A GREY-HAIRED woman stands in front of a standing stone nearly three times her height. One hand is behind her back, flat against the unyielding Lewisian gneiss. She is facing the central cairn but her eyes are closed.

She is still. She breathes in and out.

It is August 1, and there will be a full moon in a few hours’ time – a supermoon, no less – followed by another, the rare “blue moon”, before the end of the month.

She stands against the stone. Connected to it. At one with it.

“EXCUSE ME, DO YOU MIND?” bellows a woman with an American accent, pointedly. She is standing at the other side of the cairn.

The grey-haired woman opens her eyes. She is, it appears, getting in the way of a photo opportunity. The American woman wants her to move. Does she mind? Yes, she replies softly. She does mind.

The tension is palpable.

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From the perspective of the bellowing woman, the other woman is hogging the stone. She’s had her turn, surely? Others want to take photographs. Indeed, the only thing they want to do here is take photographs. Once they’ve got a few good snaps, they can be on their way.

The website for the Calanais visitor centre describes the site as “a unique place for ritual and reflection”. But it’s also a unique place to take selfies and group shots during a very brief visit as part of a coach tour. And herein lies a significant conflict of interests.

Along the road at a second, less-visited site dubbed “Calanais III”, I am taking photographs when a trio of women arrive and remove their shoes. One of them, dressed in white robes, produces a little bottle and sprays one of the standing stones before giving it a gentle kiss. I am tempted to ask whether the spray is for hygiene reasons or spiritual ones, but it seems rude to interrupt whatever is going on.

Soon, however, I’m recruited as event photographer, tasked with lining up a shot of the three women, palms raised to the camera, enclosed within the stone circle. Oh, and can I also make sure that Calanais I and II are also in the shot. No pressure!

After I have snapped the necessary shots (“wonderful, wonderful, thank you!”) the trio get down to business, seated with legs crossed in the centre of the stones. It feels intrusive to take any more pictures so I head off down the path towards the road – only to find a coach party spilling out and up towards me. I can’t help but turn tail and join them, curious to see how they will respond to what’s happening.

The National: The Calanais standing stones are in danger of being overrun by tourists, say bossesThe Calanais standing stones are in danger of being overrun by tourists, say bosses (Image: NQ)

As they reach the stones and clock the women, a hush descends. Photographs are taken quietly, and a woman near me keeps her voice to a whisper as she asks her friend: “Are they having a seance?”

Guidebooks encourage visitors to access these smaller sites on foot, as parking space where the path meets the road is very limited. It does not seem unreasonable to expect coach parties to focus their visits on the main site, so that the smaller circles are left for those seeking quieter, more spiritual experiences.

Of course, that means more pressure on the main site, which is currently at risk due to the impact of 120,000 tourists visiting every year – with the figure expected to almost double in the next decade or so. As reported last week, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is to put controversial proposals to the Scottish Government for the introduction of an admission fee.

It is currently free to visit Calanais I any time of day or night, although donations are requested for use of the car park and there is an admission charge for an exhibition in the adjacent visitor centre run by a local trust, Urras nan Tursachan. The trust’s chairman Iain Fordham says it backs the HES plan, warning the site is in danger of being “overrun in an uncontrollable fashion”.

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A charge would introduce some degree of control, and potentially deter some people from visiting and thus reduce numbers, but those who have already travelled from all corners of the world for a once-in-a-lifetime experience are unlikely to be priced out. If control of visits rather than a reduction in overall numbers is the aim, might there be better ways to achieve this?

Preservation of the site is of course the top priority, but can this be achieved by finding creative solutions to the differing needs of different visitors? As Urras nan Tursachan prepares to give its visitor centre a £6 million revamp, will the new facilities be designed to meet the needs of both large tour groups visiting at peak times and others who wish a quieter, more personal experience outwith those hours?

If in future all visits to the stones were confined to set times, both the site and the visitor experience might suffer.

The visitor-influx timebomb means action is needed, but to go from free-for-all to fence-and-fees is a big step to take. It would be a shame if those seeking to visit literally once in a blue moon found themselves locked out because of the damage done by hordes of other visitors who are simply there for a quick glimpse and to check a place name off a list.