ALTHOUGH geologically the oldest formation in Europe,
the Lews must have been one of the latest settled. We need not look
here for evidences of existence during the drift period, or
contemporaries of the cave-dwellers of France or Southern England,
for at that time the Lews was either bound under an eternal Arctic
winter, or, sunk beneath the waves, stranded the floating icebergs,
and received the boulder deposits from their melting decks. Along
the west coast a continuous series of rounded boulders, evidently of
glacial deposit, cover the land, and the forms of the lower hills
evidence the action of grim winter, as it loosened its hold of our
islands, and retired struggling to the Northern wastes.
We shall not then seek for drift deposits, nor need
we look for signs of the long-headed cave-dweller, for they might
chase the mammoth or the cave-bear across what is now the Straits of
Dover, but could find no rest for the soles of their feet beside the
Barvas hills. If this race still survive in the Esquimaux, they must
have crept northward by way of Northern Europe, probably at a time
when the North of Britain was uninhabitable. At any rate, neither of
this race, nor of the more modern people allied to the Lapps—who,
according to Nilsson, were the keen-witted race who formed the
“fairy bolts,” lived in underground dwellings, and were rooted out
by the more powerful Teutons—do we know anything here. Unless they
appear in this story from Martin: “The Island of Pigmies, or, as the
natives call it, the Island of Little Men, is but of small extent.
There have been many small bones dug out of the ground here,
resembling those of human kind more than any other. This gave ground
to a tradition which the natives have of a very low-statured people
living once here, and called ‘Lusbirdan' i.e. pigmies.” Does this
point to a remnant of the Lapp race that had taken refuge in these
farthest outlying islets of Scotland, the Flan-nan Isles, or Seven
Hunters? It is supposed that this latter race were the builders of
the beehive dwellings and underground houses found in various parts
of the mainland. Does this necessarily prove that the beehive houses
and underground dwellings of the Lews, some of which have been
recently inhabited, were of their erection? We think not. We do not
see the necessity for dragging in Lapps, or even Iberians, to build,
although they may have originated, any ancient dwelling on the Long
Let us take the population as it at present exists.
No one can doubt for a moment that it is essentially and
unmistakably Celtic. Indeed, in Scotland, at any rate, it is only
necessary to look at the map, or read the statistics of the country,
to tell where a Celtic population is to be found. Is there a good
fishing-station, or an energetic centre of any given industry :—you
may safely affirm that Scandinavian or Teutonic, never Celtic,
energy or enterprise has originated and developed it. The Celtic
races, with the important exception of the Cornish men—if it is an
exception—never seem to become thorough seamen. They are tillers of
the soil, to which in general they are passionately attached. The
Lews is no exception to this rule, as the Scandinavian settlement is
the only vigorous fishing community. Not that Ness is the only Norse
portion of the Long Island, as the occupation of many hundred years
has naturally left its stamp on the inhabitants throughout the
country. But out of Ness the Celtic blood, which was necessarily
that of the women, has absorbed alike Northern energy and Northern
Granted then that the present population is Celtic,
with a Norse admixture, we must reason back from the present if in
any way it can explain the scattered and shattered remnants of the
past. First, as to their dwellings considered with reference to
antiquity. These have unquestionably, up till recently, diminished
in constructive skill and stability. This is to be accounted for by
the great increase of population during the present century, and the
far more subordinate position of the sub-tenants as compared with
that they enjoyed under the ancient chiefs. Their shielings on the
moor, in which the women spend a great part of the summer, are built
exactly as the beehive dwellings, but of more perishable materials.
In the vicinity of Shawbost there are still several of these
stone-built and roofed beehive houses, occupied in the summer by the
cotters; and one, in the immediate vicinity of Garynahine, shows the
roof well built of large overlapping stones, so as to form a
strong-built dome. Otherwise, however, it is the same as the
numberless shielings spread over the island, with two low opposite
openings into which to creep, holes in the wall for the milk-dishes—
showing a pastoral existence—a rude chimney proving an advancement
on the present erections, where no chimneys are found.
