Feature Articles – Callanish: the Hyperborean temple Callanish is one of the most beautiful, but also most remote stone circles in Europe. That in itself is a major clue that it was likely a temple known to the ancient Greeks, who linked it with their god Apollo and a mysterious island known as Hyperborea.
by Philip Coppens
2000 BC. The edge of the world. That describes the Outer Hebrides, off the western coast of the northernmost part of Scotland. It is remote times two, even for modern standards. Still, there is something here that attracted, thousands of years ago, a large enough population to build the “Callanish Stones”, one of the most spectacular and grandest megalithic monuments anywhere. In fact, it has earned the nickname “Stonehenge of the North”.
The site is also quite unique, for unlike the tried and tested settings of most megalithic monuments, Callanish is laid out as a circle, consisting of 13 stones and 13 metres in diameter, which towards the outside has further megalithic stones in the shape of a Celtic cross. It is therefore not grand in size, but in appearance. The average height of the stones is nevertheless an impressive four metres, though the range varies from one to five metres; all stones are local Lewisian gneiss, which, at three billion years old, is the oldest type of stone of Britain. It makes one wonder whether our ancestors knew how special this stone was, and whether it was for this quality that they used it in this circle. The stones might have come from a cliff at Na Dromannan, a mile inland from Callanish. Here, there are some visible remains of a destroyed stone circle. Callanish sits on the main Isle of Lewis, diagonally across from Stornoway, the present “capital” of the islands – though it only has a population of 6,000. Callanish – in Gaelic, Calanais – sits near Loch Roag, on a peninsula, on a ridge, which means there are good views over the surrounding area, though the very top of the natural outcrop called Cnoc an Tursa upon which the stone circle sits, obscures views towards the south. Indeed, there are some “platform rocks” just next to the entrance gate that allows one to look down upon the construction. It’s an interesting question to ask whether it was once used as such in ancient times too. Some archaeologists speculate that the natural outcrop was indeed meant to be part and parcel of the structure, and note that the southern avenue is actually aligned towards it.
Construction on the site began ca. 2900 BC, with the stone circle itself created ca. 2200 BC. Gerald and Margaret Ponting think that the central, 4.7 metres high, seven tonnes heavy stone was put up first. If so, the site would have begun as a gigantic standing stone. It might thus have been on par with another gigantic standing stone – bigger than the Callanish one – on the northern shore of the island. The Clach an Trushal at Balanthrushal is six metres tall and two metres wide; it is the largest single monolith in Scotland and remains very impressive, despite today being cramped in by modern structures.
Interestingly, the central stone does not occupy the true centre of the circle. The ring is, in fact, an ellipse, measuring 13.4 by 11.8 metres. Other stone circles, like Stonehenge, also have avenues leading up to it. But Callanish is quite unique as lines of stones lead towards it from all cardinal points, though the northern avenue is by far the longest and the only one that is a double row. This avenue is 83.2 metres long and once had 39 stones, of which now only 19 remain. The terminal stones are set high and at right angles, as if they are blocking stones. The width of the avenue goes from 6.7 to 6 metres.
The southern avenue is precisely orientated north-south and measures 27.2 metres. The eastern avenue has only five stones left, and is 23.3 metres long. The western one is 13 metres long, and has a mere four stones. The boundary stone of this western avenue has a subliminal image in it: a head, with a defined eye and nose, which looks inwards, towards the stone circle. Does it tell us this was a vantage point, and does it invite us to look towards the centre of the circle? Before we do, we need to look around Callanish, as the stone circle of Callanish is only one of several in the immediate area. Just three-quarters of mile to the east-southeast are two further stone circles, referenced as Callanish II and III. Both, like Callanish I, stand on a ridge – high ground.
Callanish II, or Cnoc Ceann a’Gharaidb, still has five stones, ranging in height between 2.45 and 3.3 metres and is, in size, actually two and a half times bigger than Callanish I. Callanish III is named Cnoc Filibhir Bheag, and it is only ninety metres from the loch. It is an ellipse, 21.6 by 18.9 metres, and therefore this too, is bigger than Callanish I. Its tallest stone rises 3.3 metres high. When it was cleared of peat, bits of charcoal were found in holes, with pebbles from the seashore, and which may originally have held wooden uprights.
