Some of the oldest rocks to be found on the surface of the earth are in Scotland, and in this strange, age-old landscape on the west coast of the island of Lewis is the remarkable site of Callanish, regarded by some a second in importance only to Stonehenge. This is a complex site and, probably due to its remoteness, not a great deal is known about it. The principal feature is a circle of tall stone slabs. Leading from this in a northerly direction is an avenue of two rows of stones, while to the east, south and west run shorter single rows, thus making the whole layout a basic cross shape. The circle is formed by thirteen stones and has a radius of 21 feet (6.5 metres), with a single stone 15 feet (4.6 metres) tall stading near the centre. Also inside the circle are the remains of a chambered round cairn of Neolithic type, but archaeologists are undecided whether this was built before or after the stone circle and stone rows, which have all been dated to the Bronze Age. The northern avenue has nineteen stones still standing and is 275 fee (8.3 metres) long and 27 feet (8 metres) wide; the other three rows have four, four and six (in the southern row) stones. In 1857 the site was excavated, but only a fragment of human bone was found, so it is probable that the grave was emptied at ancient times.

As with Stonehenge, recent research has been directed to accurately surveying the layout of the site and the alignments that some of the stones make with points on the horizon at which the sun, moon and some major stars are seen to rise or set at certain times in the year. For example, Professor Alexander Thom, who has surveyed hundreds of circles throughout the British Isles, finds that looking south along the line of stone avenue gives the point at which the midsummer full moon sets behind Mount Clisham, 16 miles (26 Kilometres) distant. And the other stone rows also indicate significant points on the horizon.

Local tradition explains the presence of these stones by saying that when the giants of old who then lived on the island refused to be christened or to build a church, St Kieran, who led the Christian mission to the island, turned them to stone. Another story tells how in a time of famine a white cow appeared from the sea and directed the women to take their milk pails to the old stone circle, where she provided everyone with one pailful of milk each night. A witch tried to get two pailsful but without success, so she returned next time with a sieve which she milked the cow dry. After that it was never again seen at the Callanish stones. Another local belief of this Gaelic-speaking community was that when the sun rose on midsummer morn the ‘shinning one’ walked along the stone avenue, his arrival heralded by the Cuckoo’s call. Could this be a much-distorted memory of the astronomical significance of the Callanish stones?

From A Guide to Ancient Sites in Britain by Janet and Colin Bord