Calanais in £6m upgrade amid huge rise in visitor numbers and arrival of cruise ships at Stornoway

Around £6 million is to be spent on upgrading the Calanais Standing Stones experience amid an “enormous” rise in visitor numbers and the predicted arrival of thousands of cruise ship passengers to the Neolithic wonder.

Urras nan Tursachan (UnT), the trust that runs the visitor centre at the site on the Isle of Lewis, is pushing ahead with its redevelopment plan after it received £2m from the Scottish Government this week.

Ian Fordham, chair of the trust, said the upgrade was necessary given rising visitor numbers and the opening of a deep water port at Stornoway, which will accept cruise ships from 2024.

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Calanais, which was created around 5,000 years ago, dates to around 2900BC. The site was used, possibly as a form of astronomical observatory, until around 1500BC. Today it attracts around 150,000 visitors a year, with the figure expected to rise to around 200,000 by 2030.

An architect's drawing of the new visitor centre to built at Calanais Standing Stones. PIC: Contributed.

Mr Fordham said: “Our visitor centre was a community development around 27 years ago and it was a fantastic investment at the time, but 27 years on and the tourism market on the islands has grown enormously, visitor expectations have grown enormously and the sheer number of visitors has grown enormously. The centre has not been able to keep up with visitor numbers.”

The new deep port at Stornoway is expected to bring between 60,000 and 80,000 cruise ship passengers into Stornoway a year. "They will all want to come to Calanais,” Mr Fordham said.

The visitor centre is expected to close for one summer season and a total of 18 months while work gets underway, although dates have yet to be determined. A temporary visitor centre will be built nearby.

The shop and cafe will be moved to the old Calanais farmhouse on site, leaving the visitor centre for improved interpretation and education about the stones. A new conference suite for 50 people will also be built to accommodate coach parties for talks and demonstrations.

The Calanais stones date from around 2,900BC and were probably used as a type of astronomical observatory. PIC: Colin Macdonald/Flickr/CC

Mr Fordham said between ten and 12 jobs will be created by the redevelopment. He said: “We want visitors to use the cafe and buy from our shop, but it is not just about the direct spend here. We buy a lot of goods from local craftspeople and artists, so there is that ripple effect of supporting local people.

"Everyone wants to go to Calanais, but we want to make sure that other attractions will benefit also, such as Dun Carloway Broch and the Gearrannan Blackhouses.”

The new visitor centre is expected to open by 2025.

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Mr Fordham said: "We have been talking about the revamp for seven to eight years and it has taken a while to work out what is right for Calanais. We will have to close the visitor centre for one summer season, with the work expected to take 18 months. We are going to have take the one year short-term pain to create a facility fit for the next generation.”

The £2m was awarded from the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Capital Grant Fund (RCGF) after a bid from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, with financial support also coming from Islands Growth Deal, funded by both Scottish and UK governments. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has also contributed.

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