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Archaeologist Ian McHardy signing his booklet yesterday

Lewis-based archaeologist Ian McHardy launched his new booklet about the Neolithic standing stones at Calanais, Contemplating Calanais – A Guide to the Standing Stones, on Monday (April 8).

Hosted by Urras nan Tursachan, the book launch took place in the stone-build shed that is serving as a temporary eating space while the Calanais visitor centre is being redeveloped (writes Fiona Rintoul).

It was standing room only in the space, as McHardy presented his new work, which is published by the Islands Book Trust. With photographs by Jim Hope and line drawings by former Edinburgh College of Art lecturer Donald Urquhart, the 60-page booklet is aimed at the general reader.

‘It’s not written in archaeological jargon,’ said IBT chairman John Randall, introducing the book and its author to the audience. ‘It’s written for the layperson in a user-friendly way.’

Coincidentally, the launch took place on the day of the total solar eclipse across part of the world, but the book’s genesis has more to do with the moon. McHardy felt compelled to write it after he moved to Lewis just in time to witness the southern extreme of the moon in 2006 and 2007.

This phase in the moon’s long 18.6-year cycle is known as the ‘major standstill’. During it, the moon rises and sets at its furthest points. At Calanais, the setting full moon appears to skim along the horizon to the south where lies a hill known locally as Cailleach na Mointeach, the old woman of the moors. In the moonlight, the silhouette of a woman lying down is visible.

‘The idea for the book was prompted to a large degree by witnessing this amazing spectacle with Jim [Hope] and us both being totally blown away,’ McHardy told the audience.

He explained that he was also motivated to write the book by general cynicism at the time in the academic archaeological community about the phenomenon. Shortly after witnessing it in 2006-07, he spoke about it at a conference of the theoretical archaeology group in Bristol to ‘an almost pin-drop silence’. At a subsequent Hebridean archaeological conference, he overhead delegates referring to adherents of the phenomenon as ‘the lunatic fringe’.

This has since changed. ‘Calanais, the moon and the mountain that looks like a woman is acknowledged by the likes of Alison Sheridan, the pre-eminent archaeologist in Scotland and a trustee at Calanais,’ McHardy told the audience.

Contemplating Calanais appears at a propitious moment in archaeological thinking, then, but for McHardy the stones’ connection with the moon has been a lifelong interest. He first heard about the stones in his schooldays when he read William Thurwood’s book Callanish about an eagle trapped in London Zoo. He saw them for himself aged 21 – learning about the 18.6-year moon cycle – when he cycled to Lewis from his home in the Black Isle.

That trip taught him valuable life lessons. Self-pity following a drenching in a tent during a storm evanished when he met a disabled traveller at Gearrannan hostel who had hitch-hiked from the south of France, despite being unable to walk. ‘I no longer felt sorry for myself,’ McHardy told the audience. ‘It was a beautiful experience, and I fell in love with the island.’

That author of this new guide to Calanais was quick to acknowledge the role that Gerald Ponting’s 2002 book Callanish - and Other Megalithic Sites of the Outer Hebrides has played in advancing the study of the monument.

‘It is one of the best overviews of the monument,’ he said. ‘However, I also felt their work was perhaps a little too focused on the technical astronomy side of things to the detriment of other points of view, which were perhaps necessary for a complete understanding of the monument.’

Contemplating Calanais was a long time in the writing – 18.6 years, in fact – with the result that other factors now speak for a new publication. The main one is that the excavation report from the 1980s dig has been published, creating a need for a new synthesis.

‘My book is therefore an attempt to marshal all that is known with some certainty and to try to use that to guess at what was going on,’ McHardy said. ‘In other words, to suggest an interpretation in a way that is hopefully understandable and useful to an engaged visitor.’

From a moon-watching perspective, it’s a good time to publish this new contemplation of Calanais, as we are at the dawn of a new moon cycle. The lowest moons will appear again next year, and the best chance of seeing the moon standstill will be in summer 2025.

‘There are low moons in winter too, but it’s better in summer,’ McHardy explained.

Copies of Contemplating Calanais – A Guide to the Standing Stones cost £12 and are available from bookshops and www.islandsbooktrust.org.