The next day (which was Thursday June 7) D. asked me what I’d like to do. I never know what I want to do, I’m generally content to carry on doing whatever I currently am, but I managed to remember I had thought I’d like to see the standing stones at Callanish when we booked the trip. As the sun was again shining that’s what we did.
This is what Historic Environment Scotland says about them:
The Calanais Standing Stones are an extraordinary cross-shaped setting of stones erected 5,000 years ago. They predate England’s famous Stonehenge monument, and were an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years.
We don’t know why the standing stones at Calanais were erected, but our best guess is that it was a kind of astronomical observatory.
Patrick Ashmore, who excavated at Calanais in the early 1980s writes: ‘The most attractive explanation… is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies.
Unfortunately we didn’t see any moon dancing along the hill tops, who know when that will next happen, but we did get a sense of ancient wisdom as we pootled amongst the stones. Do I mean wisdom? I may mean creativity, hope, perception, or erudition; whatever the appropriate noun, I know I felt a sense of awe. Standing stones like these always feel like ancient churches to me, they provide a connection between us, in this era, and those who lived thousands of years ago, it’s almost electric. Those ancestors were trying to make sense of the world too, as we still are. I like to think of a whole community pulling together to erect these monuments, and am not particularly concerned with why; I prefer to imagine how, the camaraderie and common purpose*.
After communing with the spirits of the stones we walked back down the hill to have coffee in the courtyard of the visitor centre cafe. There’s also an exhibition and all sorts about the history, but neither of us felt we wanted to have the workings of our own imaginations interrupted just yet, so we skipped that part.
As we headed back up the road we decided to follow the sign to Carloway Broch (header image), and were highly rewarded. Here’s (part of) what Undiscovered Scotland says about it:
Dun Carloway was probably built some time in the last century BC. It would have served as an occasionally defensible residence for an extended family complete with accommodation for animals at ground floor level. It would also have served as a visible statement of power and status in the local area. Think of it as the iron age equivalent of an architect-designed mansion with a garage for the Range Rover, a stable for the horses, and remotely operated front gates.
We liked the broch a lot! It was like an interactive installation, as though it had been dissected specially to show us how a broch was built: you can see the stairs inside the double wall, where the floors would have been, its windows and doors. There’s a real sense of it once having been a lively family home, designed to accommodate all one’s needs. And it’s high up a hill so the view is tremendous.
My first encounter with the word ‘broch’ was in a poem by Jen Hadfield in her T.S. Elliot Prize winning Nigh-No-Place:
I turn the camera on my dissolving self,
pale-tongued and rabbit-eyed –
I turn the camera on dazzled
plain rain – the loch –
the incandescent horses
forged black against the broch –
me, my brimming head,
precarious as a dandelion clock –
and dimpling the loch,
black button on bright,
a dinghy row-rowed,
skewered with light.
So I was delighted to actually get close to one, and I was both dazzled and rendered less precarious by the experience. Though my head did indeed brim.
Once we’d mooched about the structure we ambled down the hill and into the visitor centre. No cafe this time, but a great installation on the working of the place, and a tremendously friendly artist holding the fort in place of her husband, who was working on their croft that day. She had an old bottle habit and had some gorgeous specimens for sale that had been found on a dig in Wales. As a lover of old glass myself, how could I not be tempted?
On the way back to our cottage we stopped off here:
Dalbeg beach, a rather marvellous full stop to the day’s story.
*A possible alternative I’d rather not imagine is that the stones were erected by slaves.
Next: I thoroughly explore the beach at the end of the lane.