The pleasures of summer are fading into memory – but the travel spirit shouldn’t! I actually like the off-season: the crowds have gone home, lodgings have better availability, entry lines are short or gone, and rates are lower. It’s nice and quiet.
Awesomeness in any season
Traveling outside of peak season does come with other challenges of course. Gone are the long sunny days. Forget about hiking around in shorts and T-shirt. And it’s no fun shivering over a cold one in a pub beer garden! Instead, you can warm up with a wee dram in front of a roaring fire…
Mucking about the Minch
‘Twas a frisky October day for our ferry crossing. We boarded in Uig on Skye to disembark at Tarbert on Lewis & Harris.
Crossing The Minch was windy, with choppy seas, but indeed, no crowds. You can find more Scots ferry travel specifics in a previous blog, but this story is about the goal rather than the means: the Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis.
Between a rock and a hard place
The Outer Hebrides are rife with ancient history. But: why are they? Where did those early settlers come from? Why did they choose to stay in such inhospitable surroundings? Fierce Atlantic gales rage over the land, rain slashes down and sideways, natural resources are scarce at best, rocks are hiding in the soil all over the place, and growing things is really tough in the limited stretches of machair.
From bad to worse?
Did these settlers perhaps come from an even worse place? Or were they simply adventurers? Or: they got shipwrecked here enroute to the Canary Islands? Yeah maybe that’s it…
Building like their brethren
The early settlers do have a common thread with their ancient Celtic cousins throughout the British Isles though: Stone Circles.
Standing Stones can be found all over Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland. Some are hard to even see anymore, but many are amazingly well preserved. Callanish on Lewis is one of the latter.
Lewis is part of the Isle of Lewis & Harris. What’s with the double name? It’s really just one island, the largest in Scotland in fact. Harris is the very hilly southern isle part, with a main ferry port at Tarbert (to Skye) and a small one (for North Uist) at Leverburgh. Lewis is about twice the size of Harris and comparatively flat.
By land, not sea
Harris and Lewis are naturally connected via a land-bridge, making it easy to drive to and fro. To get to Callanish, go north from Harris over the narrow isthmus at Tarbert, then onto Lewis, a good quality road and head west. Easy in summer at least…
Far away but well-connected
Lewis has the largest town by far: Stornoway. It has excellent connections to Scotland’s mainland. The ferry plows between Stornoway and Ullapool on the Mainland.
The airport was a famous WW2 RAF base until 1945. Today, Stornoway airport has direct flights to Aberdeen, Benbecula (on North Uist, an island just south of Harris), Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. And: Lewis is where we find the famous Callanish Standing Stones, spelled Calanais in the Gaelic.
Traveling in circles
Who built them thar stones at Callanish? We don’t know for sure! What we do know is that they’re about 5,000 years old, and similar to stone circles all over the British Isles. The similarities suggest a cultural connection – and seafaring travel, thousands of years ago!
Some of the most famous circles are Stonehenge in Southern England and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney. However, there are many more lesser-known yet fascinating ones. In Ireland, there’s the easy to visit Drombeg in West Cork. In Scotland, I totally enjoyed my visit to the Aquhorthies near Aberdeen.
Snacks and Stones
We parked at the modest Callanish Visitor Center: no crowds indeed! There’s a gift shop and café with limited meals, snacks and drinks options. Going to the Stones, they first feed you through the very interesting “Story of the Stones” historic exhibit.
Worth it in any weather
Then, out through the exit door onto the access path – and straight into one of those Atlantic gales, complete with snowflakes flying in our faces! October here can be worse than winter in many other spots, but we were prepared and dressed for the occasion. Seeing the Stones was worth fighting a bit of weather.
Archeology: can you dig it?
We read the informative display board and walked all over the site, wondering where the ancients got these stones and how they transported and positioned them.
Research and archaeology have found only partial answers and the quest continues to find more.
The Callanish complex consists of some 50 stones in a cross-shaped setting. One arm across from the Visitor Entrance feels like a stone-lined boulevard, connecting to the middle where 13 stones stand in a circle.
Large and heavy, planted firmly into the soil, these Stones don’t rock and they don’t roll (apologies to Mick and the gang: couldn’t resist a pun. You may cringe, but it gives me satisfaction…).
Stone cold reality
The highest Stone in the circle reaches up about 13 feet. The centre of the circle shows the remains of a chambered cairn.
One can understand why the builders selected this remote spot, as the views around Callanish are amazing, although fairly obscured on this cloudy and rainy day. But hey, that’s part of real travel! In my blogs I describe what you reasonably can expect for yourself. As the hip texting kids say: YMMV.
Fun fact: why and where does moss grow on a Stone? There is a world of knowledge behind the answer. Here’s the deal per the “Natural Navigator” website: “However, if you manage to find a near vertical smooth surface that is not too close to the ground and it has moss growing on it then there is likely to be only one reason for that surface staying moist: it is in shade in the middle part of the day when the sun is doing most of its drying. It is very likely to be on the northern side in northern latitudes.”
Double name, triple books
Done with musing over moss, with the wind steadily getting heavier and sleet beginning to mess up the camera, it was time to call it a day.
Back in the gift shop, I appropriately bought the 3rd book in Peter May’s Outer Hebrides “Lewis Trilogy”. Featuring Fin Macleod, the books paint the bleak yet also fascinating life on these windswept islands, while spinning stories of charm and challenge, intrigue and interest.
Machair and May
In his books, Peter May adds a list of Gaelic terms that will explain what “machair” is, that term I mentioned earlier on: a grassy area with a layer of fertile ground. But of course, there’s always Wikipedia too…
Fun fact: Peter May also wrote a TV series, with Janice Hally, called “Machair”. It is the first-ever major drama series in the Scots Gaelic. “Machair” consisted of 99 episodes, all filmed on Lewis. Produced by Scottish Television and subtitled in English, the series ran from 1992-1996 and cracked the Top Ten viewers ratings. Quite a feat, considering that less than 2% of Scots understand the Gaelic, and Brits in general are not keen on subtitles at all!
From books to checkbooks
Travel tip: do check the Callanish Visitor Centre website before you go. While parking and entry is free at the time of writing and they’re open year-round as such, it’s not daily. The Centre is closed on Sundays even in summer, and opening days and hours vary throughout the year. Also, lately there’s been some chatter about adding a fee, to raise funds for better protection of this unique cultural treasure. Sounds like a good idea to me!
The traveling chessmen
Who knows, maybe someday I’ll return to Callanish under clearer skies. I’d love to spend more time on Lewis & Harris! Stay in Tarbert or Stornoway longer. Hike, and find shelter in a bothy in the middle of nowhere. Check out the sites from Peter May’s books. Visit Lews Castle and see the Lewis Chessmen.
Although: the Chessmen travel too! I saw them in the British Museum in London on yet another trip, for yet another future blog. For now, off we go, leaving no stone turned…
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. It’s what you’d experience yourselves. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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