Clava Cairns

Photograph courtesy of http://www.truehighlands.com

Photograph courtesy of http://www.truehighlands.com

The main attraction in the area around Inverness is the site of the Battle of Culloden.  However, there is another site nearby that is also an important part of Scotland’s past.  One mile southeast of the battlefield set on a terrace above the River Nairn are the Clava Cairns also called the Balnuaran of Clava.  These are three cairns and a number of free standing stones which date from the late Neolithic period.  Although it is thought by scholars that there may have been at least two additional structures, the three that are left have been designated the Northeast Cairn, Central Cairn and Southwest Cairn.  These site is thought to be a part of a system of cairns in the Inverness-Nairn Valley, which correspond to a pattern corresponding to planetary movement.

Both the Northeast and the Southwest Cairns are passage graves.  This means there is an inner chamber, which is linked to the outside by a passage.  These are both fifty feet in diameter and are currently about three feet high, but at the time of construction were thought to be up to ten feet high.  Like at New Grange (For more on New Grange, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/new-grange/ )  the passages into the tombs align with the midwinter sun.  On the winter solstice, sunlight streams into the passageways illuminating the grave chambers within which would have been in darkness every other day of the year.  Both of these graves are surrounded by kerbstones.  On the Northeastern passage grave, one kerbstone is has several “cup marks”.  These are circular indentations purposely chiseled into the stone, however, it is not known what these were made for.  The Central Cairn is a ring cairn, which means there is no passage linking the inside room to the outside.  All of the cairns are surrounded by a ring of standing stones.  It has been suggested that the fictional Craigh na Dun from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series was inspired by this site.  There is a second smaller site nearby called Milton of Clava.  It is a single standing stone.  There is also a ruins of a medieval chapel built much later.  

Photograph courtesy of http://www.truehighlands.com

Excavations at the site have shown the sites had been used from their creation around 2500 BCE and was in continual use for over 1000 years. Then the site was intermittently used until about 770 CE.  Remains of another ring cairn can be found near the original site and the medieval chapel ruins at Milton of Clava.  Unfortunately, we do not know much about the builders or those who were buried here.  Excavations beginning in 1828 did damage to the site and eradicated evidence.  However, evidence was found in the 1950s that some bodies were cremated here.  Studies of the in the 1990’s by Professor R. Bradley, theorize that the site was originally constructed “during a single phase”.  However, he was still puzzled by the ring and cup carvings on the kerbstones.  It is not known what part these played in the rituals conducted here or if they were made by earlier civilizations.  Despite the finds of cremated bones, no complete sets of remains have ever been found.

ER