Thus we see that unmistakable Celts in modem times
erect and dwell in beehive houses; the exigencies of the climate,
the country, and poverty having carried these onward into modern
life: reminding one of a street Arab standing, - bewildered and out
of place, on the threshold of a London ball-room.
Are they a natural product of poverty and necessity,
or have they any distinct connection with the modem Esquimaux
habitations and those of the ancient Lapp inhabitants of Northern
Europe? Were they adopted from an exterminated race in previous
possession, or brought north by the Celts themselves, as we find
them also in Islay and elsewhere in the west ? We have no data for
any conclusions on this point, and without them speculations are
valueless. Still, it is worthy of observation that stone implements
are rare, and all we are acquainted with can be told off on the
fingers. These may also be of very recent manufacture, as a people,
so destitute of metal instruments even lately, would unquestionably
use stone; and we were informed of stone hammers having been in use
in the west within the century. An underground dwelling recently
opened at Gress, and containing quantities of bones split to extract
the marrow, showed evident signs of having been inhabited long
subsequent to the original habitation—say within two hundred
years—from the freshness of the bones, which had yet been broken
Besides the ordinary black-house and beehive
dwellings, a better class have prevailed. Take, for instance, the
rectangular dwelling of good size, built on an island on a loch
above Dalebeg. This must have been placed there for defence, as the
island is too small to be of use either for pasture land or
agricultural, so that the building must surely be some centuries
All these circumstances point to the belief, that in
former times, as at present, the unprogressive Celt erected his
human stye alongside the comfortable or lordly dwelling of the
invading Teuton; that he may have done so for twelve centuries or
twenty; and that speculations based on the probable age of such
dwellings elsewhere must be received with great caution. Groping, as
we are, in the dark at present for fragments of the ruined
milestones leading back into the past, it is more important to read
one stone clearly than to jump to conclusions respecting twenty. We
shall, therefore, leave these perishable erections, and see if we
cannot read approximately the more striking, if not more important,
“milestones” left standing by the way.
The most prominent of these is the megalithic
structure known as “Turusachan,” or the Cal-lernish circle. It is,
following the survey, 13 miles due west from Stornoway, consists of
48 stones, and the highest point of the hill on which it is placed
is 143 feet above the level of the sea. The circle is 80 feet above
the sea, 42 feet in diameter, with the centre stone 17 feet high.
All are of unwrought gneiss. Inside the circle, lying east and west,
is a cruciform grave, whose position the centre stone may have
indicated. In this chamber, according to Dr. Stuart, were found
fragments of incinerated human bones, imbedded in an unctuous
substance apparently composed of peaty and animal matter.
So far as the name goes the derivations are arranged
to suit the advocate who is analyzing it for a particular theory.
Thus, the Druid theorist—“call, a circle, church, or temple; aim, of
the judge; geis, of sorcery; call-airn-gheisy the circle or church
of the Druidical judge. This shows why the circle was so large and
so distinguished. And there is little doubt that, in the republics
or states of the Hebrides and Orkneys, the population may have been
nearly, perhaps fully, as numerous as on the plains of Salisbury and
According to the Surveyor-general, Callernish is
bleak or cold headland; Callanish, place of assembly for worship, or
calling to prayer; Turusachan is a place of pilgrimage; Tursachany place
of sadness, sorrow, or weariness. But the Druid theory, that has
held sway so long, threatens to succumb before the hardheaded
examination of the modern scientist, and certainly the most probable
reading is the first, and that, like Vaternish, Trotternish, or the
many other headlands in the west, its name is a legacy of the
Norseman. Considering that the Lews nomenclature is mainly Norse,
this may be taken as granted.
Before proceeding to discuss the probable age of the
temple we shall recapitulate a few of the theories that have been
brought forward respecting it.
1st. Like all such megalithic structures, it has been
claimed for the Druids, whose temples are not mentioned. .
