Callanais Walks 5th September 2015
What is commonly referred to as The Callanais Standing Stones are a late-neolithic era stone circle and avenue, situated on a low hill above East Loch Roag in the west of the outer Hebridean island of Lewis. However, there are several other, presumed related, stone circles in the locale which is thought to have been an important site of religious activity over a period of 1500 years. In a response to the area I created a 4.25 mile route in four steps between five of the sets of stones. I walked from the smallest, a set of standing stones, to the largest, a complex arrangement of stones in circles and avenues:
Step 1: Callanais VI (Cùl a’ Chleit) to Callanais IV (Ceann Hulavig)
Step 2: Callanais IV (Ceann Hulavig) to Callanais III (Cnoc Filibhir Bheag)
Step 3: Callanais III (Cnoc Filibhir Bheag) to Callanais II (Cnoc Ceann a’ Ghàraidh)
Step 4: Callanais II (Cnoc Ceann a’ Ghàraidh) to Callanais I (Tursachan Chalanais)
I recorded the walks (with a pair of DPA 4060 microphones and a SD702T recorder), recorded the walk as a drawn trace and made a 12-page concertina fold book containing a copper plate etching.
The walk is across a contemporary landscape starting on moorland, it transitions in and out of seashore through sheep pasture and grassland. The land holds a framework of fences, bridges and roads, one small community and a scatter of used and unused buildings. In thinking about the people who raised these stones and the area as it was then, none of the current landscape is relevant and I can imagine much of it away – though modernity’s sonic presence – a motorbike, a strimmer – is a little harder to remove.
My walk starts at Callanais VI. Naming can be problematic – always a process of claiming the land, we have no knowledge of the topographical names used when the stone circles were extant so I have chosen to avoid current names, in either Gaelic or English, wherever I can, preferring to describe what would be experienced by a walker on the ground.
I stand on a low, 40-metre-high hill that forms the high point of the north bank of a small river that is draining moorland lochs into the sea loch that I can see a mile and a half away to the north west. The stones have fallen so there is no longer anything above the ground though there are the nearby remains of a croft and marks on the land of an associated ridge and furrow cultivation system. These came after the stones.
I walk away from the top of the bluff and pick a way down a steep slope into a boggy basin alongside the river. I use one of the trout fisherman’s bridges to cross – the river is not large but is wide and deep enough to rule out jumping as an option. I continue across unmarked moorland stepping through variously deep heather as the land begins to rise towards the second site. I climb a roadside fence and cross the road to a short, marked path on up the hill to the first stone circle. A ring of stones, each taller than me, set on the shoulder of a hill; low hills to the south and north channel my view so my lines of sight are back to my starting point and west to the sea loch below me.
Knowing I have to cross the river as it drains into the sea loch, I head for the point at which the road bridge provides a dry crossing. Perhaps the stones’ architects meant the route to go down to the shore and around, though this would not have afforded views of the other three sites as, like Callanais IV each is, to some extent, hidden by a shoulder of a hillside. Down the hillside I am crossing rough pasture, fenced with barbed wire, pulling open rusting gates, then stepping off the bridge and onto the foreshore. With the tide low, the shore offers a simple path, but I still have to climb low cliff edges strung with more barbed wire, swing round low promontories, and jump short gaps in low cliff edges. Having passed an area of fenced fields, the way is then up a sequence of undulating fields with no view of the next site. Eventually, cresting a rise the third site is below me. A loose oval of standing stones, all relatively small, with the suggestion of a double circle, the site is set back from the edge of a hill. The fourth site is clearly visible, as is the fifth and final site. From now on I can see my final destination most of the time.
I walk down the side of the hill and cross wet grassland, bridged with boardwalks, to reach the next circle. Set on flat ground above a small inlet the stones are much larger than those remaining in the circle I have just left.
Down to the shore of the inlet and along to its head. The direct route is now through an impenetrable hedge and across someone’s garden, so I detour around the edge of their property. Past this, and, for the first time, walking along a road, it is a short distance up a steep hill to the largest of the sites – Callanais I.
Any specific relationship between the circles can only be speculative. Callanais I, the largest of the five with a burial chamber, a stone circle and an avenue of stones is set on the top of a low ridge, in the absence of some of the modern vegetation, the stones would have offered a skyline from the shore below, though from many other places there isn’t an open backdrop that makes them stand out – from many directions they are set against distant hills. So, whilst it is visible from both Callanais II and III, it is surprisingly difficult to pick out. Similarly, Callanais IV and VI are each visible from the other but are hidden from the others by a low hill. However they were used, being able to see all five circles at once doesn’t seem to have been part of the process but, whatever the intent behind their design and use, people would have walked the land between them.
To listen to the recordings whilst looking at an aerial presentation of the local you can visit radio aporee https://aporee.org/maps/projects/callanaiswk