Northwords Now Issue 40

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Mythopraxis

by Zoe Strachan

Ink drawing by Alice V. Taylor
Ink drawing by Alice V. Taylor

The stone known as Calanais XII stands in a small housing estate in the village of Brèascleit. Its base is set in concrete, four sloped planes set with round stones, a style familiar from the edges of car parks built in the 70s remodelling of the historic centre of Kilmarnock, my hometown. A wooden fence screens the megalith from the nearest house, or the nearest house from it. Sometimes there is a yellow grit bin beside it. The main alignments at Calanais were erected around 5000 years ago, so we can guess that Calanais XII has been there for a while. The houses may be fleeting neighbours, their inhabitants gone in the blink of a stony eye.  

I became obsessed with Calanais XII after seeing two photographs taken by Homer Sykes when he made a trip to Lewis in the 1970s. It appears in the foreground of one image, almost inconveniently close to 14 Stonefield, the white pebbledash house behind it. A collie dog saunters past. The house behind and to the right looks identical, even down to the collie dog. In the next photograph in the series a woman looks out from the doorway of 14 Stonefield. In a trick of perspective, Calanais XII has grown to almost twice her height. From the angle of the photo, it seems as if she’d have to clamber over the concreted stones in the base to get out.

When I was a child, there was a playground game that involved working a tennis ball into the toe of a knee-high sock. The sock could then be thrown into a weaselly wiggle across the tarmac playground that was particularly effective in the neon yellow or pink colourways that had become fashionable in the 80s. Popular too was standing with your back against a wall and swinging the sock from side to side, under knee, over shoulder, bouncing the tennis ball while chanting a clapping rhyme. When I did this at home, against the side wall of our new-to-us house, the roughcast sprang off in glittery sprinkles, fragments of stone and shell washing around my feet.

Bumble bees
Louisiana
My black cat can play the piana
It can play the tune of Anna
Bacon, eggs, or chips?
Chips!

When the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland made a field visit on 19th July 1923, the stone at Blair, Township of Breasclete had been revealed by peat cutting on the south side of the road a few hundred yards north-west of the school. ‘The stone is a flat slab of gneiss,’ they recorded in the Ninth Report with Inventory on the Monuments and Constructions in the Outer Hebrides, Skye and the Small Isles, ‘3 feet 5 inches in height and 5 ½ inches thick, set in a packing of small stones at base.’

The Lewisian gneisses are at the extreme end of complexity in terms of age, geologist John Faithfull explained to me as we stood together on a picket line outside the university where we work. The stones used at Calanais ‘lived’ as dynamic geological entities for hundreds of millions of years, before resting in a stable state for billions of years more, until the present day. ‘The Lewisian rocks have seen between half and three-quarters of the history of our planet.’

When you begin to enlarge the online Canmore map of the western side of Lewis, there’s a moment of disappointment. Nothing appears but familiar Ordnance Survey. Then, as you click to enlarge further, a host of grey blue dots burst into focus, scores of them, overlapping and overwhelming the B roads and lochans, the place names and contour lines. It reminds me of seeing Man Ray’s Dust Breeding in an exhibition. You think you’re looking at an image of one thing, and before your eyes it transforms, and you see Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. At least nine more stone circles are extant near Calanais I, along with numerous cairns and individual stones. Close up, the western side of Lewis is a megalithic megalopolis.  

Town planning photographs of Kilmarnock show the new Foregate development bright and new, the sun shining on early 70s shoppers. The old Fore Street is gone, as is Clerk’s Lane and its church, the Star Hotel and the Sun Inn, the weavers and smithies, the wells and pumps, the skin yards and tanneries, the gallows that once stood at the Cross. I wasn’t aware of the extent of the past when I was growing up, not really, although sometimes I thought of what might have happened at Judas Hill when I scrambled up hoping to see badgers. There was (and is) simply an excess of carparks, circled by a one-way system. The Pevsner guide reminds us that from the right angle, the multi-storey, ‘with its many steel vertical emphases . . . has an architectural quality not usually associated with such a function.’

In 1934, the Stornoway Gazette published Donald Maciver’s Place Names of Lewis and Harris. Maciver was a headmaster who lived in Brèascleit for thirteen years from 1883. Calanais XII must have been obscured by peat then, but perhaps he walked past on his way to and from the school. He left for Bayble, on the peninsula I once heard referred to as ‘the people’s republic of Point’, in 1896. Scholars of place names consider him an enthusiastic amateur, prone to missteps, but he lived in some of the places he wrote about and walked with people in others. He appreciated the potency of naming. ‘The hill from which sheep are driven far and wide in summer’, he termed one hill near Calanais, while another became ‘the farewell place’, the last place with a view of home.

The stories we inherit stick in our mind like skipping rhymes, tied to a place or an action, remembered and misremembered. Plain, purl. Perhaps sometimes we can retell them, make them afresh.

Under the bramble bushes
Under the trees
Boom boom boom
True love to me my darling
True love to you
Boom boom boom
When we get married
We’ll raise a family
So
SS Blue
I love you
How many buses to Timbuktu?
Mr Brown says twenty four
So shut your mouth
And say no more.