2nd. The Baal worshippers have claimed it as their
own, from a fancied resemblance to the sun set on a stick, which
they suppose to have been the original mode of symbolizing the orb
of day, here transferred to a more imperishable material. -
3rd. It has been suggested that it is a relic of
Phallic worship, but this is altogether fanciful.
4th. The latest theory is that of Fergusson, who is
delighted with the discovery that it is twin-brother to a chamber
buried under a tumulus at New Grange in Ireland, from which it has
been copied, and is, therefore, simply the tomb of a great chief.
5th. It is claimed for the Norsemen, who held the
Isles in subjection for so many years; the neighbouring circles
having been used as Things by the Scandinavians, as they have been
similarly elsewhere until recent times.
We shall endeavour to bring together a few converging
facts, and thereby arrive at some more definite notions of the
object and date of its erection.
We shall not here combat the Druidical theory, as
that is generally discarded; although any one who is acquainted with
the extraordinary tenacity of memory of a comparatively uneducated
people, who have no masses of light literature to dilute the homely
vigour of their faculties, will be most unwilling to discard as
valueless, alike inherited traditions and the deep impressions of a
people as imbedded in their language. Still, although “to go to the
stones ” is to go to church, and the expression must have been long
anterior to any modern notions of Druidism, grafted on the old
traditions of their fathers, it may refer to a time when the spirits
of the mighty dead were their gods, and their sepulchres the only
If a place of worship, the independent testimony of
the peat shows it to have been neglected for six or eight hundred
years. Well! this is one slight datum to start from. Then as to the
form, it is strange to us, that those who chased a resemblance even
into the centre of a tumulus, did not observe that it was a plain,
unmistakable imitation of an Iona or Irish cross. This cross is sui
generis; peculiar, in Europe, to Ireland and the West Highlands; and
is generally believed to be the Christian cross with an encircling
halo. Here is a peculiarity pointing to its erection posterior
to A.D. 565, when St. Columba settled in Iona, taking with him this
peculiar form of cross. We are thus circumscribed in our inquiries,
the probability being that its date is between the sixth and twelfth
If not in imitation of the Iona cross, it was
probably merely the cruciform arrangement added rudely to the
circle. This seems a natural explanation.
But both Scots and Norsemen were builders of
megaliths. Was it erected by the Celtic inhabitants? It does not
seem natural to suppose that a race accustomed to the elegant
crosses of Iona would raise such a rude example: nor would a native
race be likely to raise it to their own people when under Norse
domination. Nor would the Celtic population raise such a Pagan
memorial after the ruin of the Norse power in A.D. 1265.
What reason have we, on the other hand, to suppose it
erected by Norsemen?
The other megalithic remains bear a close resemblance
to those of Scandinavia, especially a fosse and circle near Garabost,
surrounding the top of an elevation on which is a menhir and kist,
closely allied to fig. 107, Fergusson’s “Stone Monuments.” Then
Callernish evidently having been a circle with a cross rudely added;
or else a direct copy of an Irish cross. Again, a large menhir near
Barvas was erected in historic times by the Morrisons of Ness, a
Scandinavian race, to commemorate a victory over the Macaulays of
Uig: it is larger than the centre stone of Callernish. While we have
just been reinforced by a description, by Dr. R. Angus Smith, of a
place of the same name in Iceland, whose vicinity has likewise been
honoured with the presence of an ancient temple.
The numerous remains of churches and nunneries over
the Lews show that the country was early christianized, and
completely under the rule of the priesthood. It is not reasonable to
suppose that the comparatively refined Celts would exhibit such rude
power so lately. A people pass from rude force into gradually weaker
art, and when art dies they exhibit rude weakness, never rude power.
Consequently we are inclined to the Norse as the most
probable agents in their production.
Basing our inquiries on this conclusion, let us see
at what time they were likely to have raised them.
The Norse were nominally christianized in A.D. 1000 ;
so that prior to that date a pagan people were not at all likely to
raise a monument in imitation of those of their conquered subjects.
