The Callanais (Callanish) Stones and the Cailleach by Judith Shaw

I felt compelled to visit Scotland without truly understanding why. I said I was called by my studies of Celtic mythology and by images I had seen of the land. I told people in Scotland I was on an artist’s journey. But now I see that Mother Earth wanted my attention – and in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, Earth energy is strongly present.  From the start, a major part of that calling was the ancient Callanais Stones – pronounced like the English translation “Callanish” – located on the remote Isle of Lewis. 

Getting around the Hebrides and the Highlands was difficult without a car as bus access is very limited. Though a little restricting, it kept me connected to Earth as I walked and I walked. With every step I felt the call of Earth – from even before the human family began. 

It was a glorious sunny afternoon when I arrived by ferry on the Isle of Lewis/Harris. Next was a bus ride north to Stornoway, my base for exploring Callanais. Here I first learned of the Stones connection to the Cailleich, an ancient goddess whose origins are unknown. Her name literally means “the Veiled One” but has come to mean “Old Woman or Wife.” Yet she was all powerful and ageless.

An elder man spoke about Callanias and the Stones’ connection to the nearby mountain – “Cailleach na Mointeach” – Gaelic for “The Old Woman of the Moors” or affectionately called “Sleeping Beauty” as the mountain looks like a woman lying on her back with bent knees. He said you could see this mountain through the stones. His storytelling got me searching for more info on the Cailleach’s connection to the Stones.

Cailleach na Mointeach, Isle of Lewis

First, I learned of the extreme age of the islands and of the stones that make up the land. The Callanais Stones date back to 3500 BC but the rocks that created Scotland come from an inconceivable 3 billion years ago as the landmasses of Earth were created from out of the waters. 

Around 450 million years ago, at the beginning of the Caledonian Orogeny, Scotland, Scandinavia and North America were one continent with the now, non-existent Iapetu Ocean separating them from England, which was joined with the rest of northern Europe. This was a long geological period of continental collision and mountain building, that turned Iapetu Ocean into land and fused Scotland and England together. 

Quieter conditions occurred for several millennia, covering Scotland with layers of sediment forming various sedimentary rocks until 60 million years ago when Earth moved again and the continent split apart forming the North Atlantic Ocean with volcanoes erupting all along Scotland’s new western edge. 

These are the creation stories the science of geology tells us. But our ancient ancestors told a different story of the creation of Scotland and the other Celtic lands.  Long, long before the Celts arrived in Ireland and Scotland, the indigenous people worshipped The Cailleach, as both the goddess of creation and the goddess of destruction.  She became Calleach Bheur to the Scots. “Bheur” means sharp and she was credited with creating the sharp and biting winter weather, which helped to shape Scotland.

The Cailleach, Celtic Goddess, painting by Judith Shaw

The Cailleach, a Dark Goddess of nature, is one with the land. Sometimes depicted with one eye, she sees beyond duality peering into the Oneness of all Being. She is the embodiment of winter, clothing the land with snow. Sacred Stones are her special places. 

She leapt from mountaintop to mountaintop, dropping rocks to create hills, mountains and islands. She carried a slachdam – the Druidic rod, or a hammer with which she wielded power over the seasons and weather.

She is the guardian of the life force, finding and nourishing the seeds, commanding the power of life and death. The Cailleach personifies death and the transformative power of darkness, leading us through death to rebirth.

Our ancestors believed that the rocks on the Isle of Lewis used to create the Callanais Stone Circle were gifts from the Cailleach – from her acts of Earth building. These metamorphic gneiss rocks are among the oldest in Europe and are embedded with various types of crystal such as quartz, feldspar and hornblende. Perhaps these crystals in the ancient rocks create the energy field I felt so strongly on my visit – all coming from the hand of the Cailleach, a personification of the power of Mother Earth.

