Uncovering Callanish’s Secrets: An Archaeological Tour

Seeing, touching and photographing the astonishing Callanish stone circle on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis is only part of the delight of visiting. Because I’m more than a little obsessed with these prehistoric treasures, I wanted to learn what archaeologists think about this particular circle when I visited. So I did a little research and dug up a wonderful guide, Margaret Curtis, who has observed and excavated sites around Callanish for almost 40 years.

Archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis gives tours of the Callanish standing stones. Here she’s explaining the Triple Goddess stones inside the Callanish III circle. © Laurel Kallenbach

I first read about archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis on artist Jane Tomlinson’s blog post,  and knew that I had to meet Margaret. The Visitor’s Centre has her contact info, and so I phoned her before I left the States to request a tour. Just like that, I had an appointment with a local expert!

As it turned out, Donald and Nita Macleod, the owners of Leumadair B&B where I stayed, are good friends and supporters of Margaret’s research. So, Donald drove me and Margaret on not one, but two, tours of Callanish—which encompasses far more than just the large circle I’d journeyed to see. Many megalithic sites—including other circles, stone rows, burial cairns, and single standing stones—dot the countryside and farmland. Collectively, these 20-plus sites are called the Callanish Complex.

Monoliths, Moons, Mountains, and Myths

Should you be so lucky as to hire Margaret Curtis to be your guide, you’ll be wowed by her  knowledge and her enduring passion for sharing the secrets of the Callanish Complex.

Here’s Margaret Curtis with the Callanish I endstone. This stone marks the end of the avenue of standing stones that leads up to the central circle. © Laurel Kallenbach

Over the decades, Margaret’s  life’s work has included logging untold hours examining the stones; finding ones covered by thousands of years of peat; and unearthing hidden, but important, sites.

Yet earthworks and rocks are just part of the story. Like the Callanish builders four to five millennia ago, Margaret is also a student of the sky. Although she never formally trained as an archaeologist or astronomer, she has chronicled how ancient people carefully planned the Callanish sites to mark a number of astronomical events, including a lunar rise and set that occurs only every 18.5 years. Now that takes decades of observation on both the part of the builders and the archaeological sleuths! (Over the years, Margaret has done her extraordinary work with her first husband, Gerald Ponting, and with her late husband, surveyor Ron Curtis.)

The standing stones on this Scottish isle align with the sun and moon, yet there’s a third element at work here that makes the Callanish Complex extremely brilliant and, well, complex. On the horizon to the south are mountains, dominated by Mt. Clisham. If you use some imagination, you can see the head, breasts, belly, and knees of a reclining form. In English, she’s called Sleeping Beauty, but in the old Gaelic she’s “Cailleach na Mointeach,” the Old Woman of the Moors. I like that name much better.

Behind the Callanish Visitor Centre is the reclining figure of the Old Woman of the Moors. The blue mound just to the left of the highest peak is her face. You can just make out the nose in the center of her “face.” © Laurel Kallenbach

The Man (or Woman) in the Moon

Cailleach na Mointeach, who also represents the Earth Mother or Earth Goddess, is the key to why all the Callanish standing-stone sites were built, archaeo-astronomers believe. The circles are all located in areas where viewers could see the once-every-18.5-year lunar event: when the full moon, at its rare southern extreme, rises from the sleeping body of the Old Woman of the Moors.

This celestial event was important enough that prehistoric people erected stones that would frame this special moonrise and moonset. As she wrote in Callanish: Stones, Moon, and Sacred Landscape (coauthored with Ron Curtis), Margaret says: “Seen from the Callanish area, the moon at its south extreme rises from some part of the Sleeping Beauty, passes low at due south, sets into the Clisham Hills, then reappears briefly and dramatically in the deep valley of Glen Langadale.”

Callanish III stone circle, where the two center stones frame the face of the Old Woman of the Moors. This is where the moon rises every 18.5 years. © Laurel Kallenbach

And there’s more: when the full moon reappears in the valley, a living person can stand inside the ring of stones and be silhouetted by the moon—a vision that’s as heart-stopping today as it must have been in 2200 BC. (You can see some photos of this at The Geo Group website. The last event occurred in 2006.)

Walking with the Wise Woman of Callanish

Now in her early 70s, Margaret is truly the Wise Old Woman of Callanish. She says she’s personally most interested in the area from a scientific point of view, but she acknowledges that her work also draws from local history, folklore, and ethnology. She’s given tours to modern pagans and goddess worshippers, and she admits that their insights into earth-based rituals inform her work. After all, there are no written records about Callanish, so oral tradition in the form of legends can contain kernels of truth.