Two miles further south, there is yet another circle, known as Callanish IV or Ceann Hulavig. This is the smallest circle, with five stones standing in an ellipse 13.3 by 9.5 metres, the tallest stone being 2.6 metres. It shows that Callanish is not alone, but it is unique, if only because of its four stone avenues. What was Callanish’s purpose? Despite some critics who refuse to accept the conclusion, all avenues have significant astronomical alignments. Equally, some of the stones of the inner circle, as well as the boundary stones of the northern avenue, have pointed tops, suggesting some form of precise alignment between the centre and a point either on the landscape, the horizon or the sky, was intended to be marked.
As with Stonehenge, people have tried to decode Callanish’s astronomical clock. The adventure began with Sir Norman Lockyer, who argued that the northern avenue was aligned to Capella, but this would have occurred only ca. 1800-1790 BC, a full half millennium, if not more, after Callanish was created. More recently, Aubrey Burl has proposed that the eastern row was aligned to the rising of the Pleiades, but he himself noted this would only work ca. 1550 BC, again very late in the site’s existence.
Professor Alexander Thom suggested that the alignment of the northern avenue (when looking southward) pointed to the setting of the midsummer full moon behind Mt. Clisham, a hill that delineates the horizon.
There is another alignment at Callanish that is seldom mentioned: looking from the main site to the east, another site, Callanish XIV, which is a single standing stone, becomes a good marker for the equinoctial sunrise. But Callanish is mostly linked with the extreme southern setting position of the major standstill moon. In fact, the three stone circles near Callanish are also oriented to this event, and other monuments on the island suggest the same orientation. The reason why it was incorporated into more than one structure, is because our ancestors wanted to achieve greater accuracy in identifying the occurrence, which means it was a key event for the local community.
This lunar phenomenon occurs every 18.5 years, and the moon would alternate between skirting the top and bottom of the undulating horizon of Mt. Clisham, or the so-called Sleeping Beauty. She is a figure outlined in the shape of the hills south of Callanish. The locals refer to it as “Cailleach na Mointeach”, the “Old Woman of the Moors”. However, the Cailleach was also the creator deity, and often said to have married the sun god. An association with the moon would therefore have neatly fitted in with the astronomical mythology.
The moon rises at the level of her breasts – twin peaks; the moon then passes through the Callanish stones two to five hours later. As this happens, if a person stands on the hillock at the higher south end of the site – the natural outcrop – the moon is “reborn” with a person silhouetted within it. It suggests that the hillock was definitely part of the complex, even though it now stands outside of the site’s boundary wall.
Apart from the Sleeping Beauty, the outline of the hills has also given her a pillow, a conical hill, Roineval, 281 metres high. Conical hills were very important to our ancestors – some like Silbury Hill were man-made additions to a sacred megalithic landscape. In the Bible, Jacob slept on his pillow, which was linked with Bethel, and linked with the Stone of Scone, the British coronation stone. The hill’s incorporation in this sacred landscape might suggest it was held sacred by the builders of Callanish and might have been seen as a hill of creation, or a place of emergence – if not the residence of the Cailleach herself. Callanish was clearly part of an intricate complex, carefully planned and worked out by our ancestors. Ancestors, however, about which we know very little. It was only in 1857 that Sir James Matheson, who owned Lewis, told his chamberlain, Donald Munro, to have the stones cleared of peat. The average depth of the moss was recorded as five feet and it meant that the circle was buried in peat for nearly 3000 years. Like so many other stone circles in Europe, it was therefore abandoned in the period of ca. 1000 BC, when for a still unknown reason, the “megalithic era” all over Europe ended.
There is therefore a 3000 year gap separating us from the last “user”. Could legends and folklore therefore reveal some historical truth?
In the 17th century, these stones were called “Fir Bhrèige” – false men – and around 1680, John Morisone wrote that “It is left by tradition that these were a sort of men converted into stone by ane Inchanter: others affirme that they were sett up in places for devotione.” Another legend is that when the giants that lived on the island refused to convert to Christianity, St. Kieran turned them to stone – and voila, the Callanish Stones were born. The latter is a legend that one comes across frequently at various megalithic sites, but is unlikely to contain any interesting clues.
Martin Martin visited in 1695 and observed that “it was a Place appointed for Worship in the time of Heathenism, and that the Chief Druid or Priest stood near the big Stone in the centre, from when he address’d himself to the People that surrounded him.” Another local belief says that at sunrise on midsummer morning, the “shining one” walked along the stone avenue, “his arrival heralded by the cuckoo’s call.” The most interesting explanation for Callanish was nevertheless an insight arrived at by Aubrey Burl, who would be able to marry hard scientific observations with Greek legends. He remembered the Greek legend of Hyperborea, which describes a temple on a faraway, northern island: “They say also that the moon, as viewed from this island, appears to be but a little distance from the earth and to have upon it prominences, like those of the earth, which are visible to the eye. The account is also given that the god visits the island every nineteen years, the period in which the return of the stars to the same place in the heavens is accomplished, and for this reason the nineteen-year period is called by the Greeks the ‘year of Meton’.”
