Anyone who can get to the Isle of Lewis can visit the standing stones of Callanish, and move around freely – quite different from the untouchable Stonehenge circle at the other end of the UK, which attracts about 20 visitors for every one at Callanish. The main site has a sheep-proof fence, gate, and a visitor centre with official opening hours, but people come and go as they please.
The circle is at the top of a slope: a prominent feature of the local landscape. Three rows of standing stones and a stone-lined avenue make a cross with the ring. A single, taller stone stands in the middle. It’s easy to imagine it as a setting for ritual, though no-one can be sure of the intentions of its builders 5000 years ago. There are other smaller circles and standing stones in the area.
Like other ancient stone circles, Callanish seems to have been constructed with an awareness of astronomical cycles. The site offers a special view of the “major lunar standstill” every 18-19 years. A full moon, low in the northern sky, skims an undulating mountain ridge on the skyline about 20 miles south. This ridge is sometimes called “The Old Woman of the Moors” because its shape suggests a woman lying down.*
The moon and the feminine outline of the hills are particularly important to visitors who are interested in an earth goddess and “sacred landscape”. They are the people most likely to gather within the stone circle at night-time. (I wish their empty wine bottles, drums, and food leftovers hadn’t been there for my morning visit.)
Other visitors come for other reasons: from an enthusiasm for prehistoric sites to a booking on a coach tour of the island. In the short Hebridean summer Callanish seems busy for much of the day. As far as I know, the caretakers, Historic Scotland, are not concerned about controlling access, or about wear and tear to the historic stone circle.
People living nearby in Calanais** township have a new involvement with the ancient circle since land next to the site was transferred to the community by the previous owners, university archaeologists. A trust representing local interests opened a visitor centre there in 2007. The restaurant was so popular that it has already been extended.
Visits have always been limited by the remote location in the Western Isles, but are increasing. Estimates in the last few years say 40,000 people come annually, while the visitor centre manager reports that this has increased by nearly 40% recently.
He suggests that big reductions on prices for the 50-mile ferry trip from mainland Scotland to Lewis are contributing to a rise in tourism – and of course there is the new centre too. This must be good for jobs and prosperity in the area, but how will it work out for the stones?
* Some people call the hills the Sleeping Beauty after a writer suggested that name around 1980, instead of the traditional “Old Woman of the Moorland” or Cailleach na Mòinteach in Gaelic.
** Calanais is the original Gaelic name of the settlement, and the stones are the tursachan Chalanais.
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