The Callanish Standing Stones are Lewisian gneiss ritual stones on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides that predate Stonehenge by 2,000 years. 

The wild and mythical undercurrent of the heather-carpeted Scottish Highlands and isolated Western Isles has long held a place in folklore and fairy tales (just think of how naturally ingrained the Loch Ness monster is in our minds when we imagine Scotland). Nowhere in this region does one get left with more of a sense of wonder, awe and curiosity than with a visit to one of Scotland’s most intriguing archaeological sites, the Callanish Standing Stones. They’re older than Stonehenge by about 2,000 years, but unlike the world-famous megalithic construction in England, the 5,000-year-old Callanish Stones on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides are accessible to the public. The stones are just over a 10-minute drive from Dun Carloway, another one of the island’s many ancient attractions, but their relative ease of accessibility on the island takes nothing away from their mystery. 

In the late Neolithic era, the stones appear to have been a focus for ritual activity during the Bronze Age. The Callanish (also known as Callanais or Calanais in its non-Anglicanized form) consist of a ring of 13 separate 12-foot-tall chunks of Lewisian gneiss pillars arranged in a cruciform pattern around a 14-foot central monolith. Gneiss is a complex crystalline rock that ranges from 1.7 to 3 billion years old. It is the oldest rock found in Western Europe and one of the oldest rocks in the world.  The way that this central monolith is nestled within the circle makes it seem as though it is being guarded by the stones. 

Standing stone circle, Callanish, Outer Hebrides. Photographed in late evening sunlight.

Though the stones served as a center for ritual activities for at least a millennium, their exact purpose has been lost to history. Historians estimate the site was abandoned around 1,000 B.C. and ultimately buried beneath a thick layer of peat turf, not unearthed until 1857. The most prevalent theory, based on recent archaeological excavations, puts forth that the megaliths worked as a sort of astronomical observatory or a celestial calendar. Patrick Ashmore, who excavated at Callanish in the early 1980s, states: “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.” Other explanations uphold the theory that the stones helped the Neolithic people to mark the shortest day of the year at Winter Solstice.

The archeological digs that Ashmore participated in happened between 1980 and 1986 in advance of repairs to the ground, which had been greatly worn down by visitors over the years. The excavations successfully found many unexpected structures hidden below the surface. These discoveries added to our understanding of its connections with the great stone rings in Orkney (historically, a five or six day sea journey away) and high-quality pottery remnants found helped craft an idea of other possible long-distance connections.

Sunset over the Callanish 2, circle of standing stones from 4000 BC on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

As with many prehistoric creations, the Callanish Stones are surrounded by legends and lore. One bit of local folklore says the stones are petrified giants turned into stone for having refused to convert to Christianity. Another much-told tale tells of a magical white cow that appeared at the site to save the islanders from starvation. The beast, with red ears, emerged from the sea. It spoke, telling a woman in its path to return home, fetch her milk pail and tell her neighbors to come with their own pails to the stones of Callanish. Milk was supposedly provided generously every night to all the women of the village until one greedy visitor, seeking two pails, brought an end to the giving and the magical cow was never again to be seen at Callanish.

Visitors who are attracted to their ancient mysteries can freely meander among the stones and are even able to respectfully touch the towering monoliths. Outlander fans may be particularly interested in laying their hands upon the stones. The character Claire Randall Fraser from this beloved television show launched a time-traveling journey after touching a fictional Craig Na Dun stone circle that used the Callanish Stones as inspiration. A visit to the stones is a magical experience regardless of the time of year. In the summer, they stand stoically beneath a northern sun that just barely sets, and in the winter, the Northern Lights have been known to light up the night sky above them in a spectacular show of purple, green and red hues.

Callanish standing stones, with one blurred stone in the foreground. Isle od Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

A trip to the Callanish Standing Stones is just the beginning of what a Scottish adventure holds. Those interested in nature will be happy to know that nearby, millions of seabirds nest in and on the coves and cliffs of the Outer Hebrides while minke whales, common and gray seals, and the world’s most northerly population of bottlenose dolphins congregate to find food in the Atlantic waters that are warmed up nicely by the Gulf Stream. Inland, boreal forest is home to red deer, badger, pine marten and the rare Scottish wildcat, the United Kingdom’s only native feline. It is a small, muscular tabby cat on the verge of extinction. For travelers who want to know more about this endangered animal and the efforts to support it, a visit to the Scottish Wildcat Breeding Conservation Program at the Aigas Field Center is a must. 

For adventurers fascinated by other historical sites, a trip to the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles with Nat Hab includes seeing Urquhart Castle, one of Scotland’s largest medieval fortresses. Guests will also have the chance to visit the Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most picturesque sites. It was strategically built on a small island where three great sea lochs meet. It was originally built in the 13th century to help protect adjacent lands from Viking raids. Even the nightly accommodations that Nat Hab guests get to sleep in are heavily steeped in history. For example, the Coul House is a grand stone manor house built in 1821 and is part of the Coul estate established by the Mackenzie clan in 1560. 

So whether testing your luck at time travel at the Callanish Standing Stones or keeping an eye out for the plentitude of wildlife and other archeological sites that the region has to offer, a trip to Scotland is sure to be a wild and unforgettable adventure.