The writer Martin Martin was much taken by the circle and avenues at Calanais I when he visited in 1695, considering them: ‘The most remarkable Stones for Number, Bignes, and Order.’ While reassuring his readers that only ‘the Oldest and most Ignorant of the Vulgar’ of the Western Isles indulged in pagan superstition, he, ‘enquir’d of the Inhabitants what Tradition they had from their Ancestors concerning these Stones; and they told me, it was a Place appointed for Worship in the Time of Heathenism, and that the Chief Druid or Priest stood near the big Stone in the center, from whence he address’d himself to the People that surrounded him.’

When I was too young to have a sense of the size of my town never mind the world, I assumed that Jesus Christ had been crucified on the large cross that poked from a hill of stones outside the church on Portland Road. The church itself was modern ribbed concrete. I wasn’t daft. I knew it had been added later.

Alan Stevenson tried to use gneiss from Hynish on Tiree for Skerryvore, the lighthouse that his nephew Robert Louis Stevenson considered ‘the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights.’ It was too difficult to work, and he got as far as the first three courses of stone before switching to pink granite from Camas Tuath on the Ross of Mull. ‘The bottom part of the tower of Skerryvore lighthouse is one of the few structures on Earth made of shaped Lewisian gneiss,’ John Faithfull said. (By this point, his collie dog Spud was keening to leave the icy picket line and head for the park.) The difficulty of shaping and moving megaliths gives rise to many of the legends that spring up around stone circles. Heathens petrified, that sort of thing.

Around 1960, night-time sightings of a strange white lady near the Garynahine Bridge were reported by local motorists as well as dozens of RAF men being bussed back to the base at Uig after an evening of R&R in Stornoway. Local tales of murder at Garynahine Lodge were recalled. When the Stornoway Gazette asked Mrs Elizabeth Perrins, wife of the new owner of the estate, whether she had seen anything of the ‘Silver Lady of Garynahine’ she explained that she often walked by Garynahine Bridge at night, ‘for the heck of it, and sometimes to watch other people’s nocturnal activities . . . it’s not ghosts I’m looking for, but poachers.’ The Gazette probed further, and Mrs Perrins replied, ‘If it’s a fine night I wear an evening dress, and if it rains, I wear a white drip-dry raincoat with a closed hood. I also carry a stick. I am sorry to spoil the ghost story but it really is terribly funny.’ When the houses at Stonefield were being built a few years later, it was Mrs Perrins who ensured that Callanish XII remained in situ.

Died in a chip shop
Last night
What was he eating?
Raw fish.
How did he die?
Like this [mime]

In the late 80s, there was a spate of Grey Lady sightings in the park surrounding the Dean Castle in Kilmarnock. Tucked away in the woods are the graves of the 8th Lord Howard de Walden and his wife Margherita, surrounded by a metal fence that echoes a mortsafe. Beside them is the statue of an angel consoling a shrouded figure, a memorial to de Walden’s mother Blanche. The lichen on the stone plinth, the mottled blue-grey of the statue, the reference to ‘All That Was Mortal’ of Blanche in the inscription, combines with the dank setting to create an eerie effect. Sometimes my dog (a spaniel, not a collie) would run in there, off the lead and not particularly well-trained. I disliked going alone into the hedged enclosure to retrieve her.

Boswell and Johnson took a copy of Martin Martin’s book with them on their own tour of the Hebrides. After visiting the stones at Strichen and then passing what must have been part of the Clava Cairns grouping near Inverness, Dr Johnson decided that, ‘to go and see one druidical temple is only to see that it is nothing, for there is neither art nor power in it; and seeing one is quite enough.’ Boswell seems to have concurred, and neither men made it to Calanais.

And the dance they do
Is enough to kill a coo
And the coo they kill
Is enough to take a pill
And the pill they take
Is enough to fry a snake
And the snake they fry
Is enough to tell a lie
And the lie they tell
Is enough to ring a bell
And the bell they ring
Goes dingalingaling!

In 2009, Junior Technician Jeff Chambers (5067068) remained unconvinced by the Gazette’s explanation of the ghost at Garynahine, commenting on the Uig Historical Society website that, ‘The white lady may be a myth, but I saw her when she was apparently run over by the RAF Aird Uig bus one night in 1960. When the bus stopped I was first off and ran back but nothing there and also nothing under the bus, but both I and the driver were certain we had run over her. Whatever she/it was we both saw it.’

For around eight years, I was an inveterate school refuser. There were several reasons for this, not all of which I recognised at the time. Now I consider myself easily institutionalised; then, my daily life was a mismatch. I preferred my own version of Stevenson’s ‘land of counterpane’, books beside me to be taken one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In the absence of religion, I venerated reading and animals. Aged fourteen or so I wrote to the Pagan Federation after seeing someone with a copy of The Wiccan on a train. Membership seemed pricey though, and access to mysteries elusive.

Polly’s in the kitchen
Doing a bit of stitchin
In comes the bogeyman
And out goes she

The Neolithic has no user manuals to hand over, no holy books or hieroglyphs. Its circles and alignments stand silent and numinous. We don’t know how to move through them, or what words to say. When I go to Calanais now it feels like a pilgrimage. I look for the glitter in the gneiss, run my hands over the rough surface, smell the damp of the rock. When I blink, it feels as if I might catch a glowing thread of continuity, something to hold me to the past, bind me to the future. I like to think that having a standing stone in your village, your street, outside your side door would be transcendent as well as everyday. That Calanais XII would feel like a touchstone, a truth.