Secrets of hidden stone circles on Scottish island to be unearthed

The hidden histories of a number of buried stone circles on the Isle of Lewis are to be revealed.

The Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. PIC: Colin Macdonald/Flickr
The Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. PIC: Colin Macdonald/Flickr

New funding from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) will allow researchers at the University of St Andrews to unearth more information about the stones that lie buried in the area close to the famous Calanais circle.

It follows an earlier project where a satellite stone circle by Calanais was surveyed with images of the buried stones produced.

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It also emerged during the research project, which was aided by community volunteers, that a major lightning strike hit the centre of the stone circle at some point in time.

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The new project will allow the team, which will work with Urras nan Tursachan, a community-based trust which protects the archaeology of the Outer Hebrides, to extend the investigations to other stone sites that have become lost to the ground.

Importantly, the project will map the Neolithic landscape that has become buried beneath in the peat and submerged offshore in the nearby waters of Loch Roag.

Dr Richard Bates, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of St Andrews, said: “We are extremely pleased to be working with Urras nan Tursachan (UNT) on this exciting new project. The landscape holds so many fascinating secrets that we hope can be addressed through a combination of geophysical remote sensing and boots-on-the-ground with the local community volunteers.”

Urras nan Tursachan has been awarded a £19,920 from HES for the project which will train local volunteers to survey and record the coastal landscape at Calanais.

Researchers will aid the project by using geophysics and traditional survey techniques to gain new insights into the ancient landscape.

The Calanais Standing Stones are a cross-shaped setting of stones that appeared aroud 5,000 years ago.

They predate Stonehenge and were an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years. Although it is not certain why the Calanais stones were put in place, it is widely believed they served as a form of a astronomical observatory.

In 2019 , the team from St Andrews, with colleagues from Bradford University and Trinity St David, University of Wales, were studying Tursachan Calanais, the main stone circle at Calanais, when an examination of a rarely-visited satellite sites revealed evidence for lost circles buried beneath the peat.

At Site XI or Airigh na Beinne Bige, a single standing stone on an exposed hillside overlooks the great circle.

Geophysics revealed that not only was the stone originally part of a circle of standing stones, but also that there was a massive, star-shaped magnetic anomaly in the centre – either the result of a single, large lighting strike or many smaller strikes on the same spot.

HES yesterday announced funding for a total of 18 community-based projects linked to Scotland’s coasts and waters.

Among others who will benefit are the Scottish Crannog Centre at Loch Tay, which has been given more than £18,000 to repair the walkway and decking surrounding the reconstruction of an Iron Age loch dwelling that sits in the water.

Meanwhile, The Glasgow Canal Co-op has been given more than £13,000 to research and promote the history of the city’s waterways.

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