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Magic and mystery on the Isle of Lewis

Its ancient standing stones are a big draw at midsummer but Lewis is rich in treasures of many other kinds – historic, religious … and gloriously outrageous

First light at Callanish. The stone circle on the Hebridean island of Lewis may be 5,000 years old, but it would not do to keep it waiting. Besides, coming here at daybreak is, from certain perspectives, positively tardy. Emma Rennie, a local photographer, considers 2am the best time to visit. “It’s beyond mindblowing,” she told me, ahead of my journey. “There’s silence, which the world is so short of nowadays, and millions of stars. I feel small and insignificant, and I love it.”

Callanish – or Calanais in Gaelic – comprises 49 standing stones laid out in a shape that, seen from above, suggests a Celtic cross. Despite this resemblance, the site long predates Christianity and, indeed, Stonehenge. The drama is heightened by its location on a ridge above a loch. You can gaze across the water to other prehistoric sites nearby – Calanais II and Calanais III. Like Led Zeppelin albums, the stone circles around here are numbered, and they are heavy. The central monolith at Callanish is almost five metres tall and weighs around 4½ tonnes. It has a pelt of lichen in pistachio green.

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