The white mineral deposits on the bottom half of this stone form what looks like the Horned God (Callanish I). His large  torso is slightly leaning to the right, and you can make out what look like antlers on his rather small head. © Laurel Kallenbach

At the start of my tour, Margaret took me to her workshop, where she demonstrated how the Callanish stone circles were designed to be ellipses—not just poorly made circle—and how the stones were erected. She even let me hold a 4,000-year-old arrowhead—a tiny remnant of the prehistoric people who lived on this island. Mind-boggling!

Later, we ambled through Callanish I, the main stone ellipsis, which Margaret calls both “a stone-age computer” (because it marks solar and lunar events) and a “community center” (because it was a gathering place for singing, dancing, and burying the dead).

In a way, Callanish is still a community center—of World Heritage Site calibre. Over the days, I heard visitors from several continents speaking various languages, and I watched children have foot-races down the stone-lined avenue, the ancient entryway to the main circle. I saw photographers and artists capturing images of the stones on paper or in digital format. Couples paused to kiss. Baaing sheep gazed over the fence at the stones. Dogs lifted their legs to pee on the stones. Ravens alighted on the monoliths. Many people sat amid the stones and meditated or wrote in their journals. Occasionally someone would sing.

“People tuck flowers or special, meaningful items into the stone gaps and graves here,” said Margaret. She pointed out that someone had climbed up and left a carved bone atop the tall End Stone of the Avenue—the very top that had been broken off since Victorian times and that Margaret found amid a pile of rocks. The top has now been cemented on, thanks to her!

A peephole formed from two stones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If you look through the rectangular peephole formed by two separate stones, you may be able to see sunrise at Summer Solstice. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Along the way, Margaret related the individual history of many other stones, which she knows like the back of her hand. She pointed out a stone in which the hornblende crystals naturally form a shape that looks strikingly like the pagan Horned (or Antlered) God. The gneiss stones were surely chosen because of their shape, size, and the presence of quartz (a crystal associated with the sun) or hornblende (a mineral associated with the moon).

She also showed me the notches in two separate stones in the Callanish I circle. At Summer Solstice, these two notches form a square “viewfinder” through which you can see the midsummer sunrise. In addition, an east-west line of stones lets you sight through two stones to witness both the Spring and Fall Equinox.

Stones That Mark Celestial Events

There are really too many highlights from Margaret Curtis’ tours for me to relate, but here are a couple of other Callanish sites on the Isle of Lewis that are well worth visiting:

The standing stones at the Barraglom Narrows are just part of about 20 prehistoric sites that comprise the Callanish Complex. © Laurel Kallenbach

1. Barraglom Narrows  stones (Callanish VIII): These standing stones are picturesquely positioned on a cliff overlooking the narrows that separate the Isle of Lewis from the Isle of Bernera. By sighting the east horizon from the third large stone here, you can spot two standing stones on a distant ridge. On Beltaine (May Day) you can see the sun rise between the two standing stones.

2. Callanish III stone circle: Sitting in what’s now a cow pasture (watch out for cow pies!), this small, elliptical circle surrounds four stones, which Margaret believes represent the Triple Goddess (one each for the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone) and her male consort (represented by a tall penis-shaped stone). If you stand at a sighting stone a few hundred yards outside the Callanish III circle, you will see the full moon rise at its rare southern extreme (every 18.5 years) from the body of the Wise Woman of the Moors—and that event is exactly framed between two stones. Four hours later, if you move to a second sighting stone that’s at a different angle to the circle, you see the moon reappear from behind the mountain in the valley of Glen Langadale. This too, is perfectly framed by two stones in the circle.

I loved visiting Callanish, especially at about 7:30 p.m., when this photo was taken. I’m wearing rain pants to cut the sharp wind and so that I could sit in the grass by the stone of my choice without getting damp. It’s not all paradise. Shortly after taking this picture, I had to put on my wool cap and gloves for warmth. And the midges start biting at sunset. Still, there’s no place I’d rather be.

Well, if anyone is still reading this too-long post, you’re probably as much of a standing stones geek as I am. Here’s to looking at the moon…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and wannabe archaeo-astronomer

To arrange a tour with Margaret Curtis, contact the Calanais Visitor Centre, which will share her phone number. If you’re staying at Leumadair Guest House, which is located just a short walk to the Callanish I site, Donald or Nita Macleod can put you in touch with this local expert.

