It was definitely a first… I have never stood within one distinct stone circle and been able to look at two others on the near horizon. The stone circle of Callanish II, otherwise known as Cnoc Ceann a’Gharaidh, stands just three hundred feet from the shore of Loch Roag, within sight of the Callanish Stones, and nine hundred feet west of Callanish III. And you can feel it.
You have to wonder at their alignment, especially when you later realise that they are just one small grouping amongst nine stone circles within a ten mile radius… with at least another six known on this one small island.
The stones themselves are arranged in an elliptical ‘circle’ around a central cairn almost twenty-eight feet in diameter, which was almost certainly a burial mound. Many of the stones of the cairn have been scattered and it could easily be missed by the casual visitor… but there is a presence at this place that makes itself felt, millennia after the site was built.
Antiquarians explored the site in the nineteenth century, noting that the space within the stones was ‘causewayed’. Small holes, lined with pebbles were also found which were probably post holes and may have supported a wooden structure within the stones.
The place reminds me of a circle on the moors in Yorkshire that is thought to have been a place where the dead were prepared for burial. If that were so, then perhaps the presence of water, so close and separating this circle from the main monument of Callanish might be significant… the lands of the living held apart from the lands of the dead… though which would be which?
In front of the cairn is a stone slab, laid in the grass. I wondered if it had ever been designed to stand or whether it was a place of preparation? The Old Ones cleaned the flesh from the bones of the dead as part of their funerary rites.
To modern minds, this may seem barbarous or disgusting, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense in an era when there was no way to preserve flesh from decay and when the presence of the ancestral bones at the heart of many rites was considered both necessary and sacred.
Cleaning the bones may even have represented part of the rite of passage for the deceased, helping them on their way to the Otherworld by hastening the process, aiding the spirit to detach itself from life. In which case, defleshing their remains would have been a gesture of both love and respect.
There are only five of the circle’s stones now standing. The smallest is six and a half feet tall, while the tallest is nearly eleven feet in height. Their presence matches their stature and each stone has a distinct character.
There are traditional attributions for the shapes of certain stones. The Maiden stone is usually the triangular stone in a circle. The Mother is red, the Crone heavily textured and gnarled… while the masculine force is often marked by a stone heavily veined with quartz. At least one stone from this circle was lost. Thought to have Ogham carvings on its side, it was removed to Stornoway for ‘safekeeping’ and placed by the gates of Lews Castle… where it was later ‘accidentally’ broken up and used as building material…
As with many of the ancient places on these isles, little official excavation has been done to date… so we were able to wander between the stones, taking time getting to know each of them without preconceptions… simply feeling our way to the spirit of the place. But we were far from done with another circle peeping at us from the crest of the hill…