You’ll have to wait until 2025 to witness the full cosmic glory of the Callanish Stones—but we’d prefer that you join us much sooner.
Question: Where in the world were the pagans so patient that they built a ritual site that only “works” every 18.6 years?
Answer: The Callanish Stones, Lewis Island, Scotland
Lewis Island in the Outer Hebrides is studded with Neolithic structures. The best known is the grouping called the Callanish Stones. Forming a rough cruciform shape, with a circular cluster of 13 standing stones at its heart, the site was a setting for pagan rituals for 1,500 years, reaching its peak activity during the early Bronze Age.
What exactly the stones were used for most of the time is unknown, but one ritual has been clearly revealed: the celebration of the Lunar Standstill. The orbit of the moon yields a pattern that varies, year to year, in the distance between its highest and lowest points at moonrise and moonset. The Lunar Standstill, which occurs every 18.6 years, comes during a time when the distance between the moon’s peak and nadir is widest, which remains true for an entire month, before it continues on its pattern of narrower and narrower distances between extremes. The term standstill is confusing because the moon itself does seem to move across the horizon—it is its closeness to the earth and relative stability of height that makes it distinct at this time.
Why early pagans found this significant—or how they even calculated it—is up for debate, but it is clear that it mattered, because the Callanish Stones only reveal their true engineering genius during the Lunar Standstill. When that cosmic event occurs, the moon follows the long column of stones end to end, appearing to walk down the aisle.
Its progress during this event illuminates the Cailleach Na Mointeach (Old Woman of the Moors), the hilly skyline to the northeast. When backlit by the moon, the landscape appears to be the body of a woman reclining on the earth. At Lunar Standstill, the moon appears at her feet, travels the length of her body, illuminating her curves as it goes, and then sinks out of sight past her head. It’s a memorable image—some say worth waiting almost 19 years for.
The site was abandoned by 800 B.C., but the pagans’ handiwork never fails. The full effect was last witnessed in summer of 2006, which means the next show isn’t until spring 2025.
Callanish Stones across the Millennia
- The stone circle was erected around 2900 B.C. which makes it a peer of Stonehenge
- Each of the stones is a multi-ton slab of Lewisian gneiss laced with quartz, feldspar, or hornblende. The creators harvested them at the coast and dragged them miles inland to erect on this site.
- The monolith in the center of the ring at Callanish is 15 feet tall and 5 feet wide but only a foot thick.
- The parallel rows of columns that run off the circle are not actually perpendicular, but fan out slightly and end up further apart at the far end, creating a Celtic cross from above.
- According to oral history, a chief druid stood near the monolith in the center and addressed the crowds of believers.
- Sometime after the stones were assembled, a tomb was dug into the earth near the monolith. Cookware, cleaning tools, and pottery were buried here with the dead.
- Late Bronze Age farmers took over the site and eventually turf grew in. After farming activity ceased too, the earth subsumed the base of the stones.
- In the 1600’s, locals call the stones fir bhrèige, which means “false men,” claiming that they were giants who refused to convert to Christianity and were then petrified by God.
- In the 1700’s, local lore held that a mythic deity known as “the Shining One” would walk the length of the stone rows on the morning of Midsummer, accompanied by the song of the cuckoo.
- The true height of the stones not revealed until an excavation cleared away more than five feet of accumulated peat in 1857—which also revealed the tomb, which locals had not known existed.
- In 1885, Scotland took over control of the site to preserve its heritage and minimize the effect of spectators from around the globe; this was good thinking as visitors now number 40,000 per year.
- Though Lunar Standstill is only every 18.6 years, the summer solstice still always draws a crowd. Onlookers are serenaded by local musicians singing Gaelic folk songs at twilight, as close we can come today to the early spirit of Callanish.
Steep yourself in the legends and lore of Scotland, including the Outer Hebrides, on our Maritime Jewels of the British Isles & Ireland Small Ship Adventure.