Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:55 am
Less than a mile and a half south-east from the pilgrimage site of Culloden battlefield is a much, much older, and intriguing, reminder of Scotland’s past, Balnuaran of Clava. Balnuaran of Clava is a prehistoric cemetery, 4,000 years old, and often referred to simply by the generic term Clava Cairns. Clava Cairns are unique to the area of the Moray Firth and Inverness. They are believed to be high-status burial chambers and the best-known examples are situated at Balnuaran, surrounded, like silent guardians, by graceful trees. It’s a peaceful, but unremarkable, location, partly bisected by a callous road running carelessly through the edge of the site. And I think it’s the kind of spot you have to really want to find, because there were several wrong turns before we eventually pulled into the small car park. Perhaps we were having an off-day; or perhaps our long-dead ancestors like to discourage visitors traipsing through their resting places.
However – through a simple gate and you can immediately see the distinctive nature of the Clava Cairns; stone chambers, like giant ring doughnuts 50 feet (15 metres) or so in diameter, within a circle of standing stones. The cairns come in two versions – passage graves or ring cairns. There are two of the former and one of the latter at Balnuaran, plus a smaller, separate, circle of stones – the remains of a kerb cairn. Each of the three well-preserved cairns has a central chamber. But whereas the passage cairns have entrance passages, the ring cairn is completely surrounded by stones and has no obvious access.
The passage graves are at the north east (closest to the car park) and south west of the complex. The passages are just a few feet high, but it is thought that the cairns would have been domed rising to about 10-13 feet (3-4 metres) tall at the centre when originally constructed in c2,000 BC. Some of the larger stones have been decorated with ‘cup marks’ – carvings which pre-date the construction of these Clava Cairns, suggesting that the stones may have come from an even older structure, possibly another sacred site. In fact, the burial site replaced a farming settlement; perhaps some of the stone used to construct the cairns came from demolished houses. The suggestion is that the stone circles were added at a later date. The circle surrounding the south west passage grave is cut by the road, leaving one of its stones orphaned on the other side.
There is no trace of the individuals whose remains once lay inside the cairns. Based on other sites, it is believed they would only have contained one person each; hence these would probably have been Very Special People within the community – handsome graves for the rich and powerful; life, and death, just ain’t fair, eh? The graves were re-used in c1,000 BC – and that was when the smaller kerb cairn was built.
The ring cairn never had a roof, and its centre was once filled with rubble. Evidence of burning and traces of cremated bone in the interior prompt speculation that it may have been used as the base for a funeral pyre. The ring cairn also appears to be linked to its outer stone circle by three lines of turf-covered stones. A more recent burial cremation, dating to the 7th or 8th century AD, has been discovered between the cairn and the stone circle, perhaps suggesting that Clava Cairns still had some significant meaning more than two and a half thousand years after they were constructed.
The care with which the Clava Cairns were assembled by their makers can be appreciated from the meticulous placement of stones, as skilled as any drystone construction you will see, with larger kerb stones round the edges. Different coloured stones were used too, though I have no idea whether that has any significance. However, the site seems to have been very carefully planned. The three main cairns are on a north-east to south-west alignment, though the ring cairn is slightly out of position, but the passages are also aligned south-west, toward the midwinter sunset. A tarpaulin placed over the north east passage grave demonstrated the beams of the setting sun bursting along the passage, cleaving the chamber in two with light. Taller red sandstone standing stones also seem to have been orientated toward the midwinter sunset.
The Clava Cairns at Balnuaran are part of what would have been a larger prehistoric complex (several people I know have these); anyway – there are further cairns nearby which are inaccessible to the public. But a short walk to the south west is another site that can be visited, Milton of Clava, where there are the remains of another cairn and possible standing stones and the site of a later building, thought to be a medieval chapel.
Much of what we think we know about these places, it strikes me, is at best educated guesswork. We can’t get in the minds of whoever built the Clava Cairns, or understand their motivation and what went on there. Also, there’s a risky, but understandable, tendency to interpret history out of context, from our own perspective. The nice trees surrounding Balnuaran of Clava, for example, were planted by Victorians who, in their ignorance, thought the cairns were pagan temples and that trees would help create the cosy atmosphere of a druid grove. Which leads us neatly to a more modern postscript to the Clava Cairns at Balnuaran. There is a rumour that the site was the inspiration for Craigh na Dun, the fictitious stone circle acting as a time-travel portal in the hugely popular book and television Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. The rumour is false, apparently – though, if you’re reading this, Diana, please put us straight. But the reason people think it might be The Right Place is that, close to the south-west passage grave is a paired, or cleft, standing stone…just like in the story…
“The tallest stone of the circle was cleft, with a vertical split dividing the two massive pieces. Oddly, the pieces had been drawn apart by some means.”
From Outlander, first published as Cross Stitch in 1991, by Diana Gabaldon
For those who haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, the background to Outlander is the entirely plausible premise that the fragrant 20th century heroine, Claire, is transported back to pre-Culloden Scotland and thrust into the maelstrom of the Jacobite rebellion of the 1740s, having foolishly placed her hand on the cleft stone at Craigh na Dun. One happy consequence of the success of Outlander has been a boost for Scottish tourism, with locations associated with the stories or TV production becoming magnets for Outlandish fans, so to speak – thus increasing what marketeers coyly describe as ‘footfall’. However, at Balnuaran of Clava, according to the entirely sober Daily Mail, devotees not over-burdened with too many brain cells have been seen attempting to commune with the fictitious dead and, less amusingly, disturbing the stones and leaving graffiti on them. Sadly, there are no reports of these morons disappearing into the past, where they could be quietly done away with, no questions asked.
Some years ago, apparently, an unthinking Belgian tourist removed a stone from Clava Cairns as a souvenir, but later mailed it to Inverness Tourist Centre begging that it be returned to the site, claiming it had cursed his family. Let that be a lesson to us all.