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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.