After our second night sleeping in the cavernous car, we woke to a pale, opalescent sky over the stones of Callanish. Considering how many decades we had wanted to visit the site, it was a wonderful way to wake. It was also odd that neither of us felt the need to return to the stones. At least not on this trip. We felt that we had done what we had been called to do… whatever that was. At that point, we were still travelling blind and taking each moment on trust.
The café with the alpacas would not open for several hours, so there was no point in lingering… coffee would have to wait, we had enough supplies for a meagre breakfast and we had an island to explore before the afternoon ferry would carry us back over the sea to Skye.
We had seen the sign for another stone circle, not far along the road that leads back towards Stornoway and decided to take a look. I had noted a parking spot as we had passed the day before and a sign pointing up onto the peat. By now, my phone was completely dead and Stuart’s had just enough charge for emergencies, so we could have done no research, even if we had wanted to. We had no idea what to expect or how far we would have to walk… but that is part of the adventure.
The sign pointed vaguely up onto the moor and luckily, an unexpected bench gave us something to aim for so we chose the right path. As we crested the rise, we could see only a boggy peat-cut and a single standing stone. We had no way of knowing quite how much the scene at Achmore stone circle revealed about the history of the island and its people.
The peat on Lewis began its life as vegetation, some seven thousand years ago. As the plants, mostly sphagnum moss, began to decompose in waterlogged areas of land, the acidic conditions halted the process, preserving the plants and forming the peat. Each ten centimetres depth of peat represents around a century of formation… and the peat cuts here are deep.
Peat has been used as fuel on the islands for thousands of years and the traces of its harvesting are everywhere, even today. Neat lines of exposed peat show where it is still being cut, cut, dried, and taken home to be stacked against the winter chill. But that was not its only use in the Western Isles.
At Cladh Hallan on the island of South Uist, a little further south of Lewis, a Bronze Age site was found that contained, amongst many other burials and cremations, two unique skeletons. Due to their state of preservation, it was some time before archaeologists realised that the male and female skeletons were composed of bones from numerous individuals, making two composite beings, using body parts from people who had died over a period of six hundred years. Not only that, the remains of the deceased individuals had been deliberately mummified immediately after death by immersing them in the peat bogs to prevent decomposition.
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