British Folklore
Fairy Lore & Prehistoric Sites in Britain

Callanish Standing Stones

Callanish Standing Stones

West of Stornoway an avenue of stones leads across the moors to a circle of thirteen pillars around a chambered cairn, about 4,000 years old. Fir Bhreig, 'The False Men', is the Gaelic name for the stones. In Ireland, many stone circles and standing stones are known as far-breaga, or false man, these usually being solitary menhirs which from a distance look like people; their 'falseness' likes in their not being as human as they appear.

The Lewis pillars are said to be giants who refused to build a church for St. Keiran and were therefore turned into stone. Such legends are common in folk tradition, and the changed beings are often believed to recover their form or power of movement at certain times of the day or year, being able to walk, or even dance.

A second account of Callanish is that the 'Shining One' appeared there on midsummer morning to walk the length of the avenue, heralded by the cry of the cuckoo, the bird of the Celtic land of Tir-nan-Og. It used to be the custom for local families to visit the stones on that day and on May Day, at first openly and then in secret when such practices were condemned by the church.

One tale is told that during a famine on the island a woman was so desperate and starving that she went to the sea intended to drown herself, but saw white cow which appeared from the waves and told her that she and all her neighbors should bring their milk pails to the stones of Callanish that night. When they did so, the cow provided each of them with a pailful of milk, and this bounty continued until a witch brought a sieve instead of a pail. As the cow could not fill it however hard she tried, she was milked dry, and was never seen on the island again.

The power of witches to get abnormal amounts of milk from cows, whether ordinary animals or magical ones, was well known, and in England too there are tales of witches milking fairy cows into sieves.