Goddess and Archaeoastronomy in the Western Isles
By Grahame Gardner
Originally published in Vol. 41 number 293, September 2006 issue of Dowsing Today, the journal of the BSD.
I was sitting on a sheepskin, my back against one of the stones of Callanish II stone ring on Lewis, gazing southwards towards the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ mountain in Harris where the lowest full moon since 1987 was expected to rise. I had waited over 20 years for this event and the air was heady with anticipation. The sun had set in a red blaze to the north-east, and the midges were getting pretty ferocious. There was a light breeze, but not enough to deter the little blighters. I hoped that my liberal application of Avon ‘Skin-so-Soft’ was still providing protection against them as I pulled my hat tighter down over my ears and tried to relax and tune into the stone. A girl’s voice singing a haunting air carried faintly on the still night from Callanish III stones a couple hundred yards to the northeast, but no other sounds disturbed the silence. I realised that at this moment in time, I was perfectly at peace with myself and the world…
The subject of archaeoastronomy was regarded practically as heresy in archaeological circles until fairly recently. But slowly it is regaining acceptance as more study is done on megalithic sites. Solar alignments from ancient sites are relatively easy to demonstrate as the apparent position of sunrises throughout the year has not moved much since Neolithic times, and the sun’s cycle is regular and fairly easy to plot. Not so the moon, however. Because of the wobble of the moon’s orbit above and below the ecliptic (a bit like a plate spinning on its rim), it can go through extremes of rising and setting positions in a month that the sun takes a year to follow. Add to this the greater wobble of the 19-year ‘Metonic cycle’ and other longer-term rhythms, and many archaeologists would argue that any lunar alignments at sites are impossible as these cycles are just too long-term to have been recorded by the ancients. I’ve always taken the view that, just because the cycles would require observation by more than one generation, this doesn’t mean that they weren’t trying to observe and record them. And the main site at Callanish is unequivocally designed for observation of the major southern standstill, as archaeologists Gerald and Margaret (now Curtis) Ponting rediscovered back in the 1980’s. In their little booklet New Light on the Stones of Callanish they demonstrate how, when viewed from the end of the avenue, the low moon skims just above the stones of the east row before setting behind the rocky outcrop of Cnoc-an-Tursa to the south of the stones. Then the magic happens… for a brief moment the moon re-appears in the centre of the circle, just between the tallest megalith and the cairn, and then vanishes once more. This will only happen at the major standstill, and it was this image that had inspired me and many others to make the pilgrimage to be here at this time.
What is the lunar standstill?
When the moon is at major standstill as it is this year, the rising and setting positions are at their most extreme northerly and southerly points. At the northernmost extreme, these are further north than the summer solstice sun rise and set positions. Likewise at the southernmost extreme, they are further south than the winter solstice sun. Both the northern and southern major extremes will occur in one lunar month. In this case, the moon was new when it rose at the northern major standstill point, and so we couldn’t see it. But two weeks later, it was at the major southernmost rising point. It is this moment that the stone sites of Callanish are designed to observe. The northerly latitude of Callanish means that the moon at southern extreme never appears higher than about two degrees above the horizon. (At the minor standstill, which is a bit harder to spot and so doesn’t get as much attention, the lunar extremes are within the sun’s summer and winter solstice positions. The minor standstill occurs half-way through the 19-year Metonic cycle, or about 9 years from now.)
Despite the strict Presbyterianism of Lewis and Harris, I’ve always found the islands to have a strong feminine energy to them. Indications of Goddess are everywhere if you know where to look. Even the name of the islands – ‘Hebrides’ – means ‘Bride’s Islands’, according to the Carmina Gaedelica. This land is old; so old that the rocks have no fossils in them and their very name – Lewissian Gneiss – evokes their gnarly, wrinkled appearance. These are surely the bones of the Cailleach, the Creator-Goddess of Celtic myth. Driving north from the ferry port at Tarbert, climbing upwards through the spectacular mountains of North Harris, she looms up to the east – the Cailleach na Mointeach, or Old Woman of the Moor, although everyone nowadays knows her as The Sleeping Beauty. Even at this close range it’s possible to make out the features of her ‘face’, casting her watchful eye over us as we entered her realm. From any of the sites in the Callanish area, the recumbent Goddess nature is much more evident, and the standstill moon is seen to rise from her belly and skim low over her face. Viewed from the ruined circle at Achmore halfway along the road to Callanish, she even appears to be pregnant, with the conical bulk of Beinn Mhor behind providing her bulging belly.
We had six days ahead of us, staying in a lovely self-catering house in Callanish village, which provided ample opportunity to dowse amongst the stones of the main site. I spent three evenings up at the stones dowsing the energies along the stones of the avenue and around the centre circle. I found an 11-band energy ley running the length of the avenue that was as wide as the stones during the day but which rapidly narrowed to around three to four feet after sunset. Smaller leys ran off along the eastern and western arms, and I dowsed strong water lines under the cairn in front of the tallest megalith, and also interestingly under the Cnoc-an-Tursa to the south of the site. One night when the moon was high in the sky over the stones, I remembered my training with Billy Gawn on planetary grids, and dowsed the moon’s grid at about 60ft. spacing and roughly aligned with the avenue, with only two longitudinal lines almost at the edges of the site. But it’s a big site to dowse comprehensively, and most of the time I preferred just to be with the stones, feeling their energy, looking at their alignments, tuning into the site. The majesty of the place is overpowering at times.
