By Kerry Dexter
Calanais. Weathered stones on ancient ground, circles and crosses and lines created in earth and from stone. In the Western Isles, off the northwestern coast of Scotland, at times I have the feeling that I stand at the edge of the known world. I wonder if the men and women who made the stone circles and lines at Calanais felt that way at times as well. On the other hand, perhaps for them, it was just the church down the road.
It might have been, probably was, a place of worship at one time. It might have been probably was, connected with observations of the travels of the moon, and the sun. These stones at Calanais were standing when pharaohs were building in Egypt, when John the Baptist gave his prophecies, when Christ was born, and when he was crucified, when the Picts and the Gaels fought in Scotland, when Hadrian’s Wall was built, when Rome fell, when the sun never set on the British empire, and when it did. They stood when Elizabeth II came to the throne of the United Kingdom sixty years and counting ago, and this year, when her great grandson George was born. Still they stand, weathered and worn. Still, we don’t know why .
This part of the isle of Lewis in the Western Isles seems to have been a holy place: While Calanais may have been the center of things, there other stones standing in circles nearby. Nearly five thousand years ago, there seems to have been a religion in what is now Great Britain that expressed itself through the building of circles of wood and stone. Stonehenge, in the south of England, is best known. Stonehenge is imposing, to be sure, and mysterious. Calanais holds its own mystery, integrated with land and weather, suggesting life of the spirit but yet on a human scale.
The people who made these circles and lines in stone did not have a written record to leave, and their music has not come down either. Back when the stones were set in place, the climate in the Western Isles was warmer than it is now. Red deer roamed the isles and salmon ran the rivers. Crops of barley carpeted the hills. Its people could build, and worship, and create. But what they thought about, and how they worshipped, the stories they told and the songs they sang, have been lost in time. The stones they put in place, though, still stand.
Calanais was a place of activity — work, worship, astronomical observation, calendar, whatever people did there — for about a thousand years. Then, still many centuries before the birth of Christ, it was abandoned. It’s not clear from archaeology whether this was by a natural turn of things or as ritual cleansing connected with worship. In any case, the stones still stood, and they stand yet. In 1885, they came into care of the state, and still Calanais stands, now a revered and mysterious part of the history of Scotland, cared for by the state.
At certain times of the year, the sun lines up with angles of stone at Calanais. At other times, the moon traces patterns along the hills nearby. Far across the western ocean, the next landfall is the Maritime provinces of Canada, which people from the Western Isles came to when driven from the isles by political and economic changes in the 1800s..
Were those who came to Calanais in ancient times looking to the sun, or the moon — or the future — or perhaps, just gathering at a place down the road? Take time for silence at Calanais, take time to look to the west, and wonder.
Calanais appears in the animated film Brave Brave the film, Scotland the real
Photographs courtesy of Visit Scotland/Scottish Viewpoint and
Marta Gutowska/Wikimedia Commons
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