Everything you need to know to visit the Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis
Also known as the Calanais Standing Stones, the Callanish Stones are found in the Outer Hebrides group of islands belonging to historic Scotland. Standing stones are common on the Scottish isles and especially on the Isle of Lewis. Most visitors make for the photogenic Callanish Standing stone circle and its associated visitor centre near the village of Callanish on the west coast of Lewis.
In this article, you’ll learn not just about the best ways, times, and places to visit the site, but also the myths, astronomy, and history of this eerie and beautiful ancient place.
What are the Standing Stones of Callanish?
Just outside the town of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides is a curious archaeological site. It’s perfectly placed, perhaps even strangely so. Overlooking the waters of Loch Roag (Broag) and juxtaposed against the ridge known as Old Woman of the Moors (Cailleach na Mointich in Scottish Gaelic) the stones are just ten minutes’ drive from the 1st Century broch of Dun Carloway in an area of the Scottish Highlands filled with Stone Age history.
It’s an arrangement of standing stones, stretching out in the shape of a cross with a central circle of thirteen stones and a larger single stone(the central monolith) at the cross’s focal point. The remains of a chambered cairn were also uncovered near the monument’s center by archaeologists in the 19th Century, but the chambered tomb is thought to have been built well after initial construction.
The Standing Stones of Callanish have always been surrounded by an air of mystery, but experts have been able to make a few key deductions about this prehistoric site. The stones (Lewisian gneiss) were sourced from the island by Neolithic people and erected at some time between 2900 and 2600 BC in the late Neolithic period and used for ritual purposes before falling out of use around a thousand years later.
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The archaeological evidence conforms with what locals remember. In 1695 Scottish writer Martin Martin was told that it was “a place appointed for worship in the time of heathenism and that the chief druid or priest stood near the big stone in the center, from whence he addressed himself to the people that surrounded him.”
But apart from this general information, precious little is known about the site. There are however a number of myths associated with the standing stones and some very interesting observations about how they connect to the sky that stretches above them.
Callanish Stones Myths
For a long time, the islanders of Lewis called the Standings of Callanish “false men”, a term that refers to a number of different stories about their origin. Writing in 1680, Lewis local John Morisone said that the stones were once living men but were transformed by an enchanter and then set into a ring for the purposes of devotion.
Another story tells that the stones were once giants who refused to convert to Christianity and build a church for St Keiran. At various special times, the stones are said to regain the power of movement and their original form and walk around the place where they were cursed.
Another legend that shows deep roots in the area’s Celtic polytheism tells of how on the morning of the Summer solstice, an entity known as the Shining One appears to walk the length of the stone cross, his coming heralded by the sound of the cuckoo, a sacred bird of the Celtic otherworld.
In older times, islanders would assemble at the stones on that day, and the ancient spring festival of May Day, possibly a lingering remnant of old pre-Christian beliefs.
With such a rich tapestry of folklore associated with the stones, it’s no wonder that they’ve inspired artists for years. New Romantic band Ultravox placed the stones on the cover of their 1984 album Lament, and they’ve also featured as a setting in the Pixar animated film Brave. The stones also served as a model for the magical Craigh na Dun stone circle in Outlander, and the means by which the main character travels back through time.
Callanish Stones Astronomy
While the Standing Stones of Callanish has been shrouded in mystery for millennia, one group of scientists feel they have come up with a convincing theory for why they were constructed. Working off the efforts of early 20th Century academic Alexander Thom, a group of researchers concluded that the Standing Stones were a kind of prehistoric observatory.
Archaeologist Gail Higginbottom told the BBC that “We discovered… that the Sun and the Moon were placed in very specific patterns in this landscape. These patterns were repeated across all these monuments.” Higginbottom thinks that the Standing Stones’ construction was carefully chosen to show the most extreme rising and setting points of both the Moon and the Sun, pointing to a sophisticated society in which the binary patterns of the universe were highly important.
In fact, if you visit at just the right time (every 18.61 years!) you will see the moon rising above a symbolic point in the Old Woman of the Moors (said to represent a sleeping woman) before passing perfectly between the stones some hours later.
Tour guide Margaret R. Curtis saw this awe-inspiring display way back in 1987. This is how she described the experience:
“For three minutes…the moon was captured in an artificial frame of megaliths, and the cold grey pillars of stone were bathed in a golden glow… Like a lighthouse beam, the moonlight stretched down along the avenue towards us and caught us in its light. Next, a tiny human figure appeared, fitting inside the honey-colored moon, then gradually grew, shattering one’s sense of scale, until twice the size of the moon. Then the moon vanished and left the person majestic and alone inside the darkened circle”.
Not all archaeologists agree with Higginbottom’s findings. They balk at the often mystical and even spiritual implications of her explanation, citing far more mundane explanations of power, prestige, and the symbolism of death as reasons for the erection of the Standing Stones. However, their explanations usually acknowledge that there must have been some astronomical input into the building of the stones because otherwise, the coincidences are just too great.
How to Get to the Standing Stones
The Outer Hebrides is probably the most remote part of Britain but getting to the Standing Stones of Callanish these days is easy. Flights operate from major UK cities to the airport at Stornoway, the biggest settlement on the Isle of Lewis.
Alternatively, you can catch the ferry from a number of different coastal towns along the mainland of Scotland to Stornoway or Tarbert. The Caledonian Macbrayne Ferry levels for Lewis from Stornoway and Ullapool. Fares start at £19.50 for a return trip.
Once on the island, drive along the A859 until you reach the turnoff for Callanish village. The turnoff should be around 25 minutes’ drive from Stornoway or 50 minutes from Tarbert. Once you’ve gotten into the village it’s a good idea to take a quick pit stop at the charming little visitor’s centre and café and perhaps have a chat with the locals about the mystical origins of the stone.
From the carpark, it’s just a short walk into the heart of the circle, which can be seen peering over the crown of the hill. And it is here where you can finally sit down upon the green grass and contemplate to your heart’s content.
Best Time to Visit
The Outer Hebrides can be a place of extreme weather. The best time to visit places like Callanish is in the spring and summer, ideally between late April and the end of June. Being so far north, it’s around this time that the days get longer to the point that by mid-June, the sky is never completely dark. Nature returns to colorful life from the dead of winter, and high-pressure systems tend to bring clear blue skies and dry air to the region.
Later into summer, things get a little more crowded as holidaymakers from across the British Isles flock to the area for its most temperate time of year. Cultural activities and festivals like highland games are held at this time of year, showcasing the region’s living culture, and would be perfect to attend after a walk through Gaelic Scotland’s prehistoric standing stones.
Local photographer Emma Rennie feels that the early morning is the best time to visit Callanish. She told the BBC that “It’s beyond mindblowing… There’s silence, which the world is so short of nowadays, and millions of stars. I feel small and insignificant, and I love it.”
For those of us who aren’t keen on rising so early (or staying up so late) a more sensible (yet still early) hour of the morning offers you the serenity of walking through the stones alone. But come too early and you’ll find the visitor’s centre (and its café) closed. The opening hours of the visitor’s centre are subject to the season so make sure you check the website if you’re intent on getting a snack or buying a souvenir during your visit.
Links and Further Information
- There are so many things to do in Scotland. See all of the best things to do in Scotland, from Get Your Guide here
- If you’re like me and you love the history, culture, and beauty of Europe, plan your next trip to Europe and browse all European destinations, or check out all of the best United Kingdom trip inspiration with tripanthropologist.com
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