Archeologists theorize that the 5,000 year old Callanais Stones were a sacred site created for ritual and prayer, in particular from which to mark the 18.6 year lunar cycle – similar and yet more complicated than the yearly Sun cycle of Summer and Winter Solstices.

Callanais Stone Circle seen from Cross Entrance on East

Every 18.6 years, this moon cycle reaches Major Lunar Standstill with the full moon nearest the Summer Solstice. It is viewed through the Callanais Stones rising out of Cailleach na Mointeach – our Earth Mother. Being so far north it only skims the horizon then appears to set among the stones.

Two stones of the Callanais 13 stone inner circle framing Cailleach na Mointeach

It is hard for our modern minds to understand the awe these ancient people must have felt at the beauty and terror of nature during the Megalithic Era – when the human family was first beginning to settle in one place though had not yet discovered agriculture. 

Perhaps the ceremonies held at Callanais helped hold the terror at bay. Closing my eyes I can imagine being there on this short night, near mid-summer, for the ritual marking of the passing of winter –  I and my tribe had survived the season of long, dark nights. This was the special time that our tribal shaman knew how to mark. We all understood the precariousness of life and that marking the circuits of Earth and Sky provided invaluable knowledge for our survival. I can imagine feeling immense gratitude witnessing the cycles of life unfold as Earth and Sky and human minds interacted and the full moon rose out of our Earth Mother – Cailleach na Mointeach – and then set within the Sacred Stone Circle.

Further illustrating Callanais’ connection to Goddess, its original construction was comprised of 13 stones arranged in a circle – both number and shape are symbols of  Moon and Goddess. At some point an even-armed cross was added around the perimeter – symbolic of the sun and of the meeting place of the divine and the mundane.

It seems unlikely that such a magnificent structure was created for use only once every 18.6 years. Of course these people left no written account of their actions, but local legend and lore suggests the Callanais Stones were seen as a fertility power spot. Given the Stones connection to Moon and Goddess that is not surprising.  An old legend claims that Callanais is a promising spot to consummate a marriage or become engaged. In fact I overheard a couple of visitors while I was there claiming to have become engaged at Callanais. 

But what does a site like the Callanais Stones hold for us today? Can Mother Earth still speak to us there?

After a bit of a wander through and around the Stones, I sat and sketched. Slowly through that act of eye to hand to pencil to paper I began to feel the deep connection that always comes in when I attempt to translate 3D reality onto a 2D piece of paper.

Time passed and soon the only return bus would arrive so I stopped and just sat quietly, listening to the wind and feeling the energy. I felt strongly a sacred presence in this spot where long, long ago ceremonies for Goddess had been held. I heard the Cailleach’s calling – to an acceptance of our modern world and the difficult days of transformation the 21st century offers up. The winds carried her message –  a glimmer of hope that we can find our way back to living in balance with her natural rhythms of creation, destruction and creation. I felt her reassurance that though the geography of Earth changes and the epochs of humankind and the flesh and bones of all creatures pass away, the magnificence of life continues. The Cailleach touched my heart there at her Sacred Stone circle, reminding me that, though pain and suffering has been and will always be with us, life is a gift to be cherished.

Here are a few more photos of the Callanais Stones

Post Script – If you are interested in learning more about the 18.6 year moon cycle be sure to read “Moon Teachings for the Masses” by Dr. Judith S. Young.

Sources: Moon Teachings for the Masses, Callanish, Isle of Lewis, Eye of the Psychic, Edinburgh Geological Society,

Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her art. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. She is now working on her next deck of oracle cards – Animal Wisdom. Originally from New Orleans, Judith makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings.

Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck from Judith’s website – click here. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!

Author: Judith Shaw

Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her art. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of her manifestations, which of course includes the flora and fauna of our beautiful Earth. Judith has exhibited her paintings in New York, San Francisco, Mytilene Greece, Athens Greece, New Orleans, Santa Fe NM, Taos NM, Albuquerque NM, Houston TX and Providence RI. She has published two oracle decks - Celtic Goddess Oracle and Animal Wisdom Oracle and is hard at work on an illustrated fairytale - Elena and the Reindeer Goddess.

