The Stones of Lewis, Portals in Time | by Hugh Raffles

Standing stones
Hugh RafflesThe stones of Callanish (Calanais), Isle of Lewis, Scotland, 2010

At Ullapool, on the Scottish mainland, I waited for the ferry to Stornoway, the one city on the Isle of Lewis, probably the most northerly of the Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles. It takes two and a half hours to cross the Minch, the forty-mile strait shaped 1.2 billion years in the past when a meteorite blasted a channel between what are actually the Northwest Highlands of Scotland and these outlying islands. Sitting within the pale daylight, contemplating the enormity of that fiery descent and ferocious influence, I used to be suddenly flooded with the reminiscence of being right here earlier than, at Ullapool, on this similar line, ready for this similar Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, the exact same boat, in reality, in what will need to have been late December 1975.

I used to be with my sister Franki and her boyfriend, Martin, of their overheated automotive with its steamed-up home windows, and we had been on our technique to the falling-down farmhouse that they, hippie Marxist homesteaders, had been rebuilding at Callanish (because it was referred to as earlier than Gaelicization restored it to Calanais), just under the well-known standing stones, the so-called Stonehenge of the North. Ullapool was already the furthest north I’d then been, however we had been going additional, heading throughout the water into uncharted vacancy, it appeared to me. However I used to be with Franki, so it was the vacancy of risk, not of the void.

The void got here twenty years later, on an unseasonably heat night, December 8, 1994, when the telephone rang in my two-room New York Metropolis condo on the fourth ground of a constructing on Tenth Road, simply west of Second Avenue. It was my sister Emma, who instructed me that Franki had died, with out warning, after hemorrhaging below anesthetic in Edinburgh Hospital whereas giving delivery to twins. So now, again in Ullapool for the primary time in a few years, and seeing once more the identical battened-down buildings, the identical grey water, the identical postcard port, the identical slim streets, all apparently unchanged but now made fairly totally different by the disquiets of time, I remembered that once I answered that decision, the picture that flooded my thoughts was of the hillside behind Franki’s home: the climb to the stones, there at the hours of darkness, on the crag, above the ocean, above her home, going through the hills, on the Isle of Lewis, probably the most northerly of the Western Isles.


Lewis is breathtaking in its bleakness. The seventeen-mile drive throughout the island from Stornoway to Calanais ought to take thirty minutes, however I saved stopping, pressured to a halt by the stillness, the silence, the straightforward pressure of the views.

Scottish island landscape
Hugh RafflesThe Isle of Lewis, Scotland, July 2013

Lewis is a small place, however its story is immense. 4 hundred and forty thousand years in the past, ice, in locations nearly a half-mile thick, coated this land, turning the Outer Hebrides into one thing like northern Greenland in the present day. The ice flowed east throughout the Minch to Scotland and again once more; it flowed west into the ocean so far as St. Kilda, greater than forty miles offshore. It transfigured the islands, scouring and splitting the bedrock, gouging out valleys and hills, advancing and retreating till the onset of hotter temperatures and heavy rains round 7000 BCE. The panorama it left was ragged and dramatic: roches moutonnées, whalebacks, crag-and-tail ridges, and frost-shattered pinnacles; large erratics and smaller boulders dropped removed from their origins; the desolate cnoc-and-lochan moors that lure the northern solar in numerous swimming pools like a splintered mirror.

Because the ice ages melted away, the peat lavatory that now blankets a lot of Lewis started to develop. That peat, shaped principally from sphagnum moss and heather buried and compacted in acidic, waterlogged soils above the impermeable glacial until, was as soon as the only real gasoline for the island’s crofters; and even in the present day, it’s lower and stacked to dry in darkish, cairnlike piles. The peat right here could be 4 thousand years previous and deep sufficient to disguise or solely cowl historical monuments. And beneath it, beneath the glacial until, is the bedrock, Lewisian gneiss, shut to 3 billion years previous, among the many oldest rock on the planet, rock that began life as churning magma dozens of miles underground within the Earth’s mantle, cooling, solidifying, and crystallizing into igneous granites, granodiorites, tonalites, basalts, and gabbros, then buried, reheated, sheared, and recrystallized, crushed, twisted, stretched, pressed, and folded in a minimum of two main metamorphic, mountain-building occasions occurring over the following 1.5 billion years—warped and recast in such tortured ways in which their authentic options, the defining traits of the protoliths of those islands, had been totally erased.

