OFF THE BEATEN PATH
THE CLAVA CAIRNS
The Clava Cairns are a set of cairns at Balnuaran of Clava, to the east of Inverness not far from the famous Culloden Battle Field. (6m East of Inverness. Signposted from the B9091, 300 yards East of Culloden Battlefield) The term “cairn” refers to piled up stones. The Clava cairns, built about 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age are one of a set of approximately 50 such constructions found in the area. The site itself contains a kerb cairn, a ring cairn, a passage cairn and some standing stones.
The monuments here were built between three and four thousand years ago
The oldest are the circular wall enclosure – the central “ring cairn” and the “two passage graves”. The latest was a ring of boulders that enclosed a grave, the “kerb cairn” Such Bronze Age monuments are a feature of the inner Moray Firth and as these are the best preserved examples, they are known as the Clava CairsRecent excavations and research here have revealed a startling new complexity to the construction of these cairns
Our attention has been drawn to the characteristics of the architecture. These reflect the esteem in which these builders held the light of the sun and the color shape and texture of the stones. It was discovered that each tomb was short lived and and may have housed very few bodies – possibly only one – and that those were not accompanied by any offerings that survive today. As a tomb went out of use it was surrounded by a ring of standing stones.In about 1,000 BC the cemetery was reused and further monuments were constructed.What you are able to see now was originally part of a much larger cemetery which extended eastward toward the Nairn Viaduct (behind you)
In the 1870’s the moments were interpreted as Druids’ temples and, in keeping with Victorian romanticism, the owner planted a grove of trees enclosing the three largest monuments. In the opposite direction, are the remains of part of another cemetery which can be visited at Milton of Clava. This is shown on the map and is 10 minutes away by foot.
You can visit another “Clava Cairn” at Corrimonny, to the west of Loch Ness, and the contemporary cemetery at Kilmartin in Argyll. A leaflet to accompany your visit is available from Fort George or can be downloaded from www.historic-scotland.gov.uk
One of the more interesting aspect of the cairns is that they are oriented specifically towards the setting sun at the time of the winter solstice. It is not the only place in the world where the west (where the sun and moon set, are associated with death and funereal matters. Similarly, the southernmost place reached by the sun in its north/south path during the year has a kind of death like association with it. It is this winter solstice time which others have associated with the end of the year and the fear that the sun might not return.
Not only does the orientation of the cairns have meaning but similarly the color and the materials used in cairns seems to have symbolic meaning as well.
The construction of this cairn is almost identical to the other passage grave at Clava
The passage grave was built first and used for a short period of time before being deliberately closed and surround by a cobbled bank and stone circle. The chamber was excavated in 1828 but little is known of the human remains that were unearthed although the monument was certainly reused for a series of cremation burials dating from about 1000 BC. The line of the modern road has separated the southernmost stones from the circle and the cairn
A plan of the SW passage grave showing the location of the different coloured stonesA common feature of these tombs is the use of decorated stones, carved with abstract designs
The entrance of this chamber is marked by two slabs, one of which is carved by cup marks and cup and rings. There are more cup marks on the kerb. We can only guess at their significance. Were they carved specifically to be incorporated into this tomb or were they taken from another structure?
The view of the midwinter sunset from this cairn (Aaron Watson)This cairn shares the same alignment with the setting sun as the north east passage grave
Seen from this tomb the midwinter sun would have set on the valley side, but, viewed from its counterpart, it would have seemed to rest on the roof of this cairn. Both Clava passage graves made use of graded rings of stones which rose in height toward the axis of the midwinter sun
This small monument was probably a later addition to the cemetery
Comparisons with other sites suggests a date of around 1000 BC, nearly a millennium after the three main cairns were built. During the same phase both of the passages graves were reused. Similar evidence of secondary use is found at many monuments in Northern Scotland.
The circle of boulders may have defined the limits of a low earthen mound which seems to have covered a grave although little remained when the site was excavated in the 1950s. The only finds were pieces of flint and a scatter of white quartz pebbles.
It is no accident that this structure was added to the Clava Cemetery, for it reflects some of the characteristics of the other monuments
Again the boulders are graded by height although this is not pronounced. The lowest are toward the north-east and the highest stones to the south-west. They make careful use of differently colored new materials. Generally speaking, groups of red or pink boulders alternate with those which are white. A large flat stone which provides a kind of threshold is decorated with a series of abstract designs similar to those found on other “Clava cairns” and on natural rock surfaces in Strathnairn. Most are pecked hollows or `cup marks’ but one of those has been enclosed by a ring
The appearance of this “passage grave” is rather deceptive
Today it is open to the elements, but originally it took a different form. The central chamber had a domed shaped roof that rose to height of about three and a half meters. This was built entirely of overlapping stones, sealed by a single large slab.The passage to the chamber was covered by lintels and so low that people would need to crawl along it.
For most of the time the chamber and the passage were dark, but they are carefully and deliberately aligned on the midwinter solstice. On the shortest day of the year the rear of the chamber is illuminated by the setting sun. Toward the back of this cairn particular use was made of quartz which would be Illuminated by the rising sun. The monument probably contained burials but the record is confused.The foundation course of the chamber is not of even height
It is lower to the rear and higher towards the entrance. The same applies to the kerbstones which support the edges of the cairn. They seem to be selected to their color and texture and one of them is decorated with abstract designs.
After a short interval the tomb was closed
A bank of rubble was piled against the kerb and prevented access to the passage. At the same time the cairn was enclosed by a ring of standing stones also graded by height. The tallest monoliths are by the entrance.
A plan of the grave showing the location of the different colored stones.
The original structure consisted of a rubble wall, supported on both sides by a kerb. Both these kerbs were graded by height with the lowest stones in the direction of the rising sun and the tallest to the south-west where the sun sets at midwinter. In the inner kerb the effect is so subtle that it is difficult to recognize. It seems possible that the surface of the enclosure wall was divided into segments of differently colored stones like the slices of cake.On excavation, the interior contained human bones and signs of burning.
The cairn could have been used as a tomb, but it could also have marked the position of a pyre, built to hold the ceremonies that may have accompanied the burials that occurred in the adjacent passage graves. The stones forming the cairn were never piled very high, creating a platform.When its use was over, the enclosure was filled with rubble to make it level with the wall, and the ring cairn was enclosed with a stone circle
This was also graded with height. When that happened, some of the divisions built into the enclosure wall were from the outer kerb to the standing stones. These can be identified as banks of rubble. The builders also tried to match the color, shape or material of the monoliths to the nearest stones in the inner and outer kerbs.