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Callanish Standing Stones

A Guide to Standing Stones (or Time Travel) in Scotland

Posted on 7 Jun 2023

There’s something about an army of stone standing in a field. Like men who went to fight a battle and were frozen in time. Like children running in a field playing ‘stuck in the mud’. Stuck forever. Surrounded by the wild Scottish landscape, there’s something mystical about standing stones. Gazing up at them, you wonder if they were ever once more than stone.  

And, in a way, they are and always have been more than just stone. Today people flock to see these incredible monuments to a civilisation long gone. From Stonehenge in England to Callanish Standing Stones in Orkney, these monuments were erected for a reason. Part of the mystery lies in the unanswered questions surrounding the stones. Who exactly put them there and how? What was their use? We can speculate and that’s half the fun, but what cannot be denied is that standing stones have meant a great deal to humanity for thousands of years.  

So, when I moved to Scotland 18 months ago, I was eager to experience the magic of these stones. Let me clear the air right off the bat. Craigh na Dun from the addictive TV show/book series Outlander does not exist. Trust me, I tracked it down. I followed the directions from several bloggers’ articles – driving out to a place called Kinloch Rannoch – to find it. 

I knew it didn’t exist, not really. The hill is real, but the stones were staged there for the show. A shame, to be sure, but did I still run around the top of the hill touching trees and closing my eyes in the hopes that I would be transported back in time regardless? You bet I did. 

And just like in the show, there was a moment when the wind picked up and I stood very still – arms splayed to the side – just hoping. But I’m still here. Big shock.  

The good news is there are plenty more standing stones scattered about Scotland just waiting to transport that unsuspecting traveller back in time to meet their very own Jamie. 

If, however, you don’t believe in time travel and all that good stuff – fear not. There are other theories behind the magic and meaning of these stones. Here’s another M-word for you. Mystery. The true purpose of the stones is, for the most part, a mystery. Modern-day archaeologists and travellers alike theorise the ‘why’ of them. One of the most common – and logical – theories is that the sites were used for religious or ceremonial purposes. Perhaps it was where the locals gathered to have a big party.  

No matter their purpose, they’re definitely worth a visit on your Scotland trip. Some are quite remote, but we do explore several of them on our tours that you may be interested in.  

Callanish Standing Stones 

They may not be the ‘real’ Craigh na Dun, but Callanish is supposedly the inspiration for them. These stones are older than Stonehenge but, unlike this famous megalithic site, Callanish Stones are accessible to the public. So feel free to lay your hands on the stones and try your luck (if you manage it, please somehow get a note to me explaining how). 

But just be aware... back in the 1600s, the locals were convinced that the stones were the remains of men who had transgressed and were punished by being turned to stone. If that’s something you’re inclined to believe, does that make Callanish the world’s most stunning prison? It takes the punishment to a whole new level.   

You can visit Callanish on our 10-day Orkney & the Outer Hebrides tour

The Ring of Brodgar 

Imagine this. A group of giants dancing in a wide-open field. Their fiddler playing a haunting tune as his friends twist and turn. Why they’re dancing, we might never know. If they were ever real, we also might never know. But what we do know is they were so distracted by their fun, their ritual, their celebration, that they didn’t notice the first rays of sunlight peeking up from the horizon. 

Struck by those rays, the giants turned to stone. Forever frozen in place to be admired by people for thousands of years to come.  

Or so the legend goes.  

Back in 1846, Scottish geologist High Miller visited the Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney Isles and wrote that the stones ‘look like an assemblage of ancient druids, mysteriously stern and invincibly silent and shaggy.’  

For me, I prefer imagining 36 petrified giants stuck in a field. Their last moments of joy immortalised for eternity.   

The Ring of Brodgar, its name alone whispers of ancient rituals. Unlike many of its counterparts, the Ring of Brodgar has never been excavated, so it's real age remains a mystery. Best guess is that the main ring was constructed between 2600 and 2400 BC.   

I’m tempted to either take a Rabbie’s small-group tour of either 3, 5, or 10-days up to Orkney just so I can see them, as they are most definitely on my bucket list. They are part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, a collection of important monuments built 5000 years ago across the Orkney Islands. Not to mention they’re the third largest stone circle in the British Isles and back in the day it’s suspected to have been able to hold 3,000 people. Party, anyone?  

Machrie Moor 

The Isle of Arran is probably a touch easier to get to – especially if you’re staying in Glasgow. Wander on over to the Isle for a night and you could visit Machrie Moor, just like I did a few weeks ago. It was spring and we arrived around 7pm when the sun burnt low in the sky, a golden haze simmering across the landscape like we were in the desert and not in a boggy moor in Scotland.  

It’s an easy walk from the car park out to the stones, see here.

It’s incredible to think that these standing stones were erected over 10,000 years ago by the first settlers of Scotland. We can stand among them and wonder why (and how) - but sometimes it’s nice to just revel in the magnificence of these mighty structures.  

But according to reports, only a tiny part of the moor has been excavated and earlier timber monuments underlie what we can see today. Hidden below the surface, who knows what’s left to discover?  


A post shared by BRON FLYNN (@bronandaway)

Clava Cairns 

Built to house the dead. There’s just something about saying those words that sends a chill down the spine, isn’t there? It’s no different to a graveyard, or a tomb, is it? And yet a Scottish cairn surrounded by standing stones tucked away in a small forest breathes more ceremony and mystery and power than one might expect from a ‘simple gravesite’.  

But who was important enough to receive this as their forever resting place?  

4,000 years the cairns have been sitting there. As far as can be told, this sacred Bronze Age site was a vital hub for millennia. Longer, considering how people continue to flock here. Clava Cairns are also another suspected inspiration for the famous Outlander series.  

No one will blame you for losing yourself in a moment at any one of these places. Perhaps those who built them did intend them to be as captivating as we find them.  

The stories that have attached to standing stones over time are like weather on the stone itself. Each story marks them in some way. Each person who visits imparts some idea, some fantasy, some hope.  

Each time someone tells their stories or captures a photo, or shows them off to visitors, we continue the legacy of these enduring monuments.   

Meet the Author

Bronwyn lives and breathes words. Before coming to work at Rabbie's, she spent 7 years in publishing and is a published author of YA fantasy books. Born and raised in Sydney, she was drawn to Scotland and affectionately calls it her 'soul home'. An avid traveller herself, Bronwyn's favourite places (so far) are Mongolia, Iceland, Morocco, and Scotland (of course). When she's not writing, she can be found exploring the Scottish Highlands with her camera, on the lookout for coos and men in kilts. 

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