Glimpsed through the mist of a March day, Clava Cairns seemed to me the embodiment of mystery, a shrine to all things occult. Entering the grassy knoll next to the river Nairn where these three Bronze Age cairns stand, the scene before me was awash in shades of grey. The low circular mounds and surrounding upright slabs were constructed in stone the color of ash. Enclosing the expanse were stands of barren trees with silvery bark, their silhouettes swaying against a steely sky.
I had come to Clava Cairns from nearby Culloden Battlefield, five miles outside Inverness. Culloden is a patch of ground known to every Scot as the site of the brief but bloody battle in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobean forces were routed by the Duke of Cumberland and the Hanoverian government troops. Fought in 1746 and lasting an hour, this was the last pitched battle on British soil and marked the death knell for the Highland clan system as it then existed.
Across the moor where the carnage took place, small stone markers memorialized the mass graves of the almost 2,000 Highlanders who were killed. One carried the inscription “Here the chief of the MacGillivrays fell.” Others scattered across the soggy field simply bore the names of a clan: Donald, Maclean, Maclaghlan, Mackintosh, among many others.
While Culloden preserves and honors a very specific moment in history, far less is known or understood about the Clava Cairns cemetery complex—including whether we can even be sure that was the purpose of the site. I visited Clava Cairns with my guide Johanna Campbell and her husband Gilbert Summers, a Scottish writer who eloquently articulated the vagaries of these structures that were erected 4,000 years ago.
“We may speculate as to function of these impressive monuments but ultimately, surely they are unknowably ancient?” he asked. “We assume they are memorials to the dead that probably required a society or community capable of working cooperatively. That’s about all that’s certain. Ritual functions? Sacrifices? Communing with ancestors? Praise in stone for successful war leaders or farmers or priests? Visit and speculate...feel free...the people here have no names.”
Pondering the purpose of Clava Cairns is something Dougie Scott has done for more than thirty years. A silversmith who lives in Tain, Easter-Ross, his Celtic jewelry has been inspired by the Book of Kells and the ancient cross slabs created by the Iron Age Pictish people, which are common throughout the northeast of Scotland. In the early 1980s he became passionate about pre-historic astronomy and rock art. Since then he has been surveying the standing stone alignments and cairns, photographing them in relation to the sun and moon as the planets rise and set.
Dougie explained that there are two types of alignment indicated by the stones. The first is a pattern of solar alignments at 45-day intervals known in British and Irish tradition as quarter days, which fall close to the two solstices and two equinoxes. These quarter days have been observed for centuries; each year on these dates servants were hired, and rents were due. The other alignment pattern occurs on four Pagan festivals roughly three months apart: Candlemas (February), Beltane (May), Lammas (August) and Samhain (November).
Dougie said that evidence suggests that the passage and ring cairns had been used for burials and cremations respectively and that while the structures are aligned to the sun and moon, it is likely that the cairns had been used for a religious purpose, rather than an astronomical one
“If the sun and moon were believed to be gods, perhaps the cremations were only carried out when they rose and set in line with certain standing stones,” he said. “Perhaps after the cremations the burnt bone would then have been deposited in the chambered cairns to await the coming of the sun or moonlight into the cairns. This use of ring cairns for cremations throughout the country could be the origin of the tradition of bonfires being lit at the regular divisions of the year up to the present day.”
“Recent experiments in covering the northeast passage cairn at midwinter have produced stunning effects, with the whole back wall of the chamber shimmering with red light,” he said. “While there is no surviving folklore about the cairns at Clava, was the entry of the sun into these wombs like cairns believed to be a magical phallus of a sun god impregnating a female earth deity, or was this the time when the spirits of the dead were reborn back into the world?”
“The cairns could have also been used for a number of other functions from interaction with the gods or ancestors, meditation and initiation rites to perhaps the actual act of giving birth,” he continued. “It is likely that the cairns were used as a religious focus for the living and as folklore and archaeology suggests as spirit houses for the dead. While we can only speculate what happened as the light of the sun and moon penetrated into the darkness the cairns, it seems they have only begun to give up their secrets.”