Lewisian gneiss, within the phrases of the archaeologist Colin Richards, is “rock that when seen and dealt with is rarely forgotten.” Getting back from Calanais one summer season afternoon, I picked up two unassuming, hand-sized blocks on a jagged hillside suffering from glacial particles as if from the aftermath of a planetary collision. As I write, they sit earlier than me on the desk: tough, coarse-grained granitic rocks, one with thick, confused layers of pale pink, the opposite bigger, darker, “houndstooth stone” Seamus Heaney might need referred to as it, implacable and exacting, he might need mentioned, stippled black and grey matrix, skinny parallel pink veins. One billion years in the past, following millennia of uplift and erosion, the gneiss breached the floor with its psychedelic ripples and baroque bands—the grey and pink of quartz, feldspar, and granite; the darkish inexperienced and black of hornblende and biotite mica. Resting on the sidelines within the Hebridean terrane, a foreland of the North American craton Laurentia on the margins of the long-closed, historical Iapetus Ocean, it escaped the tectonic drama of the Caledonian orogeny, and so preserved the proof of far older geological occasions.

Essentially the most stable of rocks, they’re heavy; cautious of dropping them, I maintain them tight and consider them touring by the frozen earth, the floating earth, the molten earth, the locations they’ve been, the life they’ve seen, two-thirds of the best way again to the start of the planet, far past the Ordovician with its horseshoe crabs, its cartilaginous fish, and its marine mass extinctions; far past the Cambrian with its trilobites, its brand-new chordates, and its paradigm-confounding explosion of multicellular organisms, the primary eukaryotic cells, and the build-up of atmospheric oxygen; again past the Proterozoic and into the Archaean, the formation of the primary micro organism and the primary continental plates, an unsettled, still-cooling planet taking form beneath an ammonia-and-methane-filled environment; stopping simply in need of the lip of vacancy, the cusp of what geologists think about as a liquid floor of swirling gasoline, brimstone, and fireplace, the hellish Hadean.


The A859 street to Calanais follows the stream of the Black River by northern Lewis, retaining near what was most likely the principle land path to the monument in Neolithic instances.

Approaching from the east, a succession of circles is silhouetted starkly towards the sky on hilltops and outcroppings above the valley. Colin Richards and his crew walked this and a second path to the principal monument at Calanais. It was as in the event that they had been transferring by “a strategy of unwrapping,” a theatrically structured and choreographed journey through which concealment progressively provides technique to unveiling because the protected central house is neared. Richards and his colleagues determined that the websites they handed had been one thing like film flats, simulacra of monuments—circles flattened into ellipses to extend the visible influence from beneath, slabs chosen for his or her outstanding veins of reflective quartz and positioned to catch the solar, giant stones propped up with blocks fairly than mounted in sockets—fast, jerry-built buildings in an structure of deception and phantasm.

Standing stones
Hugh RafflesStanding stones, Lewis, 2013

In contrast, ever because the arrival of the author Martin Martin in 1696, guests have acknowledged that the central monument and its satellites had been constructed to final. Martin, a local of close by Skye, traveled to Lewis on the behest of the antiquarian, collector, and founding benefactor of the British Museum, Hans Sloane, then secretary of the Royal Society. A speaker of Gaelic, graduate of Edinburgh College, and tutor to chiefs of the Highland clans, Martin might transfer between two elites—the best envoy to a area that was as distant, primitive, and unique to most Scots because it was to the London literati. Calanais, he reported, was “a spot appointed for worship within the time of heathenism” the place “the chief druid or priest stood close to the massive stone within the heart, from whence he addressed himself to the those who surrounded him.” Set excessive on its broad ridge, the location had an uncommon cruciform structure. An imposing avenue results in a small circle dominated by an enormous monolith almost fifteen ft tall; further, shorter avenues attain out from both facet, and, to the south, a single line of stones as soon as stretched all the best way to Cnoc an Tursa, a big outcrop of Lewisian gneiss, the rocky crag 100 ft above sea stage that I used to climb from Franki’s home.


