callanish stones. the moon, sun, land and sea.
it is thought the erection of the first stones at callanish I (tursachan calanais) began around 3000bc. the construction started with the tallest, central monolith, [burl suggests as a navigational aid] and then is encompassed by a flattened circle of 13 stones. later, the north avenue and the south and west rows appeared. the east row was added to the complex around 1800BC. the central burial cairn was the last feature added next, between 1800bc and 1000bc after which, the site was abandoned and slowly became engulfed in peat. the east row consists of five erect stones, the fifth was re-discovered by mandg ponting in 1977 and was successfully re-erected.
lockyer was the first to suggest astronomical alignments at callenish I, and admiral h boyle somerville, that the east row indicated a line to the rising of pleiades, a group of bright stars which for many cultures had associations with funerary rites. at around 1800BC the constellation could be seen rising in the east during the autumn months. but he also pointed to the possibilities of its relationship to the lunar cycles. he concluded that there was an accurate alignment with the northern extreme position of the rising full moon at the winter solstice during the 18.6 year lunar cycle. he also connected the writings of the greek writer diodorus of siculus to callanish.
aubrey burl in describing this connection states // it is accepted that diodorus took his information about britain from the earlier, lost, writer hecataeus of abdera, who himself drew on the lost writings of the 4th century bc greek explorer pytheas. now what is remarkable is that by the time pytheas got to callanish, the pleiades would have risen a few degrees to the north-east of the ene stone row. the pleiades – whose movements can be dated – had risen in alignment with the row for a few centuries after about 1700 bc (which is presumably when the row was built), but since then had edged away.//
he goes on to say //… pytheas seems to have been reporting a folk memory of the connection between the circle and the pleiades that had survived at callanish for at least 1,000 years, long after the circle had gone out of use. this may seem incredible but we know from other societies that oral traditions can survive for many, many centuries even though their original use has long since been abandoned.//
it has been further suggested, that the east row was erected to signify the position on the horizon of the rising spring and autumnal full moons – equinoctial moon, the full moon closest to the solar equinoxes – we know these times as easter and the harvest moon. the spring and autumnal full moons occur at a different dates between the months of march and april, september and october respectively each year during the lunar cycle. what makes these dates special is the fact that these two lunations are the only time the same moon rises in the same position with annual regularity as the 19 year lunar cycle swings between its northern and southern extremes. adding to the signification of these events these full moons occur within the hour of the sun setting on the opposite horizon. importably however while it suggest that the skies were studied with intense interest these ceremonial complexes were rather symbolic embodiment of these interests rather than a highly accurate instrument of their observation.
// a megalithic setting with an obviously secondary (a s henshall 1972) chambered cairn, and another cairn which is not necessarily part of the megalithic scheme.
the setting is basically a circle, with arms radiating approximately towards the cardinal points, the row to the north being double, forming an avenue, which is, however, closed by the arc of the circle. a single stone standing opposite the inmost of the southern alignment suggests that this may also have been double. outside the sw arc of the circle is an outlier perhaps the rudiment or remains of a second circle (rcahms 1928). the stones are of unwrought lewis gneiss, varying in thickness from 5 1/4″ to 20″, packed at base with small stones. the tallest, 15’7″ high, stands in the centre of the circle; the others range down to 3’6″. matheson (j matheson 1862) who had the site cleared of 5′ of peat in the mid-19th century, mentions ‘a rough causewayed pavement in which the circle stones are embedded’. (possibly the base packing)
the chambered cairn is set eccentrically within the circle, incorporating the central pillar within the line of its kerb on the west and two of the stones of the circle on the east. cairn material still remains to a depth of 2′ but the double chamber has been deroofed – probably in antiquity, since matheson (j matheson 1862) appears to have found it in much the same state as it is today. on the south side the cairn appears to be joined to a slightly raised causeway which runs down the south alignment.
the second cairn which impinges on the ne arc of the circle has been an oval of 18′ by 14′; it is reduced to ground-level and the outline can just be traced. the site, unique in scotland, lies on a hillock called ‘cnoc an tursa’ – ‘hill of sorrow’. the stones are locally said to have been quarried from the nearly vertical face of the west side of the ridge druim nan eum. (nb 228 338) // j matheson 1862; RCAHMS 1928; a s henshall 1972.