The wild and windy Western Isles off the northwest shore of Scotland – also known as the Outer Hebrides – boast some of the country’s most alluring scenery, from windswept golden sands to harsh, heather-backed mountains and peat bogs. An elemental beauty pervades each one of the more than two hundred islands that make up the archipelago, only a handful of which are actually inhabited. The Hebridean islands were first settled by Neolithic farming peoples in around 4,500 BC. They lived along the coast, where they are remembered by scores of incidental remains, from passage graves through to stone circles – most famously at Callanish on Lewis. The standing stones at Callanish rival even those at Stonehenge in their inscrutability and the majesty of their setting. The dozens of stones and the chambered cairn in their midst were quarried locally and raised into their present position some 4,000 years ago, but for what purpose is likely to remain forever an enigma. The stones, which are planted roughly in the shape of a Celtic cross, seem to align with other circles and standing stones in the area, but it is possible to read almost any meaning into them. Theories abound as to their purpose and it has been suggested that the stone circle may have been a king’s mausoleum, an observatory – or even a UFO beacon.
Five miles south of Dun Charlabhaigh lies the village of Calanais, site of the island of Lewis’s most dramatic prehistoric ruins, the Callanish Standing Stones, whose monoliths – nearly fifty of them – occupy a serene loch-side setting. There has been years of heated debate about the origin and function of the stones – slabs of gnarled and finely grained gneiss up to fifteen feet in height – although almost everyone agrees that they were lugged here by Neolithic peoples between 3,000 and 1,500 BC. It is also obvious that the planning and construction of the site – as well as several other lesser circles nearby – were spread over many generations. Such an endeavour could, it’s been argued, only be prompted by the desire to predict the seasonal cycle upon which these early farmers were entirely dependent, and indeed, many of the stones are aligned with the position of the sun and the stars. This rational explanation, based on clear evidence that this part of Lewis was once a fertile farming area, dismisses as coincidence the ground plan of the site, which resembles a colossal Celtic cross, and explains away the central burial chamber as a later addition of no special significance. These two features have fuelled all sorts of theories, ranging from an alien intervention to human sacrifice.
Needless to say, this has also fuelled the imagination of writers and artists over the centuries, for whom the stones of Callanish have been an endless source of inspiration. Local tradition says that giants who lived on the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were turned into stone as a punishment. Another local belief says that at sunrise on midsummer morning, the “shining one” walked along the stone avenue, “his arrival heralded by the cuckoo’s call.” This legend could be a folk memory recalling the astronomical significance of the stones. In 1974, the sculptor Gerald Laing created a steel imitation of the real stones (popularly referred to as “Steelhenge”) in the centre of Glasgow, which featured as a setting in the novel Lookout Cartridge by American author Joseph McElroy. There has even been a song by Jon Mark, The Standing Stones of Callanish, intended to evoke Britain’s Celtic legacy and a Disney film, Brave, which features several scenes set in and around the stones. My personal favourite Callanish-inspired piece of work is William Horwood’s elusive, hauntingly beautiful 1985 novel, Callanish. It is the story of two lost souls – Creggan, a golden eagle held captive in London Zoo until his escape to freedom in northern Scotland and Mr Wolski, a sweeper who also has his own journey to make, as he struggles to put behind him his POW days. Full of strong mystical and religious undertones, Callanish is at its heart just a very human story of love, faith and inner strength overcoming adversity. Rather like the standing stones at Callanish themselves, it is a novel that you are unlikely either to forget or fail to be touched by.