After our second night sleeping in the cavernous car, we woke to a pale, opalescent sky over the stones of Callanish. Considering how many decades we had wanted to visit the site, it was a wonderful way to wake. It was also odd that neither of us felt the need to return to the stones. At least not on this trip. We felt that we had done what we had been called to do… whatever that was. At that point, we were still travelling blind and taking each moment on trust.
The café with the alpacas would not open for several hours, so there was no point in lingering… coffee would have to wait, we had enough supplies for a meagre breakfast and we had an island to explore before the afternoon ferry would carry us back over the sea to Skye.
We had seen the sign for another stone circle, not far along the road that leads back towards Stornoway and decided to take a look. I had noted a parking spot as we had passed the day before and a sign pointing up onto the peat. By now, my phone was completely dead and Stuart’s had just enough charge for emergencies, so we could have done no research, even if we had wanted to. We had no idea what to expect or how far we would have to walk… but that is part of the adventure.
The sign pointed vaguely up onto the moor and luckily, an unexpected bench gave us something to aim for so we chose the right path. As we crested the rise, we could see only a boggy peat-cut and a single standing stone. We had no way of knowing quite how much the scene at Achmore stone circle revealed about the history of the island and its people.
The peat on Lewis began its life as vegetation, some seven thousand years ago. As the plants, mostly sphagnum moss, began to decompose in waterlogged areas of land, the acidic conditions halted the process, preserving the plants and forming the peat. Each ten centimetres depth of peat represents around a century of formation… and the peat cuts here are deep.
Peat has been used as fuel on the islands for thousands of years and the traces of its harvesting are everywhere, even today. Neat lines of exposed peat show where it is still being cut, cut, dried, and taken home to be stacked against the winter chill. But that was not its only use in the Western Isles.
At Cladh Hallan on the island of South Uist, a little further south of Lewis, a Bronze Age site was found that contained, amongst many other burials and cremations, two unique skeletons. Due to their state of preservation, it was some time before archaeologists realised that the male and female skeletons were composed of bones from numerous individuals, making two composite beings, using body parts from people who had died over a period of six hundred years. Not only that, the remains of the deceased individuals had been deliberately mummified immediately after death by immersing them in the peat bogs to prevent decomposition.
Were they representing all the ancestors who had passed over to the Otherworld, becoming a point of contact with them? Were they chieftains, seers or shamans? The male was the first to be preserved and placed on display, and he was joined three centuries later by the female. It was only towards the end of the Bronze Age that they were reverently buried and a new site built over their tomb, showing just how long the site was in use and how important a part of the local life these composite ancestors must have been.
It was the peat-cutting at Achmore that had revealed the stone circle where we were now standing. Crofters told Gerald Ponting and Margaret Curtis, two local amateur archaeologists, about the stones in 1981 and they went to have a look. What they found was a ruined but recognisable circle of twenty-two stones, of which only two remain standing, and almost a hundred and thirty-five feet in diameter, built five thousand years ago to mark major solar and lunar events and link them to the land.
In spite of the fact that most of the stones have fallen, it remains in a remarkable state of preservation, thanks to the peat, and allows you to see the way the stones were planted and supported in their sockets with smaller stones.
It still has a distinct presence too, looking out across the lochans and land towards the hills known as Sleeping Beauty, or the Cailleach na Mointeach, ‘the Old Woman of the Moors’; hills that resemble a woman laid on her back on the horizon and who, from Achmore… and only from here… is obviously pregnant. That the composite figure of Maiden, Mother and Crone can only be seen from this point must have given the site a very special place at the heart of the complex of circles, avenues and standing stones that spreads across this part of the island.
The morning mists veiled the distant hills, allowing us brief glimpses of the reclining goddess as we walked the circle. Stones rest against the peat banks and drown in the clear water that pools in every depression. The ground is a mass of miniature plant life and wildflowers, seeking shelter on the exposed moorland from the winter gales by clinging low to the earth. Only the deceptively fragile harebells and Scottish thistles raise their heads above the grass. Below us, lochs shimmered silver in the early light and around us pale, lichen-covered stone seemed to glow. It was a magical way to begin the day.