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    Scotland’s Stonehenge of the North

    6 min read

    By Neil Irvine, Content Editor
    More by Neil

    The Callanish Standing Stones

    Stonehenge is such a famous historical monument that most people are familiar with the stones and the connection with the summer solstice. The stone circle has been featured in countless TV shows, Hollywood movies and literature. Often, they centre on attempts to solve the mysteries of why it was built at all. As humans, we are always compelled to uncover the mysteries of our past.

    But did you know Scotland has its own tantalising version of Stonehenge? The Standing Stones of Callanish (or Calanais to give it it’s Gaelic spelling) have been nicknamed the ‘Stonehenge of the North’. However, built around 3000 BC, the stones actually predate Stonehenge by approximately 2,000 years. So maybe Stonehenge should be the Callanish of the South?

    You’ll find the Callanish Standing Stones near Loch Roag on the Isle of Lewis. They are laid out in a cross formation and are part of a number of ancient sites in the Callanish. Classed as Lewisian Gneiss – these are the oldest rocks in Britain and, in fact, some of the oldest rocks in the world. They were buried under the surface of the earth for hundreds of millions of years.

    Explore the Callanish Standing Stones in 360 Degrees

    This view gives you a close-up 360 of how it feels to be right in the centre of the stones during a midsummer sunset. As you scroll around, the detail allows you to see and almost feel the texture of the standing stones while the sea loch, Loch Ceann Hulabhaig flanks the small crofting peninsula. The main stone is estimated to weigh up to 7 tonnes and is 4.8m high.

    An Ancient Observatory?

    Standing Stones of Callanish

    No one truly knows why the stones were built, but many historians and scientists believe the most probable reason is that the stones are an ancient type of astronomical observatory or celestial calendar.

    Archaeological research over a number of generations has uncovered that the Standing Stones of Callanish appear to be aligned with movements of the solar system. The stones are positioned to align with the path of the sun and the moon at different points in the solar circle. A tall monolith stands at the heart of the circle, with smaller stones radiating out to the east, west, and south. An ‘avenue’ runs from the north, consisting of two rows of stones.

    It seems too much of an incredible coincidence that it wasn’t the intention of the ancient people of Scotland.

    The Summer Solstice

    Standing Stones of Callanish at Sunset

    The longest day of the year, or the summer solstice, occurs once a year around the 21st of June. People all over the UK celebrate the longest day at landmarks throughout Britain including, most famously, Stonehenge. Here in Scotland, the Callanish Standing Stones are the ideal place to enjoy the longest day, where you can watch the sun rise only a few short hours after setting.

    The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin word ‘solstitum,’ which translates to the ‘sun standing still.’ On the longest day, the sun stops moving northward, and it signals that each day will shorten in increments.

    Historically, pagans celebrated the summer solstice as they believed it was the day when the veil between our world and the next one was at its most fragile. Thus, the fairies’ magic was believed to be at its most powerful.

    Some Quirky Folklore

    Standing Stones of Callanish Colourful Skies

    Since the erection of the stone circle thousands of years ago, the human race has advanced at an accelerated rate. But there’s one thing that hasn’t really changed: our capacity for imagination.

    • One early story was that the standing stones were living Giants that once walked among the earth, but they were petrified by St Kieran, who thought them to be evil spirits when they refused to convert to Christianity.
    • In the 17th century, islanders on Lewis would refer to the stones in Gaelic as ‘fir bhreige,’ which translates to false men.
    • Another tale tells of a glowing entity, known as the ‘Shining One’, walking the northern avenue stones early midsummer morning, his arrival signalled by the call of a cuckoo.
    • Another legend states that the stones were once buried deep beneath the earth and were uncovered by a very determined and strong farmer who was out looking for rocks to build a wall.


    Visit the Callanish Standing Stones

    Marvelling at the stunning pictures of the Callanish Standing Stones is one thing, but actually visiting the ancient site and exploring the area for yourself is an incredible feeling that cannot be beaten by any other means. Another ancient building nearby is the massive Iron Age roundhouse known as Dun Carloway. Our guides know the area well and can take you on excellent hikes that combine coastal walks with visits to these incredible sites.

    Callanish Stones

    The atmospheric Standing Stones of Callanish on Lewis are older than Stonehenge. Photo Credit: VisitScotland

    We offer a number of incredible adventure holidays that include a visit to the Standing Stones of Callanish:

    Other Famous Standing Stones

    Believe it or not, the ancient Standing Stones of Callanish are not the only ones in Scotland. Take a look below to learn about a couple of other similar sites, which, happily enough, Wilderness Scotland also visits.

    Orkney – Ring of Brodgar

    The Ring of Brodgar was built around 2500 -2000 BC and so is even older than Callanish. It is the third-largest stone circle in Britain and is also thought to be an astronomical observation of the solstice. According to legend, it is said to be a religious shrine and a place of ancient ritual.

    Orkney and Shetland

    Kilmartin Glen – Three Sets of Standing Stones

    Kilmartin Glen is another amazing place to view impressive ancient standing stone monuments. This incredible area has three different sets of standing stones:

    1. The standing stones of Ballymeanoch is a complex of Neolithic (Stone Age) structures. These stones date back over 4,000 years and the tallest stone measures 4 meters in height. The stones are structured in a circle with two rows of 4 and 2 stones.
    2. Temple Wood is an ancient site that is made up of two circles – a northerly and a southerly one. The southern circle contains 13 stones, and it is believed that in the past there may have been 22 stones. It is thought that the south circle was built first around 3000 BC.  The northern circle is smaller and is made up of stones that are rounder than those in the southern circle.
    3. The Nether Largie Standing Stones can be found to the south-east of the Temple Wood Stone Circle. The site is made up of four tall standing stones with a single stone in the middle. It is believed that the Nether Largie Standing Sones acted together as a lunar observatory, but no one truly knows for sure. The site is made up of four tall standing stones with a single stone in the middle.

    Visit Kilmartin Glen on our Wilderness Walking trip – Argyll and the Isles

    Suggested Reading on the Outer Hebrides

    Meet the Author: Neil Irvine

    “Neil has enjoyed a stint in city life but that flirtation soon ended and he's returned to the Highlands of Scotland for the peace, tranquility and closeness to nature that he loves.”

    View profileMore by Neil

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