Monday 8 November 2021

Callanish II

Callanish is world-famous. Less so than Stonehenge perhaps, but its isolation in the Western Isles has protected it from the tourist horde. You can wander around the stones at Callanish in an intimate fashion that is just no longer possible at roped-off Stonehenge.

But of the relatively few folk who make it to Callanish, how many know that it is just one of many stone circles in the area? There are eighteen in total, transforming the whole of East Loch Roag into a monumental sacred landscape. 

At Callanish II:

What was its purpose? These giant exclamation marks on the landscape demand an explanation. Folklore across Britain tells of men who were dancing on the Sabbath and turned into stones by the devil, of giants who refused to build churches and were turned into stones by saints. Later historians associated stone circles with druids, the priestly caste active around the time of Christ. None of these explanations gets anywhere close to the real origin story.

Callanish I from Callanish III:

But in On the Ocean, Greek explorer Pytheas gives some clues. He left Marsailles around 325BC to explore the Atlantic and Baltic coasts, leaving their first written descriptions. At 58 degrees north in the island of the Hyperboreans, he came across a temple where the locals worshipped Apollo, who danced every nineteen years with their goddess. The only place this fits is Callanish, from where the 'lunar standstill' can be seen, a regular 19-year phenomena where the moon barely rises then flirts with a distant range of hills called Caillich na Mointeach, the 'Old Woman of the Moors'.

Two stones of Callanish III, the hills known as the Cailleach, and a sheep's arse:

Was that then the original purpose of Callanish? Here's some perspective: we may think Pytheas lived a long time ago, but he was kicking about nearer our own time than when the stones were erected around 3,000BC. Who knows what may have changed in the over 2,500 years before he visited?

Sunset at Callanish II:

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