The Calanais Standing Stones
Way back in September of 2016, when my 8 year old passport was void of stamps, I googled places to visit in Scotland. A jaw dropping photo came up of the Calanais (Callanish) Standing Stones. (Literally, you guys, my jaw dropped.) I knew nothing about it but it went straight to the top of my list.
Fast forward to the last week of October. I found myself in the Northwest corner of Scotland, contemplating where to head next. My practical brain got into a fight with my adventure brain and began a cost benefit analysis of a visit to the Stones. There would be the ferry over, a place to stay overnight on the island, food, the ferry back….And then my adventure brain smacked my practical brain in the face and said “you better get your butt on that ferry.”
So on the morning of Halloween, I got my butt (and my car) on the ferry - the Caledonian MacBrayne to be exact. It was a dreary day with low visibility as Ullapool disappeared into the mist behind us. 2 hours 45 minutes, and a playful pod of dolphins later, we pulled into Stornoway Harbor. The captain's voice came over the intercom asking all passengers to head below to their vehicles. Stornoway is a lovely little town on a hill with colorful buildings welcoming seafarers to port. While everyone speaks English, Gaelic is a primary language here - from road signs to supermarket signs, the Gaelic word is listed first, followed by English. (Steòrnabhagh is the actual Gaelic town name.) On the ferry, all announcements were made first in Gaelic, then in English. It was a wonderful experience.
Once my tires hit land, I made a beeline for Tesco (because snacks) and then hit the road for Calanais. It was about a half hour, rural drive to the other side of the Island where the stones sit on top of a hill. I was on red alert the entire drive, eagle eyes trained on the hills. I had the Gaelic station on and distinctly remember it was playing a catchy bagpipe tune. Suddenly, there they were, stone giants on the horizon. I bounced up and down in my seat, and I’m sure made a little squeal. It’s probably good that I was alone, as I likely would have inflicted bodily harm to a passenger in my excitement. As I approached the stones, they disappeared behind a small hill where I parked at the Visitor's Center. I grabbed my camera, bundled up against the wind and rain, and did a power walk up the hill, reminding myself that running like a mad woman might raise eyebrows. I passed a tiny, frail elderly woman, and admired her slow but determined climb. She is how I imagine myself one day, when my adventurous spirit refuses to be stopped by the betrayal of an aging body.
And then, I was on the hilltop with the magnificent monoliths. I hesitated a little, not believing I was really there. Its unbelievable how accessible the stones are. No barriers, no walls, nothing to stand between me and these ancient beings. The complex is made of about 50 stones, with 4 avenues radiating out from a central circle. The center holds the biggest stone - nearly 16 feet tall, 7 tons, standing guard over a small burial chamber. I walked around, mesmerized, and mentally pinched myself. The stones have a streaked appearance and are a pinkish color - they reminded me a lot of the lovely pink granite that is prevalent back home in New England. The actual stone is called Lewisian Gneiss. As I moved among them, they started to take on otherworldly qualities - they were like huge sentinels, each guarding a secret. As I passed each stone, I marveled at the uniqueness, laid my hand upon the surface, tried to imagine what they had seen over their 5,000 years standing watch. They were cold, hard, coarse, unyielding - yet something seemed alive about them. Experts confess to not feeling much like experts when it comes to the origins of this and other ancient stone circles. Over the years, there have been ebbs and flows in popular theories - celestial tracking, worship sites, and with the discovery of the burial chamber, holy sites. But doesn't this just add to the allure? All I know is that my hands were on the same stones that had been touched by 5 millennia of people - I was spellbound.
The spell was about to be broken unfortunately, and for about 45 minutes, a non local religious group took over the central burial chamber. They seemed to perceive the stones as pagan. I felt irritated at their lack of respect for others in a place that was not theirs to take over. The sun would soon be setting and I'd really hoped to get some photos. I drowned my grumpiness in the visitor's center cafe with a warm coffee and a murder mystery written by a local author (The Black House.) When I saw the group descending the hill, I went back up and found myself completely alone with the stones. My frustration melted away and I took the video below. As I concluded the video, a little boy wandered up. We had a nice little chat as he casually leaned against a 5000 year old piece of history - he told me he lived nearby, that he visited frequently, and that he would be dressing up for his school’s Halloween party later. Oh and that no, he did not in fact, ever find the Stones to be creepy. He then politely informed me that he should be heading home and off he went across the field. (Politeness was a common thread among children I interacted with in Scotland.) Be warned - it was windy, so the video is loud. But it really is the only way to get a real feel for the place.
As my little friend left, I saw that my incredible moment of isolation was over as other visitors were coming up the hill. I took it all in one more time, and bid the stones farewell. I had noticed small stone groupings on other hills, so I decided to check one out on my drive back. (The Calanais website has an incomplete list of 20 other stone sites on the island!) I had to enter the pasture with a lone sheep, who seemed intent on staring holes into my brain but didn't really care much about me. I thought it was an appropriately creepy Halloween shot as said sheep stood bowlegged in the pasture with the stones.
I spent the night at a hotel in Stornoway. When morning came, I enjoyed a mostly tasty breakfast, aside from some fruit I expected to be sweet but in truth made my face pucker up involuntarily. I swung by the Visit Scotland office to logon to WiFi and form a plan for my return to the mainland. A break in the rain gave way to a double rainbow over a castle on the hill. Fishing boats were tucked into a small inlet. Inside, a wonderfully helpful woman called the ferry office in Tarbert for me and used her computer to help me buy a ticket. I hurried off to get going in time to make the hour drive down to Tarbert.
What a beautiful drive it was, full of mountains, sheep, and ocean views. I made it into the ferry line with about 30 minutes to spare, so I visited the Harris Tweed shop and bought a passport cover. It would have been a crime to visit the Isle of Harris and leave without something Tweed. The ferry man knew where I had gone off to, as I had responsibly informed him, and he shot me a look as I walked hurriedly back just in time for boarding to begin. I'm sure that the word "tourist" went through his mind...
The clouds were high and patchy as we pulled out of the little harbor, and I had a lovely ride over to Uig on the Isle of Skye. Thus ended my quick visit to the Outer Hebrides. I’m so glad I boarded the ferry in Ullapool, and let my adventure brain win that battle. I still had a lot of Scotland to see but a crucial item had been checked off my bucket list. I will add a disclaimer, straight from an employee's mouth - the place is madness in the spring and summer. I had the unique fortune of being alone in such a place, being able to take photos with nobody in them, stand quietly among the stones. But I still think it would be worth it no matter how busy - it is after all, busy for good reason! There is so much more to see and do on Lewis and Harris, and lots more history that I could share. But I'll leave it for you to discover on your own.
Thanks for reading! Lilly