The reference comes from the 1st century BC Greek writer Diodorus Siculus, who stated that at this temple, there was a “spherical temple” where Apollo “skimmed the earth at a very low height”. Most commentators assume that, if anything, this could be a reference to Stonehenge and that Hyperborea as such was Britain. However, Burl realised that Stonehenge is 500 miles too far south to have the correct lunar latitude to provide for a display as described. The correct latitude for this phenomenon is around the Isle of Lewis. And noting that at Callanish, the observation of a lunar phenomenon that occurs every 19 years was indeed a key incorporation into the site’s layout, Callanish is definitely the best candidate for the Hyperborean temple. It is, in fact, at this moment in time, the only candidate. Interestingly, the account of Hyperborea states that the island was the birthplace of Leto, the mother of Apollo. Could this be a reference to the “Sleeping Beauty”, the Cailleach? The “Old Woman of the Moors”?
Diodorus Siculus further relates that the island’s inhabitants were looked upon as priests of Apollo. Apart from the temple, there was also a city that was sacred to this god, and the majority of its inhabitants were players on the cithara, a type of lyre. Coincidentally or not, historians have identified that Scotland knew this type of instrument.
There are more “coincidences”. The Celtic deity Mac nOg is the equivalent of the Greek Apollo. He was the son of Bu-vinda, or the White Cow, who gave her name to the Irish Boyne Valley, the site of that other impressive megalithic complex, Newgrange. Interestingly, there is a legend of a Gaelic-speaking white cow, which emerged from the sea during a famine. The cow told the people to come to the Callanish stones and she would give them each a bucket of milk. Are such legends further evidence that perhaps some of the more obscure legends, like how the locals still call the hills on the Southern horizon “Sleeping Beauty”, did survive the millennia, handing down knowledge about the site’s original use? Siculus said that Hyperborea was an island whose size was comparable to Sicily; this fits the Hebrides. Equally, he states that “at the rising of the Pleiades, the sun is seen to set at the equinox”, a phenomenon that also applies to Callanish, though, as mentioned, it did not occur at the time of its construction – but did occur later, when the temple was still in use. Furthermore, the western row points to the equinoctial sunset, so Diodorus’ description not only fits individual elements of Callanish, but fits it as a whole. In fact, Burl had previously speculated whether short stone rows, such as the eastern-western rows at Callanish, were erected about 1800-1500 BC, which is the timeframe when the Pleiades are rising at Callanish, and when these rows might therefore have been added to the structure. That Callanish was recorded in Greek stories should not come as a major surprise. Diodorus took his information from Hecateaeus of Abdera, who in turn relied on the lost writings of a Greek explorer, Pytheas of Massilia (modern Marseilles). It is now widely accepted that Pytheas sailed to Britain (and many other places), which would likely have brought him to the Hebrides.
The question is: was he the first foreign visitor to arrive here? Another legend linked with Callanish states that the stones were brought in ships under the leadership of a high priest and erected by “black men”. Some have speculated whether these were dark-haired Irishmen from the south (and porcellanite axes from Co. Antrim have shown links between the north of Ireland and the Outer Hebrides), but “black men” could – more likely? – refer to skin colour, rather than the colour of their hair. And we have that other legend of Princess Scotia, a refugee of Pharaonic Egypt, coming to Ireland and Scotland. She, of course, was said to have brought the Stone of Scone with her.
Still, we know that the stones for this circle came from Lewis themselves, and hence as part of this particular legend is unlikely to be true, we should not put too much emphasis on the “black men”.
Still, nothing should be excluded. The stones on the east side of the avenue are consistently about three-quarters as high as the stones on west side. As uninteresting as this observation might appear to be at first, it is a feature that is nevertheless characteristic of northern Irish avenues and double rows and of those on the Crozon peninsula in western Brittany. It highlights that whoever built Callanish, they were perfectly aware of similar developments elsewhere in Europe, and followed the same “architectural trends”. That other regions of Europe were therefore aware of Callanish and came to visit, should not surprise anyone.