British Archaeology, no 17, September 1996: Essay


`Calanais' meets the olde tea-shoppe

Aubrey Burl protests at changes to the traditional names of stone circles

`It's Liza with a ''Z''', sang Liza, not Lisa, Minelli - and she was right. Names should be respected. Shakespeare knew this well. Places formerly anonymous had to be given titles because that 'Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothings/ A local habitation and a name', and once established they should be left alone.

As for stone circles, not many people will be going to Stan-heng this year, and even fewer are likely to be directed by anyone in the Peak District to eordburg-hlaw when asking the way to Arbor Low. So familiar are many of these circles in the literature that I was taken aback to read Magnus Magnusson's Foreword to Calanais: The Standing Stones, by Patrick Ashmore, 1995.

'I have always known it as Callanish or even Callernish. Before that it was called Classerniss. Now we must get used to calling it Calanais, the original Gaelic form of the name . . . And a good thing too,' he wrote.

Unlike the Battle of Waterloo in 1066 And All That which was a 'very Good Thing', the introduction of Calanais is not a 'good thing' but a Bad Thing. The new 'name' exists only in Edward Dwelly's Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary, 1901-11, and it is as spurious as the perverse Calinis of modern maps and the Chalanais of local road signs. In the beginning, around 1700, the stone circle was called 'Classerniss', and this remained popular throughout the 18th century. By 1814, variable Hebridean pronunciation produced alternatives: 'Classerniss', 'Calernish', 'Calarnish', and 'Classernis' but never Calanais which is bogus romanticism.

We are unlikely to plunge back into deep antiquity and revive Stan-heng, let alone Chorea Gigantum. The polynominal Newgrange used to be New Grange, used to be Am Uamb Greine, used to be Brug maic ind Oc, used to be Sid in Bruga, but today these are philological relics. We shall never return to Dans Maen now that we have the Merry Maidens; or elfhaugr instead of Elva Plain in the Lake District. And what anyone would make of Wale-dich, the Saxon name for Avebury, brings a boggle to the mind.

There is sufficient chaos already. Ilderton is known as 'Threestone Burn' despite its remaining thirteen slabs. Seven Stones of Hordron had three times that number. And Belstone is an arithmetical and sexual bewilderment of 'Nine Maidens' and 'Seventeen Brothers' - two other names for the same megalithic transvestite in which up to 40 stones once stood.

There is a richness about old names, and they should not be sullied by mawkishness. It is a pleasure to read of the Twelve Apostles, the Stripple Stones, the Druid's Altar, the Nine Ladies, and Long Meg & Her Daughters. Chapel o'Sink was not improved by Alexander Thom's prosaic Westerton.

Thom, an engineer who studied stone circles in the 1960s, was an unwitting culprit of name-changing. Unguided by archaeologists and working in isolation, he created confusion by the scores of different names he guessed for circles: Latheronwheel for Guidebest, Blindwells for the Druid's Seat, and Treswigger for the delightful Trippet Stones. Worst, because it was so misleading, Allan Water replaced Burgh Hill, causing unsuspecting visitors to expect a gentle stroll by the riverside, whereas the grim reality is a stroke-inducing hillside climb of 72m in 200m, a breathless ascent of one in three.

At Callanish, pace Calanais, Thom systematically but mistakenly entitled the group of circles around Loch Roag Callanish I, II, III, IV, etc, resulting in an archaeological farrago of one famous circle and a batch of anonymous doppelgangers.

There should be a moratorium on change if a ring has held a constant name for 50 years or more. Pseudo-antiquarianism like Kennett for Kennet and Stukeley's Sanctuary instead of John Aubrey's matter-of-fact but descriptive Seven Barrow Hill may be amusing, but they belong with the olde tea-shoppe.

By a final irony, the 'Gaelic' Calanais never existed. In The Standing Stones of Callanish, 1977, Gerald and Margaret Ponting wrote that 'The name, like most village names in Lewis, is Norse, not Gaelic in origin'. Place-name experts believe Callanish to be derived from the Viking Kalladarnes, 'the promontory from which a ferry could be hailed', and the interpretation is persuasive. There is a short stretch of water across Loch Roag from Callanish to Linshader. On nearby North Uist another Callernish looks across the narrow sound to Vallay Island. Ferries are probable.

The unlucky Calanais should be ignored as a whimsicality. Fortunately, the meaning of its true name, Callanish, gives this protest a ferry-tale ending.

Dr Aubrey Burl is a leading authority on Britain's stone circles and rows


Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage


© Council for British Archaeology, 1996