I used to be shouldering a heavy pink backpack belonging to the researcher Margaret Curtis as she strode briskly forward of me between the stones. The monument was laid out round 3000 BCE, and, quickly after, a chambered cairn was inbuilt its heart. Someday between 1500 and 1000 BCE, the location was ransacked after which harrowed—most likely by Bronze Age farmers, maybe to neutralize and negate its energy—and it fell into centuries of disuse. Peat 5 ft deep amassed right here within the millennia following this abandonment till, in 1857, the island’s proprietor, Sir James Matheson, ordered his males to take away each the peat and the native crofters, and to erect a platform over the just-discovered cairn, in order that his spouse and visitors might view the newly imposing stones and their tidemarks.

Matheson had bought your complete Isle of Lewis in 1844 for £190,000, only a fraction of his fortune from Jardine, Matheson & Co., the Hong Kong-based buying and selling agency he based in 1832, extra an empire than a agency, probably the most highly effective of the British opium-trading homes. (It survives to this present day—as a vastly diversified holding firm with pursuits that span monetary providers, supermarkets, engineering, vehicles, eating places, mining, property, and agribusiness.) Matheson was solely forty-six when he retired to the Hebrides and constructed Lews Fort, the mock-Gothic fortress that dominates Stornoway Harbor and instructions the attention because the ferry cautiously maneuvers its manner into the sheltered port. Simply seen inside the walled grounds is the Matheson Monument, a white neoclassical confection with Greco-Roman columns topped by opium poppies that body a statue of a nymphlike girl, her face solid down in a gesture of Victorian modesty. On its pedestal, Woman Mary Jane Matheson’s inscription describes her husband as “a toddler of God, residing evidently below the affect of His Holy Spirit,” a formulation that captures the evangelical thrust of even the murkiest colonial enterprise.

My sister Franki was a photographer, and so, it occurs, was Woman Matheson, an novice in an age when it was uncommon though not unknown for rich girls to take up the brand new know-how. Franki made documentary images, nearly completely of girls, photographs with a powerful ethnographic sensibility, usually of girls at work, in Russia, China, and Israel, however principally in Scotland, emphasizing power, endurance, resilience, solidarity, but additionally social precarity—photographs steadily produced in collaboration with Scottish feminist and left campaigns and organizations. Lots of Woman Mary Jane’s images had been of girls, too—of associates and family, guests to Lews Fort—portraits taken within the grounds utilizing unwieldy wet-collodion plates, salted paper and albumen prints that open an enigmatic window onto a dreamworld of picnics, taking pictures events, and parlor video games created by individuals who should absolutely at instances have questioned why they’d chosen to stay their lives on this far-flung island that inside just a few years of their arrival was visited by pestilence and hunger.

In 1846 and 1847, potatoes, the subsistence crop of the cottar subtenants who composed almost half the inhabitants on some Hebridean estates, failed nearly solely. Prolonged moist climate supplied excellent situations for Phytophthora infestans, the potato blight that was bringing disaster to Eire, and which, within the Highlands and Islands, though much less excessive, produced most of the similar results—famine, enclosure, and emigration—results exacerbated by the agricultural reforms that Matheson started implementing as quickly as he arrived on Lewis. Three-quarters of the landed estates within the Highlands and Islands had modified fingers in the course of the first forty years of the nineteenth century. And it was males equivalent to Matheson, with earnings from sources that freed them from having to make their estates pay—colonial commerce, trade, and the professions—who swept away the hereditary lairds and the previous lifestyle. With the blight presenting a chance for broad transformation, Matheson drew up emigration packages for cottars and crofters who fell into arrears, in addition to for residents of townships positioned on land appropriate for sheep grazing. Between 1851 and 1854, the Stornoway Sheriff ’s Court docket issued twelve hundred eviction notices on an island with a inhabitants of lower than nineteen thousand. Within the decade throughout which the famine raged, shut to 14 thousand folks left the Hebrides to start uncharted lives in North America.


It took a minute for Margaret Curtis to retrieve the picket board on which she’d neatly taped an 1854 engraving made by James Kerr, Matheson’s clerk of works, that exhibits idealized crofters amassing peat from a deep lower throughout the east row of the monument. Margaret sheltered within the lee of a big stone, gneiss studded with gleaming black hornblende, and rummaged within the large rucksack on my again. Summer time on Lewis, the wind blowing a gale—Margaret’s lengthy white hair flapping gaily within the wind.