19 thoughts on “The Callanais (Callanish) Stones and the Cailleach by Judith Shaw”

  1. beautiful post…. i walked with you – it is true that life is a gift that needs to be cherished – Maybe this is the ultimate message of this goddess of life and death,


  2. Amazing! I am so enjoying your adventures in Scotland! It’s so fascinating to me that the Cailleach represents both creation and destruction yet is especially associated with winter, when both death is ever-present and the silent deep creativity underneath the Earth is especially at work preparing for spring. Perhaps it reflects a deep understanding that death is not an end but a transformational point and that life must come from that deep place inside the Earth and also inside all of us.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So well said Carolyn. Perhaps it is our culture’s fear and denial of that ultimate transformation that keeps us in such a superficial place of consumption and addiction.


  3. Fascinating! I always learn so much from your posts. And the photographs and your drawings–gorgeous! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people studied the most ancient history of our blessed mother planet and learned more about our foremothers (and forefathers) and the eldest goddesses! I’m going to have to read your post again to find out what I missed as i read it the first time. Bright blessings to your work. And to Scotland!


  4. Thanks Barbara,
    And do check out the link to the article about the 18.6 year moon cycle. It’s really very complicated. I can just barely understand it and to think that these ancient people were able to not only track and understand it but to built a monument from which to observe and honor the movement of Moon – Wow!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Splendid!

    “she sees beyond duality peering into the Oneness of all Being” 👌👌👌


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Judith, this is balm for us on this difficult day in America. Thank you for this deep meditation on the eternal force of Life…and the magnificent images!


  7. Judith I so love this story, thank you. I feel such a connection to this place, as I do some other places particularly in Scotland, and indeed my DNA result says 67% Scotland. But I have never been there and it seems unlikely that I will go there in body. Yet I feel also that where I lived for over two decades in Australia, a place that nurtured me and my work, has connection to these ancient lands in their formation … She did speak with me. And I have retained and re-claimed my given family name, Livingstone, which I sometimes write as LivingStone.


    1. Glenys,
      I love that – LivingStone! I personally consider stones and rocks to be living, unlike science which declares them to be dead. Glad you found your connection to Earth in the stones of Australia.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Judith, Thank you so much for your stories of Scotland. I first visited it in 2015 and managed to return three more times by 2018, at which point I had walked about 400 miles of the countryside. I continue to be fascinated by the land and hope to explore more of it.
    We used to know each other by way of Carol Christ, when you lived in Glen Park. I still have your old phone number in my address book!


  9. Beautiful … an ancient sacred place of Earthly power and no doubt the Great Mother energy was profoundly palpable for you there. Thanks so much for sharing your journey and experience with us, Judith. Freddy Silvia’s recent book on ancient Scotland has much insight on the Callinish stones and many other similar monuments on the Scottish islands. Fascinating indeed, and more ancient than many imagine. Thanks again.


    1. Nancy,
      Yes – it was amazing for sure.

      I did get Silvia’s book but haven’t read it yet. I had planned to read it while on bus or train but couldn’t stop myself from looking out the window the whole time. I hope to make to the Orkney Islands next time and to walk in Perthshire much more where the land is apparently full of many ancient stones well off the beaten path.


      1. Excellent! I can understand you wanting to simply be immersed in the experience versus reading about it. And I think you will find his book insightful and validating too: he had personal experiences with some of the stones, especially at certain sites on different islands. Thanks again for sharing your journey with us.


  10. Joy,
    Glad you have enjoyed my stories of Scotland. How wonderful that you were able to visit numerous times. I hope to go back also.

    How did we know each other? I never really lived in Glen Park though I did live on Harper St once which is close to it. But that was before I went to Greece and met Carol in 1985, briefly, and 1986 for a longer period.


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