 Next blog post: An eco-friendly farm B&B with a view of Callanish

For more info, click on Visit Scotland or Visit Isle of Lewis

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Scottish & Sustainable: A Farm B&B Near the Callanish Stones

Note: As of 2019, Leumadair is closed because the owners retired.

What could be better than spending three days at the mystical Callanish Stone Circle on Scotland’s picturesque Isle of Lewis? Staying three nights at the nearby Leumadair Guest House, a charming farm B&B where I could see the famous Callanish stones from my bedroom window.

Leumadair Guest House in Callanish, Scotland, is a small farm that takes in visitors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I couldn’t have chosen a better spot for my visit: the price is reasonable; rooms are homey and nicely furnished; breakfast is outstanding. And this B&B is eco-friendly to boot.

Leumadair is ideal for travelers visiting the Callanish standing stones and other nearby attractions, such as the Doune Carloway Broch Iron-Age tower  and the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village.

I chose not to rent a car, which made Leumadair all the more perfect: it was just a short walk to the main stone site, and not much farther to a couple of the smaller prehistoric circles in the area.

Modern Comforts in an Ancient Landscape

After spending days out in the brisk Scottish air (no rain while I was there), coming back to Leumadair was a slice of heaven. One of the advantages of staying in a farmhouse B&B is that you sleep so peacefully: nights are quiet and dark—so if you have a clear sky you can stargaze or moongaze without light pollution.

Leumadair B&B is located very near the Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Also, owners Donald and Nita Macleod took very good care of me—something you appreciate when you’re traveling singly. There was always plenty of conversation with Donald or the other guests.

And Donald knows so much about this region and is an excellent source of historical and cultural knowledge. He helped facilitate my private tours of the standing stones with local archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis, who has studied the stone’s alignment for decades.

My comfy room at Leumadair was spotless, and it had a convenient, very modern ensuite bathroom—and two bunk beds that I didn’t use, but which would have been handy for a family. (The regular single/double rooms were already booked.)

Waking up after a good night’s sleep means something good’s going to happen: an incredibly delicious breakfast awaits. Leumadair’s features fresh eggs (from the chickens that wander about the property—they’re very free-range!) cooked the way you like them, and bacon and sausage from Donald and Nita’s own hogs. The sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes add pleasant flavor, and if you’re up for an adventure, try the Stornoway black pudding. In general, I’m not a huge fan of black pudding (aka blood sausage), but this was blended with herbs and onions and was quite tasty.

I couldn’t say no to the toast either—not with an array of Nita’s homemade jams and marmalade calling to me. I topped it off with Fair Trade teas or coffee. Breakfast was a feast that fueled me for hours of wandering the moors to see stone circles.

Walking through History

Walking from Leumadair B&B to Callanish, I passed a number of photogenic old houses, some in ruins. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another huge asset for staying at Leumadair—besides its comforts and friendly hosts—was that I could visit the stones during the early morning or late afternoon—after the tour bus mobs have gone home. These times also happen to be when the sunlight is prettiest on the stone circle.

From Leumadair Guest House, the walk to the main Callanish Stones Circle takes 15 to 20 minutes on scenic roads. One morning as I was ambling up the hill to the stones, I encountered local crofters shearing their blackface sheep, using hand shears. I stayed for a bit to watch this snippet of Lewis culture.
 The farmers bantered and made jokes, although the sheep looked none too keen on being trussed and shorn.

Sheep shearing on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Leumadair’s Sustainable Efforts:

  • Recycles
  • Composts kitchen waste (and feeds leftover to the pigs, chickens, and dogs)
  • Uses energy-saving CFL lighting
  • Grows and raises some of its own food
  • Additional food is locally sourced
  • Serves Fair Trade tea and coffee
  • Bedroom furniture is crafted from reclaimed wood
  • Is equipped with low-flow toilets and showerheads
  • Uses eco-friendly cleaning products

And just as important as these efforts, the Macleods are good stewards of the land. They raise “heirloom” farm breeds: Highland cattle and Gloucester Old Spot Pigs. Donald grew up on this island, and he loves its landscape, history, and prehistory. He cares deeply about bringing visitors here to support the economy of the island, while also doing so sustainably.

