From our recent trip to Glastonbury we go back .. back … (imagine harp music and rolling mist) … back …to our journey to the Hebrides last year. I’ve promised Mr Stoatie to finish off recording the trip and I reckon there will be just a couple more posts after this. If I leave it any longer we’ll be celebrating the first anniversary!
The wonderful image above I borrowed from here. Our photos were taken mid morning and aren’t quite so atmospheric! Calanais sits on a ridge of land which means that not only is it visible from all around but you get fantastic uninterrupted views to most of the horizon from the monument too.
There were several phases of development. In 3500BC the land was under cultivation by early farmers, then between 2900BC and 2600BC the central ring of thirteen gneiss stones was erected around the huge central monolith (4.8m high!). About 2600BC a small burial chamber was placed in the centre, it’s possible the stone rows were added in this period too. Around 2000BC a cairn was raised over the chamber and cremated bones and pottery buried in it. From 1500BC – 1000BC this chamber was emptied and the land was ploughed once again. From 800BC peat began to form – by 1857, when it was removed, it had reached 1.5m up the stones.
The site was excavated by archaeologists in 1980-81, and one fallen stone re-erected. At the southern end of the monument there is a rock outcrop from which you can get a good view of the entire monument, which resembles a Celtic cross with the four avenues of stones meeting at the edge of the central ring. These avenues are aligned with the four cardinal directions.
To illustrate I’ve borrowed an aerial photo from this article by Philip Graham of the RCAHMS, which was published for the Day of Archaeology project. (Pop over to his page, it has an interesting drawing of the stones made in 1866 which shows exactly how far up the stones the peat went, you can tell by the staining!)
There are various theories why Calanais was built, the site certainly has many astronomical alignments which would have been the centre of ceremonies and/or celebrations. The southern line of stones, and the large monolith are on a bearing of 180.1 degrees, true north-south. This means the pole star is framed by the avenue to the north and the avenue to the south marked the point the sun and moon reach their highest in the sky. The eastern and western avenues point to the sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes.
To the south you can see a range of hills on Harris, which are known as ‘the old woman of the moors’ – they form the outline of a woman lying on her back. Every 18.6 years when the moon reaches it’s southernmost point it is seen to both rise and set behind these hills.
The stones have been tentatively identified by Aubrey Burl as the Temple of the Hyperboreans, which was mentioned by the Greek philosopher Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BC. He remarked that the God Apollo was said to visit the Hyperboreans – a race living on a faraway northern island, about the size of Sicily – once very nineteen years. He also mentioned that the moon was said to skim very close to the earth there too.
It takes 19 years (or 6939 days) for the Moon to return to the same spot in the sky at same phase, this is very significant for us Druids of course, as nineteen years is said to be the length of time the ancient druids spent in training. This Metonic Cycle is the basis of many ancient calendars.
Looking southwards up the avenue.
There were pointy bits on several of these stones (and on stones at the smaller circles) Were they pointing something out perhaps? Or maybe you could lash something like a flag or stick to them? Who knows!
Flowers and feathers at the central stone.
The central circle.
I thought Mr Stoatie did a marvellous job with the photos, it almost looks as if we were alone. Actually the stones were very busy! The visitor centre is a short walk away and we had to wait a little to get a parking spot. There were also several coach parties which came as a shock, as we’d been used to far fewer people on the other Islands and certainly no buses!
The picture below shows what is was like really. It did take an edge off the experience having so many other folk around (this was taken after one bus had left) but how wonderful for everyone, including someone with a disability walker, to be able to get up close and personal with these amazing stones.