Calanais used to be popularly known as Scotland’s Stonehenge; in these days of greater Scottish independence we might start thinking of Stonehenge as England’s Calanais. It would be true as well as judicious to describe these sites as the premier megalithic monuments in the British and Irish Isles, and definitely something to see on your British Isles travel. They date from the same period of prehistory when the New Stone Age moved into the Bronze Age in a period of steady technological advance, following that pivotal revolution in human history when mankind ceased to roam the landscape as hunter-gatherers and settled the land as farmers. They built villages, not only for the living but also for their dead, and developed the belief system that Calanais represents. What that was exactly remains tantalisingly beyond our grasp, for a prehistoric society by definition has left us no written records. We know that the beautiful tall stones of glistening Lewisian gneiss are aligned to the lunar cycle, just as those of Stonehenge have a solar alignment. We can readily imagine how important the lunar and solar cycles were to the first agricultural people, so ceremonials at the times of the solstices and equinoxes are more likely than some of the suggestions that have been put forward by the lunatic fringe of British archaeology: landing sites for UFOs, prehistoric internet cafes and the rest.
Both sites are set in a much wider sacred landscape than that occupied by the stones themselves. Set in open country with an uninterrupted view of the night sky, Calanais is best appreciated at nightfall which is why our visit on National Geographic Explorer is timed for the late evening. Using Zodiacs to cruise into the sea-loch, the first sight of the megalithic monument on the headland can send a shiver along your spine. While the stones of Calanais are the perfect subject for the photographer, the attentive visitor will also scan the surrounding hills for its satellite sites: stone circles, standing stones and the recumbent outline of the celebrated ‘Old Woman of the Moors.’ The overall effect is humbling: whoever the builders of Calanais were, although they were our technological inferiors they were every bit our equal in intellect and ingenuity.
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