Even if you’re not staying at Leumadair B&B, you might be interested to know that it runs a Sunday coffee shop/restaurant, called Pol’s Place (named after Donald’s Harris hawk). It’s open only on Sundays, when the Callanish Visitor Centre and many other island businesses are closed.

Logistics for Reaching Leumadair B&B: Whether you fly to the Isle of Lewis or ride the ferry (with or without car), you arrive in the island’s primary town: Stornoway. I flew from Glasgow International Airport, which takes less than an hour to reach this remote island. After a quick taxi ride from the little Stornoway airport to the Stornoway bus station, I hopped on the public bus. Thirty minutes later, this bus dropped me off at the Leumadair Guest House driveway. Couldn’t be simpler! (They also make a stop at the Callanish Visitor Centre. )

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information on traveling in Scotland, click on Visit Scotland or Visit Isle of Lewis.

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Wisconsin Fish Boil: Local Food with Local Flair

Door County's eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays in winter.

Door County's eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays in winter.

A local culinary tradition that stems from Door County’s Scandinavian settlers, a fish boil is a concoction of history and culture on a plate. Caught by local fishermen, the Lake Michigan whitefish is cooked outside over an open fire—and half the fun is watching it happen.

My friends and I attended the Friday night fish boil at the White Gull Inn in the town of Fish Creek. When we arrived, the whole red potatoes had already been boiling for a couple of hours over the fire right outside. However, soon they announced that it was time for the fish to go onto the fire, so I bundled up and braved the cold outside to watch. (Even though the flames are warm, the mercury on the thermometer hovered at 11 degrees the night of my fish boil dinner.)

Tom Christianson, the Masterboiler for White Gull Inn for 13 years, lowered a pot filled with chunks of whole fish into the boiling, salted water. Over the 10 minutes that the fish cooks, the fish oil rises to the top of the water. That’s the Masterboiler’s cue to splash kerosene on the fire, which causes the flames to soar (very dramatic on a dark, wintry night!). The super-hot flames make the pot of fish boil over so that the fish oil spills out, and the result is a less fishy taste for the remaining fish.

Curious note: Masterboiler Tom looks like Santa wearing civvies. Could he be moonlighting in Door County? He claims to live in Green Bay, Wisconsin—but can we be sure it’s not the North Pole?

Tom Christiansen throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots.

Tom Christianson throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots.

Chow Time

After Tom and helpers took dinner off the fire, it was time to go through the buffet line and fill my plate with fish, red potatoes, wintry cole slaw (super fresh, with tangy onion and crunchy cabbage) and lemon. Teapots with melted butter awaited at the table.

When I sat down, I looked in wonder at my fish dinner—the perfect locavore meal. (I was also drinking an Island Wheat beer, which is light in flavor and in its environmental footprint, as it’s made from wheat grown on Door County’s Washington Island.)

The White Gull Inn staff serves up the just-cooked potatoes and fish.

The White Gull Inn staff serves the just-cooked potatoes and fish.

Then I had to come to grips with one of my childhood phobias: fish bones. Nervously I eyed my plate, but just before I panicked, a very nice lady came to our group’s table and offered to de-bone the fish! I breathed a sigh of relief as she deftly peeled out the big bones. (In truth, a few tiny ones remained, so I did have to pick my way around those—but at least I was able to enjoy the flaky, sweet meat.)

To top off the meal: gooey and sweet/tart Door County cherry pie. Mmmm…

Eco-Kudos for White Gull Inn

Though I didn’t stay there, the White Gull Inn looks to be a quaint and comfy B&B, and it’s also earned high scores from Travel Green Wisconsin. Some of its environmentally conscious measures include:

  • Serves local and organic food products
  • Use of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Recycling program
  • Dining room provides water on request only

Voice your opinion: What’s been your favorite local food tradition?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer

Oregon’s Sustainable Wine Country: Day 2

And so, my quest continues through Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley for fabulous wines that are good for the environment. The area we visited, including the Chehalem Valley and Dundee Hills, is less than an hour’s drive south of Portland—provided you don’t hit bad traffic (avoid rush hour).

Biodynamic vineyards at Brick House winemakers

Biodynamic vineyards at Brick House winemakers

Vines Harmonized to Nature: Brick House Vineyards

When Ken and I drive up to the farmhouse and tasting room of Brick House Vineyards, dogs Guy Noir and True Blue bound up to greet us, followed soon thereafter by Doug Tunnell, owner and winemaker, who shows us around his pristine land before leading us to the barn/tasting room. (Tastings can only be done by making a reservation in advance.)

