A Hebridean walk with history of the stone circle at Callanish

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How is it that on the outer edge of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides you will find an architectural masterpiece known as the Callanish Stones.

They will fill you with wonder at the enterprise and daring of the Neolithic people who lived there about 5000 years ago and used only the simplest of tools, yet they created one of the greatest stone circles that you can see anywhere on earth.

Callanish (Calanais in Gaelic) on the southwest coast of the Isle of Lewis is something everyone should see before they die. I left it pretty late but better late than never.

In a previous article I wrote about a walk in the most northerly point of Lewis and in this one myself and my wife are at Callanish on the southwest coast of Lewis, less exposed to the elements but still in a treeless windswept environment.

Callanish lies close to the main A858 road along the west coast of Lewis. At the sign to the Callanish visitor centre turn right and take the left fork to the car park next to the new visitor centre.

Walk to the satellite stone circles, Callanish II and Callanish III by returning to the main road, turn right for a short distance and take a side road to Callanish II. It’s a lovely walk around the shoreline of Loch Roag. From this circle you enjoy a superb view to the main circle. Continue left on a path to the Callanish III circle, then follow the path back to the main road. Both circles are smaller than the main one but in any other location would be regarded as notable.

Once on the main road, look ahead of you to the right. There you will see rock faces of Lewisian Gneiss. From around here the megaliths would have been quarried. Walk back to the side road to the main monument. After 200 yards take the right fork up a steep slope which leads to Callanish village.

Just before the village is a gate on your left into the main Callanish site. Immediately you enter an avenue of standing stones that takes you to the main stone circle of Callanish. In its centre is a megalith, taller than the rest and at its base is a chambered tomb. Who was buried there: a famous chief perhaps?

The beautiful Callanish stones are of Lewisian gneiss; they are striated with narrow bands of different colours gently reflecting sunshine on a bright day.

When pondering how on earth a group of Neolithic communities built the Callanish Stone Circles we recall that at the time of their construction around 5000 years ago the climate was warmer than it became over succeeding millennia. The peat bogs had not yet formed after centuries of cold wet winters. Loch Roag did not exist; in its stead flowed a river. The whole landscape was drier and more fertile and there were surpluses of food to feed the men who quarried the megaliths and erected them in place. They created a “cathedral” to celebrate important events in the lives of the people.

The stone circle is marvellous and its setting overlooking Loch Roag is superb. There is so much to see and experience on this two mile walk.

The Callanish stones

Construction of the stones took place between 2900 and 2600 BC, though there were possibly buildings before 3000 BC. A tomb was later built into the site and debris from the destruction of the tomb suggests the site was not used between 2000BC and 1700 BC.

The 13 primary stones form a circle about 13 m in diameter, with a long approach avenue of stones to the north, and shorter stone rows to the east, south, and west. The layout recalls a distorted Celtic cross. The individual stones vary from around 1 m to 5 m in height.