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A soaring tale of friendship, hope, love and freedom.

Callanish by William Horwood Penguin Paperback Cover

I was drawn to this novel by the title. I have long had a love of stone circles, long barrows and other archaeological sites (thanks mum for introducing me to these) – partly from a love of the history and the spirituality of these places and partly from my love of photography; photographing stone circles can be really rewarding. I visited Callanish stone circle on the Isle of Lewis about 7 years ago in May and I have longed to go back ever since to have a go at photographing the stone circle in the snow. I digress… but, needless to say, it was the title that added this book to my ‘to be read’ stack.

callanish stone circle

It’s more a book about birds than about Callanish, with a heavy undertone which debates the humanity and necessity of zoos. Whichever side of the fence you fall on in the zoo debate, it is an enjoyable short read and a thought-provoking one.

'Callanish' is the story of two majestic golden eagles. Creggan is the newest arrival to the bird cages at London Zoo. He is a young eagle and hadn’t yet fledged the nest and learned to fly when he was captured from his home at Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands. Minch is old, an old and frail golden eagle who has been at the zoo for many years having been captured from her home in Callanish a long, long time ago. Minch has been sickly and is frail by the time that Creggan arrives but she is anxious to teach him the ways of the golden eagles, how to fly, hunt and remember home and she is desperate to teach him ways to find inner strength to survive the monotonous days in the cages and how to take the opportunity for freedom, should it ever arise. Minch wishes for freedom for her young protégé so that he can experience what it is like to be a powerful and majestic golden eagle; while all that Creggan comes to wish for is freedom for his once-majestic and spiritual friend, Minch.

The eagles, while treated kindly by the zookeepers, have only one human friend, Mr Wolski. Mr Wolski is the zoo’s sweeper and he spends all of his breaks watching the eagles, especially the old golden eagle,  Minch, who he longs to see flying free. Mr Wolski is an Auschwitz survivor; the cages remind him of the horror of captivity and he hates to see the majestic birds day-after-day in their captivity. Despite this, he feels unable to leave the zoo and do anything different; he feels this strange compulsion to stay on at the zoo, watching over the birds of prey in his spare moments.

The novel is loosely based on, or inspired by, the story of Goldie, the golden eagle that escaped from London Zoo for 12 days in 1965. Goldie spent another 4 days on the loose in December of the same year, before being recaptured by zookeepers. The story of her initial escape attracted national media attention. Here’s a link to the news retrieved from the BBC archives, now on their website.

Although a story of eagles, Callanish is also a story of hope, of patience, of respect and learning, of friendship and love and of the spirit of places. Suitable for older children and adults. A good, lightweight but thoughtful read, particularly recommended for animal lovers.

callanish stone circle in may


‘Callanish’ was first published in 1984 by Allen Lane. Pictured in this article is the 1985 Penguin paperback edition. The book is currently out-of-print. The photos are my own © Sam Barnes.


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