The Isle of Lewis is more populous than its neighbour, Harris. The landscape is predominantly flat and therefore more conducive to crofting, Scottish subsistence farming. It is also rich in peat, which is still extracted and dried today using methods unchanged for millennia, for building, fuel and export. The current inhabitants are just the latest in a long line of islanders who have benefitted from Lewis’ natural resources and made it their home. Traces of the past can be found everywhere, but particularly in the north west, which is abundant with Neolithic artefacts.
Perhaps the most awe inspiring of these are the Callanish standing stones, also referred to by their Gaelic name of Calanais. The stones are set on a ridge in an otherwise flat plain, designed to be seen from a distance and to provide those standing amongst them with views across the countryside and upwards to the sky.
Archaeological research suggests that the stones were erected in the late Neolithic period, somewhere between 2,900 and 2,600 BC. This makes them roughly 5,000 years old. 5,000 years; for beings who manage 70 to 100 years on this planet if we are lucky, it is a length of time that is hard to comprehend. You cannot help but be moved in their presence. Unlike that more famous of Neolithic monuments, Stonehenge, the relatively low visitor numbers to Callanish means that you can still walk freely amongst the stones. Place your hands on them and you feel a tangible link to the past that is almost overwhelming.
The stones are arranged with a central circle surrounded by an outer cruciform pattern that draws the eye away to the land beyond and also in to the heart of the formation. Some time after the site’s construction, a burial in a chambered tomb was squeezed between two of the stones that form the inner circle. We can only speculate about the background of the person buried there, but it is not hard to imagine that they must have been of some significance. Equally mysterious, is the purpose of the stones themselves. There are many theories and these are explored in the nearby visitors’ centre.
If you are planning a trip to see the stones for yourself, make sure to include a stop at the thrice named Doune, Dun Carloway or Dùn Chàrlabhaigh Broch in your itinerary. Brochs, drystone towers, are a uniquely Scottish form of architecture. The word comes from the Norse for Fort although it is debatable whether the structures were predominantly used for warfare. Dùn Chàrlabhaigh dates from the first century AD and is remarkably well preserved for its age.
A visit to Lewis, whether as a daytrip from Skye or (at a push) Ullapool, or as part of a longer stay on the island, will leave you with great photographs, strong memories and a bit of perspective about humanity and our place in the world. I only hope that in five thousand years our descendants are left with something equally beautiful to remember us by.
The Isle of Skye will be the next stop in this Scottish secrets series. To learn more about Lewis’ twin, Harris, click here.