The Magnificent Standing Stones of Calanais in the Outer Hebrides

The standing stones and chambered cairns of the Calanais (Callanish) area, on the east of the Isle of Lewis, form one of the most remarkable and significant Neolithic sites in Britain, as well as one of the most significant and important megalithic complexes in Europe. They predate England’s Stonehenge and are believed to have been an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years. Over the millenia the stones have witnessed countless changes in the people and landscape around them.

There are at least a dozen sites in the area, however the most impressive is the main complex, which consists of rows of approximately 50 large pieces of Lewisian gneiss arranged in a cross shape. At the centre of the cross is an inner circle, comprising 13 stones, the tallest being approximately four metres high, and a small chambered cairn. The inner stone ring of this main site probably dates from about 2900BC, while the chambered cairn and outer rows are thought to have been added at a later date. The northern avenue is slightly east of north, while the southern, eastern and western rows face due south, east and west respectively.


The stones were partially buried in peat, which had accumulated since perhaps 1500BC, but were fully revealed when this was cleared in 1857. This destroyed most of the archeological evidence that may have been present.

There are obvious solar alignments, such as the equinoctial sunset and local noon, however other alignments are also quite possible. It has been suggested that the eastern row is aligned with the rising of the Pleiades around May Day, or Beltane, which would have been around the time when crops were planted.

With no sure knowledge, theories as to the meaning and purpose of these stone structures abound. It is thought that the stones were used in rituals relating to the moon, the stars and the position of the distant hills. The 13 monoliths at the centre of the cross in the ring may reflect the 13 months of the lunar year. During each month the moonrise and moonset vary from north to south and back, due to the relative movements of the Earth and the Moon. At the latitude of Callanish, the Moon just skims the horizon at its major standstill (when the apparent movement of the Moon stops and reverses). The Moon appears to dance along the ridge to the south of the standing stones and sets behind the hill in the southwest, only to momentarily reappear, or flash, in a notch just to the west.


1 week camper van road-trip with Hebridean Campervan Holidays


  • The Outer Hebrides Guide Book Third Version
  • Explore Outer Hebrides 2016/2017

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The Magnificent Standing Stones of Calanais in the Outer Hebrides

by Uncover Travel time to read: 2 min
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