Standing stones have a strange, evocative power, perhaps because they offer a tangible, material connection to peoples like us, yet so different from us; peoples whose thoughts and actions we can appreciate, and yet which also leave us baffled; constructions that express the extraordinary lengths to which humans will go to find meaning in the cosmos, and yet meanings that we cannot comprehend. When non-believers visit Chartres Cathedral or the Blue Mosque or St Petersburg’s Grand Choral Synagogue or the Virupashka Temple we may not accept the faith, but can appreciate the reasons that led people to construct such glorious buildings. With standing stones, we can recognise the human endeavour and artistry, but the meaning or purpose seems far more elusive.
Calanais, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, is perhaps the most evocative of stone circles. It is often called Scotland’s Stonehenge. It lacks the grandeur of Stonehenge, but there is about it a far greater sense of wonder and magic.
There are in fact a dozen different standing stones sites around Lewis, but the main site, Calanais I, close to the village of Calanais, is unquestionably the most striking. It was constructed in the late Neolithic era, some 5000 years ago. At its heart is a stone circle of thirteen stones with a monolith near the middle. Radiating from the circle in the form of a cross are five rows of stones, two running almost parallel to each other to form a kind of avenue into the central circle.
Part of the reason that Calanais is so enchanting lies in the rock from which the stones have been hewed. All are of Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rock in Britain and, having been formed some 3 billion years ago, among the oldest on Earth, with a long and complex history. Gneiss was originally mostly igneous rock, created out of molten magma deep within the Earth. Over hundreds of millions of years, under intense heat and pressure, the rocks were crushed and melted and folded again and again. Through this process of metamorphism, new minerals were often introduced. The result is beautifully layered rock, with colours running from white to gray to green to pink to red, depending on the minerals that have been introduced in metamorphic process.
The standing stones hewn from this gneiss often look more like sculptures than rocks. There is something quite Barbara Hepworthish about many of the Calanais stones.
In part, too, the magic of Calanais is drawn from the landscape in which it was built. Unlike the plainness of the Salisbury plain on which Stonehenge stands, the landcape of Lewis is quite bewitching. A gnarled, fractured, bleak land, as layered as the gneiss itself, and one that possesses an ethereal, almost unreal, beauty that has to be felt as much as seen.
The reasons that Neolithic peoples constructed Calanais are today as obscured as the Lewis landscape in the mist. Many archaeologists view it as some form of primitive lunar observatory. ‘The most attractive explanation’, Patrick Ashmore, who excavated at Calanais in the early 1980s writes in his booklet Calanais: The Standing Stones, ‘is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth.’ It may be attractive, but it is an explanation that is as much myth as the local legend that these are ancient giants who once lived on the island and were turned into stone by St Kieran for refusing to convert to Christianity. There is something very Lewisian about that story.