Composite with archaeologist's sketches
Hugh RafflesWith Margaret Curtis, archaeological researcher, Callanish, 2013

Margaret desires Calanais included on the UNESCO register of World Heritage Websites. She juggled maps and boards, pulling diagrams and pictures from the backpack like a magican, mentioning alignments and azimuths, foresights and backsights, horizon factors and declinations, sky, panorama, and stone. She demonstrated for me how she’d used the surveys drawn by Martin Martin and people who adopted him to trace the historical past of a monument that has consumed her since she arrived right here in 1974, fleeing rural Suffolk together with her first husband, disillusioned with the urbanization of the English countryside and transferring right into a home lower than a mile from the stones, the place, like Franki and her Martin, they pursued “a crofting life-style with hens, goats, sheep, greens, haymaking and peat-cutting,” as they described in one of many books they later wrote about their analysis on the stones.

Margaret marched me across the stones, laying out the case for the monument as an astronomical temple aligned so that each 18.6 years—when the moon’s month-to-month swing is at its widest—a viewer standing on the north finish of the avenue would witness the large full moon, low on the horizon at this latitude, skimming the hills to the south, disappearing, then dramatically “re-gleaming” inside the circle because it passes by a deep notch within the Clisham hills to the north. The official signal on the fundamental web site reads: “The aim of the stones stays a thriller…Elsewhere the builders clearly oriented monuments in keeping with astronomical occasions such because the midwinter dawn and sundown. It’s unclear whether or not this was the case at Calanais.” However Margaret was undeterred. She confirmed me the reattached tip of a damaged stone that she’d discovered constructed into the wall surrounding the location, and one other stone that had been buried till she positioned it and had it raised.

Afterward, over tea and cake within the guests’ heart, she instructed me in regards to the goddess worshippers and Earth mysteries believers who’ve flocked to Calanais since she started her work, in regards to the psychics and American Indian healers she’s met right here, their intense reactions to the location, their visions of processions of menstruating girls in flowing blue robes. As she talked, I abruptly realized that Franki’s home was demolished to make manner for the glass-walled café through which we had been sitting. “It’s the gaps within the circle that matter, not the stones,” Margaret mentioned, as if catching my thought, and pulled out {a photograph} of an enormous pink moon pouring its fireplace into the monument.


On the south finish of the monument, the stones result in Cnoc an Tursa, above the place Franki’s home was. Each Margaret Curtis and Colin Richards agree that, at one time, a row or avenue of stones would have prolonged all the best way right here from the circle. A contemporary stone wall now cuts it off from the principle web site, however as soon as the alignment has been identified, the crag’s standing because the climax and focus of your complete advanced appears indeniable. Cnoc an Tursa is cleft by a fissure that cuts proper by it. From above, it types a straight line that, as Margaret exhibits me, factors on to the hills within the south. From the entrance, approached from the circle, the cleft is a darkish opening, a gap that, as Richards says, seems to be an entrance into the rock itself.

Rocky outcrop on Scottish island
Hugh RafflesCnoc an Tursa, Lewis, Scotland, July 2013

At one time, a big monolith stood straight in entrance of this opening. Although it was later eliminated, there’s proof of fireside and different actions in the identical location and of two burial cairns on the highest of the crag. If, as many archaeologists consider, Calanais was the middle of the Hebrides and of a seagoing northern Neolithic world that encompassed Orkney, the Boyne Valley in Eire, and Carnac in Brittany, maybe Cnoc an Tursa was the sacred heart of Calanais. Maybe every part led right here, yet one more rocky cleft into yet one more determinant world, the sulfurous Hadean, the light albumen prints, the cussed vitality of even probably the most useless issues, yet one more axis mundi linking worlds as unbreachable in the present day as they had been 5 thousand years in the past. Unbreachable and unfathomable, however no extra so, to me, than the twenty-five years since my sister died. Standing on the entrance, I felt her someplace close to. If solely I knew the rituals required. Maybe then this cleft would open large and swallow me, too.

The essay is tailored from the creator’s The Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time, printed by Pantheon Books, an imprint of Penguin Randomhouse.

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