More than this, the two graves discovered within the Callernish
circle were cruciform, so far pointing to a Christian origin. This
again narrows the probable date down to that period embraced between
iooo anda.d. 1263.
But although from the cruciform arrangement, both of
the structure and the contained graves, the erection must be
subsequent to the year A.D. 1000, still it cannot have been long
after that date, as the Norsemen must then have become too deeply
imbued with Christian precepts to erect such pagan memorials. It was
during the eleventh century that the influence of this northern race
was paramount among the islands of the west as far as Ireland, until
King Brian, as the champion of the new faith, broke their power. If
they had raised this structure towards the end of their sway, the
subject race would scarcely have respected it, or left it standing.
So, in reviewing our position, we arrive at the
conclusion that the evidence inclines to prove Callernish Norwegian.
The name itself; its recently discovered Icelandic counterpart; the
custom continued in the Lews into historic times by the Norse
descendants; the evident imitation of a Christian cross by
semi-pagan warriors, or its addition to the circle; and, lastly, the
evidence of the superincumbent peat, which, although uncertain in
itself, strongly corroborates the supposition that the stones were
raised, in all probability, not earlier than the tenth century, nor
later than the thirteenth.
We are inclined to fix the date as the eleventh
century, the only one in which the pagan element would be likely
thus to intermingle and combine with the Christian.
In a manuscript history of the Lews, written about
the beginning of the century, there is an instance of the Druid
theory creeping in. After detailing the received account of the
Barvas stone, raised by the Morrisons after a battle with the
Macaulays, when both parties were nearly exterminated, the writer
subsequently interpolates, “yet some maintain that it was placed
there by the Druids.” As the writer (Dr. Macrae) was both a medical
man and a clergyman, and so likely to be well informed respecting
the received traditions of the people, such an interpolation is
strongly corroborative of the belief that the Druid theory is of
extraneous birth, and had then no foundation in the traditions of
the natives. And yet Martin, a century previously, remarked that the
tradition of Callernish among the people is Druidical!
The two or three small circles in the neighbourhood
of Callernish may have been used as Things, or marked the occurrence
of battles. Fergusson’s argument against these circles being places
of meeting, seeing they are wholly unsheltered in a boisterous
climate, is of no value, seeing that even in these degenerate times
the communions are held in the open air, the clergyman alone having
a wooden box, while the congregation sit around on gathered stones.
Loch Roag must have been the snuggest and most
convenient harbour in the north for the Norsemen, and its vicinity
was thickly populated. All round its shores are numerous remains of
dunes or brochs, and great tracts of land, now under peat moss, are
said to display signs of former cultivation. A mild climate, secure
harbour, immediate vicinity to what was formerly the best fishing -
ground in the Hebrides, it was eminently fitted for the sea rovers.
As the centre of population, at the head of the loch, and readily
accessible by boats, it would be naturally chosen as a place of
assembly for the delivery of laws, or otherwise.
The Menhir and Kist, near Garabost, surrounded by a
fosse and stone circle, are evidently of purely pagan origin. The
stones have been originally very large, and the centre kist has been
opened in search of treasure. On the low hill opposite is a large
menhir known as the “Clach Stein,” the Gaelic having been prefixed
to the original Norse.
Leaving the megaliths, we now come to the dunes or
brochs, so numerous along the western coast. The MS. history
previously quoted mentions the belief that these were dismantled by
the Norsemen, having previously formed places of defence for the
Celtic aborigines. Let us examine this belief.
In the first place they are never built with
mortar,-but formed of well-fitting stones, and yet one or two of
them are in tolerable preservation. The old churches scattered
through the island have, on the other hand, almost entirely
disappeared, although cemented with the most tenacious lime. If
these so-called Pictish towers were so ancient as is generally
received, would they thus have outlasted the more securely built and
more revered sacred dwellings?
In many cases the people have used them as quarries,
from which to build their huts, and in no case show any reverence
for them whatever. The tales connected with these among the natives
have reference to giants, and these are furnished with Norse names.