The landscape across Scotland is imbued with ancient secrets. More than 100 miles north of Clava Cairns is a region known as “Flow Country.” This name for the Caithness and Sutherland areas of northeast Scotland comes from a Scots term for an area of flat, wet bog, typically with pools. It is the largest expanse of bog in Europe, covering about 1500 square miles.
Driving down a one-track lane through this wilderness, the damp drizzle accentuated the eeriness of the lonely moor and silence settled over Gilbert, Johanna and me. The melancholy mood evoked by the terrain was heightened by the occasional appearance of the crumbling ruins of homesteads abandoned in The Highland Clearances, when the clans were forced off the land in the name of progress.
Cresting one of the rolling hills, I was surprised to see a red car on the roadside, the driver seemingly engaged in a conversation with a sheep and two tiny lambs. The animals had somehow escaped through the fence that lined the road and were separated from the herd fanned out over the moor. Even in this desolate landscape, spring’s cycle of life was in full glory and I laughed with delight at seeing dozens of adorable lambs frolicking. Ahead of us, the farmer used the nose of his car to herd the animals down the road and through a gate to re-join the rest of the flock.
A little further on, we arrived at the home of the farmers we had come to see. Set far back from the road, their stone dwellings were reached by a long boardwalk that stretched out over the thick brown tufts of peat, heather and mosses. Reaching the front door, Gilbert and Johanna got down on their hands and knees to enter. No, we weren't calling on Bilbo Baggins but paying respects to the Neolithic residents of the Grey Cairns of Camster.
While I agreed with Gilbert that much of history is indeed unknowable, I do respect the insights of those who have made investigating the past their life's work. So I consulted an expert about the Grey Cairns of Camster: Dr. Kirsty Owen, an Historic Scotland Cultural Heritage Advisor and an expert on the final resting place of these Neolithic farmers.
"Before the deep blanket of peat covered Caithness during the Bronze Age, this corner of the British Isles was good farming land," Dr. Owen told me. “These two great mounds were where some of those farmers were laid to rest.”
“The two Grey Cairns of Camster are among the oldest stone monuments in Scotland,” said Dr. Owen. “They were built over 5,000 years ago. Even before their excavation and restoration by Historic Scotland in the later 20th century they were two of the best preserved burial tombs surviving from the Neolithic period anywhere in Britain. Their location – on a windswept moor in the heart of the Caithness ‘Flow Country’ – probably ensured their survival from the ravages of later farmers."
“The Grey Cairns of Camster are the most recognisable monuments in Caithness,” she continued. “These cairns provide an insight into the ritual beliefs and practices of people living in northern Scotland about 5750 to 4500 years ago. As is common with Neolithic monuments in Caithness, these burial monuments form part of a group.”
Dr. Owen explained they comprise a reconstructed Neolithic long cairn and about 200 meters to the southeast, a round cairn. The long cairn is about 60 meters long and has two internal chambers, entered from one of its long sides, with forecourts at each end. The round cairn is about 19 meters in diameter and has a single chamber sub-divided into three parts.
“Tombs such as the long cairn tend to be located in prominent places on what would have been the edge of the inhabited landscape; domestic activity and settlement were separated from areas and activities involving the dead,” Dr. Owen said. “The interiors of the tombs were used for the burial of human remains, and the forecourts are regarded as having had a ritual function, where activities could have been visible to more people than were able to see what went on in the tombs. However, we cannot determine the precise nature of the burial rites at Camster.”
Dr. Owen said the cairns do provide insight into the skills and technical expertise of early prehistoric farming communities in northern Scotland. She pointed out that their construction involved access to substantial resources of stone and people, and this would have required considerable organization.
I asked Dr. Owen what inspired her to make a career of studying the ancient past.
“I am motivated by a desire to find commonalities in the way in which people make sense of their world, particularly the bits of it which were not readily comprehensible before the scientific endeavour,” she responded. “The study of material culture, the things which people leave behind, is an opportunity to gain an insight into that world and also, if we are very lucky, a window into individual identities, thoughts and desires.”
Whether the focus is an 18th century battlefield, a Bronze age religious center or a Neolithic burial site, the Scottish Highlands offer common ground for all those who seek wonder and connection.