For more than 30 years, initially with her first husband Gerald Ponting and since 1989 with her second husband Ron Curtis, Margaret Curtis has single-mindedly devoted her energies to decoding the stone monuments at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis.
Last week Moth and I and some other stone-hugging friends had the enormous privilege of meeting her as she took us on a detailed tour of the main Callanish monument, other stones in the area and a burial cairn she found and excavated near to her house by the roadside in Callanish village. She is a detective.
Pictured: Moth is transfixed by Margaret’s deep knowledge
Five thousand years ago the people of Callanish erected the stones to chart the movements of the sun, and more particularly the moon, through their cycles. Using the stones, they could calculate exactly where the moon and sun would rise and set on what day, useful information for farming and fishing people. But they also used it for ceremonies, social rites such as marriages, funerals and even dramatic theatre. Knowing exactly when and where the moon will appear provides a celestial light show for powerful people to impress others with their knowledge and ‘control’ of the heavens. Margaret Curtis has been decoding how they did this.
Pictured: Margaret demonstrates how the midwinter sunrise appears through one tiny chink the stones.
Margaret is a scientist. She says: “it’s a computer”. For three decades she has studied alignments from each stone and how it might relate to landscape features and the passage of the moon through the sky. This is archaeo-astronomy, a science which for some reason I don’t understand, is only just being recognised as valid, rather than a bit loony-fringe.
Margaret is no-nonsense. She takes a methodical, scientific approach. She measures, observes, surveys, measures again, checks her data again, then slowly, slowly put her observations together into theories based entirely on facts. Margaret doesn’t do guessing. Her work has even lead her to find stone circles which have become buried in peat which has grown up around the megaliths over the millenia. She’s definitely onto something.
Pictured: Using foul-weather-proof laminated cards Margaret shows an alignment from a cairn up to the main site.
Margaret is a lecturer. She does detailed tours of the stones for anyone who’s interested: pagans, casual tourists, archaeologists, dowsers, meditators, astronomers, hippies, stone-huggers and yogurt-weavers. The day we met her she had escorted a group of shamanic astrologers around the site and the day we left, a group of druids. She is careful not to ‘dis’ anyone’s beliefs, prefering to stick to the facts and what she knows to be true purely through her measurements and observations. She seemed to like our approach which was simply to find out ‘the what’ based on scientific study and a curiosity for everything neolithic. No goat-slaughtering and chanting mantras on ley-lines for us.
Pictured: Margaret’s field lectures are something special!
Margaret is a code-breaker. Her knowledge of and enthusiasm for her subject is electrifying. While the rest of the UK basked in a heatwave we, in stiff, cool, westerly breezes with heavy showers pulsing across the sky, were taken around the stones for more than three hours. Despite the appalling weather and drenched to the skin, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
Pictured: Margaret shows our group another mind-blowing alignment.
She showed us how the alignments worked, why certain stones were certain shapes, why the stones were placed at apparently uneven intervals, what the outline of each stone pointed to, why some stones had crystals of hornblend on them, how the moon would appear in the circle and how the alignments related to the very many other stone monuments in the areas.
Pictured: Margaret points out a lump of hornblend on one of the stone which was specifically selected and place here for a reason.
Margaret is a friend. She seemed to like being with us. We were getting tired so we went back to our rented bungalow for tea and cake and to continue our discussions. She reached into her bag and got out more laminated diagrams to tell us about yet another mind-blowing way in which the monument worked with the moon. She lost me half way through the technical information but then as she revealed the theory it all fell into place! We were gobsmacked. And she sussed it, thousands of years after it ceased to be used.
After our tour I wasn’t able to see the stones in the same way. Every time I drew them I knew that every angle, every notch, every surface, every interval might be significant. My drawing became more closely observed.
Margaret is an athlete! She kept saying “I’m too old to be doing this anymore” as she vaulted over stiles, gates, barbed wire fences and skipped up boggy hillsides.
Pictured: Without the rain, they’d be no rainbows…
In his fantastic book, The Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope devotes the whole of chapter seven to Margaret’s work with some really superb diagrams. Margaret’s first husband, Gerald Ponting explains more about Callanish on his website here.
Margaret is as unique and enthralling as the monument to which she has devoted her life.
If you ever journey to the Isle of Lewis, make sure you phone Margaret for a guided tour. Her number is listed in the visitor centre. You won’t be disappointed.