There, we sip Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while Tunnell explains eco-friendly grape farming. Brick House Vineyards is certified biodynamic, meaning it does not use any harsh systemic fungicides, herbicides, insecticides or pesticides—which pollute the earth and bodies of water. Biodynamic growers follow organic principals and focus on nourishing vines and soil through use of manure, crop rotation, natural pest control, and lunar planting (done according to the moon’s phases).

Brick House Vineyard’s wine-aging barrels

Brick House Vineyard’s wine-aging barrels

Surrounded by the fruit and hazelnut orchards above the Chehalem Valley (several miles from the town of Newberg), Brick House is truly a New World winery dedicated to Old World ways of growing grapes.

“Biodynamic farming is connected to old wisdoms that a lot of farmers have gotten away from,” says Tunnell. “Grapevines are attuned to natural forces, including the changes in the moon. Biodynamics optimizes this,” he explains.

And the results are in the glass: Brick House wines are absolutely exquisite on the palette. The Cuvee du Tonnelier Pinot Noir is pricey ($39 per bottle), but its rich berry flavor with very mild tannins is so divine.

Brick House wines are distributed in a few states throughout the country (including Portland, Seattle, New York, Chicago, San Francisco) and the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are available for shipping right to your home. What better souvenir?

Culinary Center for the Willamette Valley

Up next: lunch at the Dundee Bistro in the town of Dundee,  followed by a wine tasting at the adjacent Ponzi Wine Bar. The bistro is owned by the Ponzi family, one of the first families to plant Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, and it blends culinary sophistication with a casual, modern atmosphere.

Dundee Bistro’s chefs cook with organic products and support local farmers committed to sustainable agricultural practices—and fortunately there are quite a lot of them in Oregon.

The Ponzi Tasting Room and Wine Bar sells a variety of Oregon wines.

The Ponzi Tasting Room and Wine Bar sells a variety of Oregon wines.

The restaurant’s goal is to “define” Willamette Valley cuisine, and it presents a lovely menu of locally produced wines, vegetables, nuts, fruits, mushrooms, fish and meats. We especially loved the Coq au Vin and the fresh organic salad.

After lunch, Ken and I wandered into the Ponzi Wine Bar to taste Ponzi wines, which are certified by LIVE, the Oregon program for Low-Input Viticulture and Enology. This internationally recognized program limits use of chemical pesticides and promotes planting of species appropriate to local conditions, biodiversity, and reliance on beneficial insects and plants.

The Ponzi Family supports the Oregon wine community, especially the sustainable movement, so its wine bar also sells rare wines from the region’s best producers.

During our tasting, there were many Ponzi wines we loved, but Ken and I thrilled to a dessert wine, the Ponzi Vino Gelato, made from white Riesling and Muscat grapes frozen until mid-winter. They’re then pressed and fermented to retain their sweetness. Yum!

Silo Suites: Abbey Road Farm

Ever slept in a grain silo? At Abbey Road Farm you can enjoy posh resort-style rooms, and yes, they’re housed in retrofitted silos.

Old silos have been converted into chic guest rooms at Abbey Road Farm.

Old silos have been converted into chic guest rooms at Abbey Road Farm.

When John and Judi Stuart bought this working farm near the town of Carlton, Oregon, they decided to raise chickens, goats and llamas on the 82 acres. Instead of sending the old silos to the dump, they took the eco-friendly initiative and converted them into luxury guest rooms with glorious views of the fields, gardens and orchards.

Local artisans salvaged fallen timber from the farm to create beautiful staircases, and energy-saving in-floor heating keeps visitors toasty on chilly days.

Guests can make Abbey Road their home base for exploring wine country, and if they desire, they can get an up-close experience with the farm by picking raspberries or collecting fresh eggs for breakfast.

Abbey Road Farm was booked the days Ken and I were in the area, so we have yet to experience sunrise from a silo, but the consolation prize during our stop-in visit was to sample the farm’s fresh, homemade goat cheese. It’s made daily, and guests can slather it on toast for breakfast. The Stuarts blend it with wonderful herbs: I personally found the lemon-zest variety out of this world!

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Click here for more information on what’s happening in Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country.

Wine Taster’s Poll: Have you ever tasted an organic wine? What did you think? And what motivated you to choose organic over conventional?

Abbey Road Farm’s birdhouses attract red-wing blackbirds and orioles.

Abbey Road Farm’s birdhouses attract red-wing blackbirds and orioles.