On the whole, the weather was exceptional and we had some gloriously sunny days in which to explore the island. We visited several of the local sites, all of which have tongue-mangling Gaelic names but are easier to identify by the Callanish site numbering system. The closest to the main stones, Callanish II and III, are visible a few hundred yards to the east across a minor inlet of Loch Roag. Callanish III is nearest to the road, and is an interesting circle with interior horseshoe, once used by Midge Ure and Ultravox to record a pop video. We never seemed to get this one to ourselves; being close to the road it attracts a fair number of visitors. Callanish II is a short boggy walk to the southwest and a much more peaceful circle with five stones still erect. Somehow it had a more feminine feel to it, and its gentle presence kept drawing us back to it. About a mile away, on the road to Uig and Bernera, Callanish IV sits on a peaty plateau not far from the road. A new pathway has been constructed to ease access onto the peat bog, but this is one circle that holds its space very strongly, as the peat has been removed from the interior of the circle, resulting in a nice boggy pond within the mossy stones. No need to dowse for blind springs then! This site does not have a good view of the low moon, but it does serve as an indicator for the rising position from other sites, and may have been marked by a beacon fire. Rather ironic that it is now filled with water!
Just across the bridge onto Great Bernera is Callanish VIII, a very interesting site. Sitting right on the cliff edge is a half-circle of ancient gnarled stones gazing over the loch like hooded watchers. There is no evidence of landslip, so it would appear that this was never intended as a full circle of stones, making it unique in my experience. These stones have great character and some very interesting alignments to horizon notches, one of which indicates the setting of the low moon. I would have liked to have spent more time here, but the howling wind made it rather inhospitable so we beat a hasty retreat back to the car.
Our next encounter with Goddess was on Saturday, when we headed north to Habost for a talk by artist, writer and pilgrim Jill Smith. Jill spent ten years living on Lewis in the 1980’s and was here for the last major standstill in 1987, so I was looking forward to her talk. We had met Jill in the stones late one night, and she had told us of Bride’s Well (Tobar Bhrighde) in Melbost Borve. This is one of the hidden sacred wells of the island, which are detailed in a lovely little book by Finlay MacLeod. The well was reputed to be good for the treatment of jaundice, and there used to be a Teampull Bhrighde nearby. This is one of very few wells in the Western Isles to have a feminine dedication (Bhrighde of course became St. Bridget), and it used to be cared for by women of the village until relatively recently. It is housed in a stone-built box with a concrete capstone bearing the imprint of a horseshoe – very appropriate for Bhrighde is the patron of smiths amongst her other roles. There is a small stone-built channel from the wellhead that normally channels the water off into a buried conduit, but when we arrived this was choked with mud and weeds and the water was mossy and stagnant. A few minutes work by all of us lying on the ground pulling weeds out of the channel soon got rid of the obstructions, and the water immediately sparkled and gurgled down the conduit as though it was glad to be free once more. The water in the wellhead was cold and clean to taste. Before leaving, we held hands and attuned around the wellhead, invoking a strong presence of Bhrighde. Afterwards we replaced the cover stone to stop lambs falling in, left offerings of local flowers and some incense, and continued up to Habost. Here we found far too many people trying to squeeze into a very small hall to hear Jill’s talk. It was interesting to hear of her experiences living on the islands, and see her artwork based around the moon and The Sleeping Beauty mountain. Jill has done a lot of research into the myths of the islands, and in her latest book she explores these from a Goddess-centred perspective. One landscape Goddess she described that was new to me was the ‘Hag Mountain’ in Harris. She guards a pass between the east and west sides of the island, an old drove road passing right behind her ‘head’. After the Clearances, when people were forced to move from the fertile machair of the west side to the less hospitable rocky east side of the island, the pass became their ‘corpse road’ to carry the departed back to the old cemetery beside the beach in the west. Flat-topped rocks show where they rested the coffin. In true spirit path fashion, the pass is perfectly straight for most of its length.
Right at the southernmost tip of Harris is the lovely 16th Century St. Clement’s church at Rodel, burial place of MacLeod clan chiefs, which has some outstanding carved stones inside. It’s worth climbing the tower for the views, and be sure to spend a little time reading the gravestones as there are some wonderfully verbose epitaphs to be found. On the side of the tower there is another Goddess – a rather blatant ‘Sheela-na-Gig’ adorns the south wall. Somewhat surprising to see one in this location, but I love these carved expressions of feminine fecundity; like their masculine counterpart the Green Man they hark back to a time when folks were closer to the cycles of the land and the seasons, and they remind us to pay attention to that connection with Nature.
