As I skipped a C for Pagan Blog Project and it is time for the second D post I thought I would kill two birds with one stone by musing on Callanish I, the inspiration behind some of the most iconic scenes from Disney and Pixars movie Brave (I hope you can see what I’ve done there :p).
Brave was released in 2012 and saw Merida, Disney’s first non-traditional princess character, defy the traditions of her Clan and her Fate by rejecting an arranged marriage. It was well received for many reasons although Disney undermined these achievements by ‘prettifying’ Merida after her official crowning a year after release.
Regardless, one of the reasons that Brave was such a hit was its use of existing monuments and landscapes of Scotland and their beautifully animated rendering and its blending of Scottish mythology into the Disney story. The movie sparked a ‘Brave Trail’ tourism boom in which people visited the sites of inspiration so that they could experience the magic of Brave for themselves.
Callanish I is one such site and is particularly visible in the movie as it appears at a number of critical times as well as appearing in the trailer. It’s also an impressive monument in it own right.
History of Callanish I
Callanish I is located near the village Callanish on west coast of Lewis, one of the islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. Excavations in the 1980’s have shown that the stones were erected between 2900 and 2600 BC which means that Callanish I predates the main stone circle at Stonehenge. Findings from the same excavations indicate that the circle went out of use somewhere between 2000 and 1700 BC and that the stones were partially covered by peat between 1000 BC and 500 BC. The true height of the stones was not evident until they were uncovered by peat cutters in 1857 at which point the site was fully uncovered although it was not excavated until the 1980’s.
The Stones and their Alignments
There are 53 stones erected in the form of a stone circle and curiform avenues. The stones range in height from 1 to 5 meters although the average heigh is 4 meters and are a stone local to Lewis. The circle is set on the top of high ground and has a commanding presence in the landscape.
The central 13 stones of the circle have a 13 meter diameter. There are four avenues approaching the site from roughly the four cardinal directions, the longest being in the north. The most notably alignment of the circle is that of the southern avenue which Patrick Ashmore suggested to be aligned with the southern lunar standstill which occurs every 18.6 years. This avenue also marks the setting of the full moon closest to the summer solstice and is a time of pilgrimage for Pagan and Christian alike. The lunar standstill is a draw for people around the world and it isn’t unusual to hear Christian hymns melded with pagan chants amongst other things.
Other proposed alignments include western avenue being aligned to the sun sets of the spring and vernal equinoxes and that the northern avenue marks the point that the star Capella would rise during 1800BC. The largest central megalith is oriented at a 180.1° and is an accurate indicator of a true north-south meridian. This is line that point points to the North Pole Star, the point around which the stellar sky revolves around, to the north and to the solar and lunar maximums in the south.
Researchers are still suggesting alignments. The most recent suggestion has been by Stephen Whitehead who proposes that the focus of the east-west avenue alignment is to the moonrise of the full moon closest to the vernal equinox.
Callanish I in Myth and Modern Paganism
Fitting into a wider landscape of Giants and early Christianity Callanish carries its own myths and legends that echo this liminal period. The ancient name given to the stones is ‘Fir Bhreig’, meaning false men. The stones were believed to have once been pagan giants who once inhabited the islands. Upon the arrival of Saint Kieran they refused to convert to the new religion and as punishment were turned to stone. This story shows how early Christians took prehistoric landscapes, which had lost all meaning and purpose to the native people’s inhabiting the land around, and used it to demonstrate the supremacy of Christianity and the Christian God.
Another folk tale links the stones with the midsummer solstice sunrise. Although archaeology has found no associated alignment it is likely that this tale remembers a time when there was such an association. A ‘shining figure’, heralded by the call of the cuckold, is seen traveling along the northern avenue as the sun rises. This dovetails nicely with the modern practice of visiting any and all stone Circles at the winter and summer solstices and Callanish I receives many visitors on the midsummer sunrise as people attempt to catch a glimpse of the shining one.
Disney has caused another kind of tourist, beyond those with a spiritual or technical interest in the site. These people aren’t immediately seeking a connection with the land and the ancestors or even the established myth and folklore of the site. Their eyes strain for Will o’ the Whisp and the lumbering forms of Mor’du and Elinor, or even the flash of unruly red haired Merida herself. But I’d like to think that the stones of Callanish leave more of an impression on these somewhat casual visitors. The stones must give them a sense of who we were and what was achieved in an age before heavy machinery. As prehistoric cultures sought to make a mark on the landscape and display their political power, whilst at the same time honouring the land, sun, moon and stars they achieved feats of monumental proportion and regardless of faith or creed we should wonder.