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family holiday let isle of skye
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Besides stone circles, the islanders erected other tall stones, either singly or in groups, that still dominate the landscape today. North Uist has three, known as Na Fir Bhreige, the Liars. In Mull, Coll and Tiree they are particularly plentiful, while the moors of Lewis are dominated by Clach an Trushal, a monolith standing to a height of nearly 19 feet. But Lewis contains a far greater marvel in the stones of Callanish.
The complex consists of a flattened circle of stones on a high ridge overlooking Loch Roag, with a monolith over 16 feet high in its centre. A long processional way approaches it between a double line of stones, while single lines of them extend in other directions from the circle, forming a cross. It was observed long ago that anyone standing on a natural outcrop to the south and looking along the line of stones that form the head of this cross could see the Pole Star directly above the central pillar on a clear night. These stones are aligned due north, although it was not, in fact, Polaris, today’s Pole Star, but Thuban in the constellation of Draco that indicated due north at the time when they were erected. Whereas Stonehenge is situated in a latitude especially suitable for establishing the calendar of the sun which governs the farming cycle, Callanish is well sited for observing the movements of the moon, governess of tides.
About two thousand years after the stones were erected here, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote in 55 BC, after thirty years of travel, that there was an island called Hyperborea, which means ‘Far to the North’, where a round temple stood from which the moon appeared only a little distance above the earth every 19 years. In fact the lunar cycle repeats itself during every 18.61 years of the solar cycle, and when it does so the moon skims less than two degrees above the southern horizon at Callanish, precisely as Diodorus described. No other temple has been found on any island in the north where such a phenomenon can be observed.
Professor Alexander Thom is a leading scholar to have explored the possible significance of Callanish, the henges and monoliths as astronomical observatories. But the archaeologists, Graham and Anna Ritchie, express caution that ‘astronomical observations should not be given too great a prominence in our appreciation of life in the third and second millennia BV, and that they ought not be used to imply a stratified society, a theocratic elite, or a gene pool of mathematically gifted people’.
What is certain is that the folk who raised those stones possessed an astonishing vitality, imagination and skill in the far-off days before people in the islands learned to dissipate their energies in fighting one another. It is equally certain that they received the stimulus of fresh immigrants with new ideas, all the more fruitful because it seems that there was no strife between them.
Identified by the distinctive kind of pottery they made as the Beaker folk, the most portentous new technique they brought with them was metallurgy. The arrival of the Beaker folk in Britain has been dated to 2500 BC, a few years later than the building of Maes Howe, and it was perhaps another 500 years before their knowledge of metal-working spread among the islands – the secret of mixing copper with tin to form a less brittle alloy called bronze. The beaker folk settlements at Northton in Harris and Staneydale in Shetland date from as late as 1500 BC, and this corresponds with the antiquity of a bronze dagger blade discovered at Blackwaterfoot in Arran.