I was doing my best to enhance that connection as I leaned back against the stone in Callanish II and tried to draw some warmth from it. The sky was relatively clear but a triple-goddess of fiery cloud-forms chased northwards after the departed sun, appearing as a mother with child, a Queen with crown and sword, and a cloaked and bowed crone. We could hardly have asked for a better day-sign, and yet as we peered into the thickening murk to the south it looked as though clouds might be gathering. This did not bode well for seeing the moonrise! I wasn’t exactly sure what time it was due, but I reckoned it would be within an hour of sunset. A couple of nights before it had been rising just before sunset and riding high in the sky, and it was hard to believe that this night it would barely rise more than a finger’s width above the hills. We had the circle to ourselves – a couple who had been there for the sunset had been beaten off by the midges – and we waited in meditative silence, peering into the darkness.
As midnight approached I was considering giving up, as I was sure the moonrise must have been obscured by clouds. I stood to restore some circulation to my legs, silently cursing the cloudy skies that deprive us in the UK of so many of these celestial events, and gave one last glance towards the south, where a faint coppery glow was just suffusing over the Sleeping Beauty’s thighs. This was it! An ululation of welcome could be heard from the main site, and in awed reverence we stood as the most beautiful golden disk slid majestically into the sky over the recumbent Goddess. I could feel the stones of the circle come alive around us as they drank in the lunar energy. We watched for an hour or two as the moon rolled low over the body and face of the Sleeping Beauty, then as some clouds started to develop, we walked up to the main stones to join with the rest of the throng. The energy was completely different and more chaotic – there really were lots of people here! After wandering around listening to the djembes and didgeridoos in the circle, I ended up down at the end of the avenue, the recommended viewing position for this event, where already there were a few camp chairs and even a wicker sofa in position. I found that I was standing behind Margaret Curtis, the archaeologist who brought this lunar phenomenon to public eye. Definitely the right spot to be in!
The clouds cleared long enough for a good view of the moon skimming over the stones of the east row as it moved towards setting, but soon the moon was completely obscured and we could only guess at its position. It looked like that was the end of the show, but there was still half an hour or so before the scheduled setting time, so I took the opportunity for some deviceless dowsing of the site. I saw that the moon grid had moved somewhat from where I’d dowsed it before, and the longitudinal lines had moved to the west, bringing one of them just inside the line of the avenue stones. I was able to use the position of this line to have a fair idea of the moon’s position. The energy ley of the avenue was also slightly wider than it had been after sunset on previous nights, but still only four or five feet wide. Still watching the longitudinal line of the moon grid moving towards the centre of the avenue, I returned to stand behind Margaret and waited, hoping to catch the ‘re-gleam’ in the centre of the circle. The prospect wasn’t made any easier by the hordes of people in the circle, together with an Australian film crew and numerous other photographers’ tripods, but right at the crucial minute there was a brief coppery flash in the middle of the circle, like a candle flame guttering, and then it was gone. It felt like the clocks had been reset; the old cycle had ended and a new pattern had emerged to set the tone for the next 19 years. And it struck me that it’s not the major life events like marriage or birth or career successes that define our own existence and provide the waypoints in our lives. It’s moments like this, when you stand in awe of the majesty of nature and marvel at Neolithic peoples’ astronomical ability. These are the moments when you stand humbled before the Gods and you know that everything in your life is going to be different from that point forward. By this time the sky was very light and dawn was fast approaching. We were leaving for home in the morning, so reluctantly we decided not to watch the sunrise and headed for bed.
I thought then that Goddess had finished with us, but she had one more encounter up her sleeve. On our route south to the ferry we made a detour to look at a little ruined stone circle on the shore of Loch Seaforth, right in the shadow of the Sleeping Beauty. Only two obvious standing stones remained; the rest seemed to be built into the walls of a ruined house. It served as a poignant reminder that our relationship with megalithic sites was not always as enlightened as it is today; in the relatively recent past they were just a handy source of building stone. On our return to the car, parked by a house at the end of the road, an old crone in traditional housecoat and slippers emerged to greet us. This was Mary Kate MacLennan, a 100-year-old widow who lives on her own beside the loch, almost three miles from the main road. She invited us, three complete strangers, into her house and told us stories about her hard life and her family, and was almost in tears as she reminisced about the sadder episodes of her past. Her birthday card from the Queen was proudly displayed on the window ledge, nestling amongst her other photographs and memorabilia. I felt sure she was just about to offer us some tea and scones when the phone rang and interrupted her, whereupon we took our leave. But not before she made sure that we had her address so we could write to her. “Everybody knows me”, she said. “I’m the Cailleach of the Lochs”.
I smiled. Goddess had given us her final blessing. It was time to go home.
© Grahame Gardner & BSD 2006
 Jill Smith, ‘The Callanish Dance’.
 Finlay MacLeod, ‘The Healing Wells of the Western Isles’.
 Jill Smith, ‘Mother of the Isles’.
 Most graveyards in the islands are near the sea; often it’s the only place with enough depth of soil for a grave.