When Julian Cope, the musician and antiques dealer, met Margaret Curtis on the Isle of Lewis in the 1990s, he was impressed. Curtis, who died at the age of 80, was a “living legend” and a “psychic queen”, said Cope, who filled him with a “true feeling of awe”. He devoted a chapter of his best-selling book The Modern Antiquarian, published in 1998, to it and to Calanais, one of Europe’s most extraordinary ancient monuments.
Near the Atlantic coast in the remote Outer Hebrides, Calanais (pronounced as in the Anglicised spelling, Callanish) is a circle of stones in the center of five rows dating from around 3000 BC. The tallest of nearly 50 megaliths is over five meters tall and all are made of a distinctive ridged gneiss that glistens against a stormy sky. Curtis did much to better understand this and other neglected sites on Lewis, becoming the island’s unofficial archaeologist and sharing his enthusiasms with a grateful public of visitors.
She found many more stones under the peat as she roamed the moor, probing with a metal bar. One, in Calanais itself, was rebuilt in 1982, and she spotted the broken end of another in a wall.
Archaeologists sometimes followed his suggestions. Patrick Ashmore, who led the excavations at Calanais for what is now historic Scotland in the 1980s, praised the fieldwork and record keeping of Curtis and each of her two husbands . On one occasion pieces of quartz she found while straightening a road near her house led to the discovery of a Bronze Age burial cairn.
Archaeologists did not support all of his ideas, but embraced his notion of a great sacred landscape. At the center of it, she argued, was a dramatic sunset that happens every 18 years and seven months.
At this time (next in 2025), the summer full moon rises behind a hill – in the shape of a sleeping woman, it says, representing an ancient goddess – skims the horizon and sets, before briefly reappearing behind it. the circle of Calanais. “She had a strong sense of theatre,” says Alison Sheridan, former senior curator at National Museums Scotland.
Margaret was the adopted daughter of Doris (née Cattermole) and Charles Woolford, who lived in Edgbaston, Birmingham. Charles was a railway engineer and Doris a teacher before her marriage. Late in life, Margaret found and visited her biological mother, who lived near Edinburgh.
After school in Edgbaston, Margaret qualified as a teacher at Maria Gray College, Twickenham. She met Gerald Ponting, then in training to teach in Southampton, when they were students at a conservation camp in Anglesey. They married in 1967 and took jobs in Suffolk, where they lived in Kesgrave, near Ipswich, with Margaret teaching at a primary school. They were both interested in local history and, after moving to Scotland, they self-published a book about Kesgrave.
They spent their summer holidays travelling, first in a tent and later in a Bedford motorhome, to places from Iceland to Turkey, and often up the west coast of Britain. In 1973 Gerald successfully applied for a job in Stornoway, the capital of Lewis and Harris, teaching biology and science at a secondary school, and they moved there the following year, Margaret driving the old Suffolk van with their two young children.
In Lewis, she became a traveling primary school music teacher in villages spread along a 35-mile route. She was keen to escape what she saw as the urbanization of the English countryside, and the family adopted a small-farm lifestyle with a large vegetable patch, chickens, goats and sheep, making hay and cutting peat.
They had previously taken an occasional interest in archeology – the year before the move, Margaret had volunteered for a dig in Suffolk – and they had seen Calanais during the summer holidays. However, their home was close to the megaliths, and as a birthday present for Margaret, Gerald found a book about the standing stones. Antiquarian curiosity quickly became devouring.
The book was Megalithic Sites in Britain (1967), by Alexander Thom, Professor of Engineering Science at Oxford University. Although published by a university press, it gained a cult following, introducing the world to a “megalithic courtyard” and the idea that stone circles were laid out with extreme precision, sometimes aligned with features of the night sky. Calanais and its surrounding sites presented “the most important group of alignments in Brittany”. Here, writes Thom, there is no full investigation. The Pontings made contact.
Margaret corresponded regularly with Thom, a man she found more helpful than many professional archaeologists, and he introduced them to Ronald Curtis, an Edinburgh-based chartered civil engineer who had begun his own investigations at Calanais in 1972. a year Margaret had previously found unidentified megaliths, and the Pontings soon joined Ron Curtis in inspecting many of them.
Their work was highlighted in 1978 when Margaret and Gerald were finalists for the BBC Chronicle Prize for local amateur archaeologists. They were not winners, but during the ceremony, Prince Charles presented them with a check and champagne as a special prize for the initiative.
They self-published a succession of guidebooks to Calanais and other stone circles, selling them from the garage next to their house, where Margaret amassed her collection of artifacts and entertained visitors from all over the world drawn to promises of visionary visits and quirky, friendly company. .
Gerald left Scotland in 1984 after their separation and Margaret continued to work with Curtis. They married in 1989, co-authoring numerous technical reports of investigations and findings, which included a full stone circle which Margaret first spotted from a bus. Their experiences moving and erecting stones caught the attention of mason and writer Rob Roy, who gave Margaret another book chapter, in his Stone Circles: A Modern Builder’s Guide (1999).
In September last year, Peter Vallance, storyteller at the Findhorn Foundation, recorded Margaret speaking near the Calanais Stones. “It’s like doing a puzzle,” she says, “every little detail gives you another insight into what was going on. And I think I pretty much got to the end of all the ideas.
Ron died in 2008. Margaret is survived by her son, Ben, and daughter, Becky, four grandchildren, Eloise, Sasha, Tabitha and Calum, and two great-grandsons.