Clava Cairns

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:55 am

Clava Cairns, Balnuaran, ring cairn, passage cairnLess 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.

Balnuaran, Clava Cairns, prehistoric sites, ScotlandHowever – 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.

Clava Cairns, visit ScotlandThe 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.

Clava Cairns, Balnuaran, south-west cairnClava Cairns, kerb crairn, visit ScotlandThere 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.

Clava cairns, ring cairn, prehistoric ScotlandThe 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.

Clava Cairns, prehistoric ScotlandCup marks, Clava Cairns, Balnuaran of ClavaCup marks, Clava CairnsThe 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.

Clava Cairns, places near InvernessThe 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.

Clava CairnsMuch 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

Clava Cairnns, Outlander, paired, cleft, standing stoneFor 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.

Balnuaran of Clava, Clava CairnsSome 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.

26 thoughts on “Clava Cairns”

  1. I’ve just found this blog and absolutely love your writing style! What a wonderful site, thank you for all your hard work!

  2. No wonder the French are so disparaging of the Belgians if they go around nicking national treasures that aren’t even their national! Seriously though, I am an absolute sucker for a wall, particularly a dry stone wall and I must agree with you that this puts the finest of those into perspective. The care and effort put into these structures is quite unbelievable.

  3. Terrific post, Mike. I love the way you dig into the history and provide interesting context. The site isn’t visually appealing in a Palace or Countey House sense, but it’s fascinating! Thanks for posting.

  4. What an extermely odd place, but interesting. I don’t think I have ever been to the area and have no reason to go, but if I ever do it will be on my list for sure. In fact if I am even nearby I will make a detour!.

  5. So very very awesome. Yes I am an Outlander fan too, lots of us here in NZ, I have the whole book series and have been watching the tv series so far too.

  6. I love visiting these ancient sites! I marvel at the skill used to build them and am always impressed by their location. Thank you for the photos and the history of Clava Cairns – if I’m ever in that part of Scotland I will be sure to visit them.

  7. Just looked up ley lines and see that the original theory was expounded in 1882 in my native Herefordshire and that a line including Urishay Castle (half a mile from my childhood home) featured as an example – this probably explains why I first heard about it in the ’50s. It was further expanded in the 1920s and then in a book published in 1969. Of course, it is usually dismissed as “pseudoscience” but it’s an intriguing notion nevertheless, especially the idea that lining up high places was a handy navigational aid in the absence of SatNav!

  8. Fascinating as always, Mike. Like Kerrycan above, I was thinking about Newgrange when reading your piece, especially the NE>SW alignment catching the sun at the winter solstice. I took the trouble to take a quick look at a larger map and I see that a straight line from the Cava Cairns to Newgange runs NE>SW (so far as one can tell on small scale map). Can’t help wondering if there is any significance in that or if it is pure coincidence. I must look up a text from the late 1950s about ley lines.

  9. I love this sort of place–have been to the passage tombs in Ireland, etc., and now I’m adding this to my list of spots to visit in Scotland. And I do like the detail and wry humor in your writing!

  10. Prehistoric sites are fascinating; I thought so even as a child. It is unlikely I’ll ever get to see this place in person, so I am double grateful for the chance of visiting through your blog.

  11. I love your “take” on history. “Prehistoric complexes” caused a minor accident with my coffee!
    I shall send this link over to a Scottish friend who lived at Lossiemouth.

  12. Hi Mike – well let’s try again. Fascinating write-up – which brought the Cairns to life … just frustrating that we’ll never know how they lived etc. Morons who steal stones, or mark with graffiti … yobs … well I’ll stop there = this comment (also) might get swallowed. The Belgian at least returned the stone … so interesting to read up though … I’ve started one Diana Gabaldon book … need to finish it though and then worry whether I should read the rest … perhaps so. Cheers – Hilary

  13. That was a super description and your photographs illustrated the major features of the site perfectly. A pity about the road cut through it….
    Still smiling boutpeople who have prehistoric complexes….and if that stone could curse a Belgian family then it was some powerful stone! Not a race easily impressed, the Belgians…well, not the Flemish ones. Perhaps this was a fearful Walloon…

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