to rope it off as it became necessary to do at Stonehenge.
- I stayed at a nearby farmhouse B&B, the wonderful Leumadair Guest House. I could see the main Callanish circle from my bedroom window, and the circle was just a scenic, 15-minute walk away.