Again, where are the remains of the Norse
strongholds? We know they held the Hebrides for centuries, and this
would necessitate places of defence from the conquered subjects.
There are one or two castles of comparatively modern date, but where
else are we to look for the residence of the Norse rovers, if not to
these strong towers? .
The first conclusion we come to is, that they are not
more ancient than the mortared ecclesiastical buildings already
fallen to decay ; say those of presumably Culdee origin. We have no
reason to suppose they could have outlasted them. Then by whom were
they built? Why such towers should be Pictish it would be difficult
to explain, except that any inexplicable erection is at once made
prehistoric. Are any such towers found in the Pictish or Dalriadic
kingdoms? What possible connection is there between these brochs and
the known Pictish towers, such as that at Abernethy, the capital of
the Pictish kingdom? Such an appellation seems a mere begging of the
Then, if not Pictish, are they of Scottish origin? If
built by Celts, it must either have been previous, or posterior, to
the Norwegian domination. If after the Lews chief had sworn fealty
to the Maid of Norway, we should surely have had some knowledge of
them, as we are then in comparatively historic times; nor do we know
of any necessity on the part of the natives for such strongholds.
Again, to what use could the inhabitants put them?
The only suggestion we have seen made was, that they were places of
shelter for the adjoining villages in case of Norse invasion. But
they are too small to hold the inhabitants of a village; and if
villagers were thus to leave their huts unprotected, their most
natural as well as most successful manoeuvre would be to betake
themselves to the moors, where they would gather strength by
junction with their neighbours, in place of cooping themselves up in
these little towers.
Now these towers are mostly in the vicinity of the
sea, and generally upon a small freshwater loch or river; and around
Loch Roag, which we have seen was probably a haunt of the rovers,
they are more than usually numerous. Also there is scarcely a loch
on the way to Ness without its ruined dune.
We thus find that the district principally infested
by the sea-rovers is that thickly studded with dunes. The same holds
good on the mainland in the north-western parts of Inverness,
Sutherland, and Ross-shire, as well as in Orkney. They are seldom
far from the sea, as if leaning for support upon their galleys, and
are just such towers as invaders unskilled in masonry might erect,
among a hostile population. Too small to shelter a village
population, they are sufficiently large to accommodate a handful of
resolute men; and scattered along the seaboard would yield each
other support while overawing the people.
If they had been built by the natives to prevent the
landing of rovers, they would have been built still nearer the sea,
and in very different situations; nor would they have required the
immediate vicinity of freshwater lochs if secure of the sympathy of
the population. Nor can any one who has examined them suppose them
to be of the nature of guard or watch towers, as one can rarely be
seen from the other, and a people afraid of incursions from the sea
would surely have built their towers on eminences, whence the coming
danger could be seen and telegraphed.
Indeed these considerations, together with the fact
that the north and west coasts and the Isles are the districts where
these towers most do congregate, as the Norsemen did formerly, and
the traditions of giants inhabiting them with Scandinavian names, as
the giant Glum in Uig, all point to a Norse origin. The only towers
at all resembling them, of which we have knowledge, are those built
by the early Norse settlers in Greenland, at Ericsfiord, settled by
the Norsemen in the eleventh century, as mentioned by Hayes. We do
not acknowledge their similarity to the Sardinian.
It is natural enough that a race of rude circle
builders, whose possible Things are in the midst of the dune
district, should have erected round towers of large unmortared
stones, in which each petty chief might exercise as uncontrolled
authority as in his war-galley.
It may be interesting to add the following note from
Gardiner’s “Indians of Chili”—“Near the Andes several rest-houses at
regular intervals were erected. They are built entirely of burnt
brick, laid on lime, with a coped roof of some material supported by
an arch which forms the ceiling. May not those remarkable towers,
called dunes in Scotland, have been erected for purposes somewhat
similar?” To this a friend replies, that as several are occasionally
found close together the similarity is imaginary.