Clava Cairns

Written by Chris Thornton | 8th of October 2021
Highland History Monument
Highlands Clava Cairns near Culloden and Inverness.

We were on the final leg of our trip around the Inverness area after a great lunch at Simpsons Garden Centre. The original plan was to visit Culloden Battlefield, but again the rain was threatening another mighty downpour, so instead, we decided to visit Clava Cairns. It was free to visit so nothing was lost if the rain came back on.

Clava Cairns / Balnuaran of Clava / Milton of Clava is a prehistoric site not far from Culloden and east of Inverness and near the River Nairn. There are four bronze age ring cairns and three stone circles with standing stones that are publicly accessible. The remains of a medieval chapel also lie near the site.

I had never visited Clava Cairns before but had heard about them in the past. I wasn't really sure what to expect, our visit was a bit spur of the moment so I hadn't researched the site prior to our visit. I expected to find some mounds of stones and to be honest be a little underwhelmed, but wow, this site is amazing with multiple large standing stones, and the cairns are very impressive.

We pulled into the good-sized car park, there were plenty of spaces available and picnic facilities at the far side. The first informational board is available before you enter the main grounds of the site.

Car park at Clava Cairns, near Inverness.

Passing through the gate we entered the grounds of Clava Cairns, from the entrance you can see all of the kerb cairns on the site, surrounded by the standing stones. It's an impressive sight and it definitely feels like there is arcane magic in the air around these prehistoric burial cairns.

It's also amazing to think that the Jacobites would have likely retreated past the cairns in their historic defeat at Culloden Moor nearby, truly this is an area of special significance in Scottish history.

Clava Cairns in the Scottish Highlands

What was Clava Cairns used for?

The cairns were raised by prehistoric farmers in the Nairn valley around 4000 years ago! The most important members of their communities would have been honoured with a burial within one of the cairns in this ancient cemetery.

Site Layout

The image below shows the layout of the site, with the cairns running in a line running north east to south west. The plan shows:

  1. North East Cairn
  2. Ring Cairn
  3. South West Cairn
  4. Kerb Cairn
Site layout at Clava Cairns

Large cairns with burial chambers

The North-East Cairn

Making our way towards the first "North-east cairn" we made our way down the opening to the centre of the cairn. It was definitely a little spooky standing here, imagining people 4000 years ago creating these impressive passage graves/burial monuments.

The Cairn is aligned with the midwinter sunset which may have had special significance to these bronze age farmers. The days would be short and cold and likely a time where crop harvests could fail.

Originally the cairns would have been covered with domed roofs formed from overlapping slabs.

Near this cairn was the most impressive standing stone in my opinion. It is large and rectangular and amazing to think it has stood on this site for 4000 years, absolutely mind-blowing. See the picture below with my wife modelling for a sense of scale.

Scale of one of the monoliths.
Janette posing next to one of the standing stones, and thankfully not transported back in time!

The Ring Cairn

Continuing on to the central Ring Cairn, this one differs from the other two cairns as there is no entrance. This cairn may have served another function and could have been a temple on the site. This cairn has been excavated but no human remains were found.

The standing stones around the Ring Cairn are also aligned with the midwinter solstice again prove the importance of this time of year to the bronze age society.

Cairns at Balnuaran near Inverness

The Kerb Cairn

This is the smallest cairn on the site and is basically just a small ring over perimeter stones. This cairn was built 1000 years later than the others.

Kerb Cairn

South-West Cairn

This cairn has some interesting features including different coloured kerb stones including shades of grey, white, reds and pinks. The red and pink stones were selected to face the midwinter sun and the far side includes the grey and white stones.

The interior of this cairn has a large stone with interesting cup marks or rock art carved into the stone.

Fragments from two pots were discovered in this cairn containing burnt bones.

The south west cairn.
 
The cupping marks shown on the rock inside the stone circle.
This photo shows the cupping or artwork on one of the stones.
 
Interesting split stone near the ring cairns.
An interesting looking split stone.

Outlander - is this Craigh Na Dun?

It's easy to see why the standing stones here inspired the fictional "Craigh Na Dun" from the Outlander series. In the series, the main character Claire Randall touches a standing stone and is transported back in time to 1743. I wonder why they didn't use the stones at Clava as an Outlander filming location, they would have been perfect and showcased this amazing historical site to the rest of the world. A visit here is a must for Outlander fans.

The Victorians

Christian McLaggan was one of the first archaeologists to investigate Clava Cairns in 1875. One of the first women in British archaeology she discovered many of the rock art designs throughout the prehistoric site and discovered these were structures and not just mounds. One of the cairns was excavated as part of a picnic party at the site in an attempt to find some ancient treasures.

Earlier in 1870, trees were planted around the site to create a "druidic grove". Unfortunately, they moved two of the stones to make way for a road to access the site.

One of the bigger stones at Clava. There are more possible standing stones in the fields nearby.

Protecting Clava Cairns

New laws were created by the government in 1882. Augustus Pitt-Rivers was given the task of inspecting and protecting the site and was also in charge of 68 other sites across Ireland and Britain.

This marked the beginning of the role of the nation in protecting sites of special historical significance. In 1925 the site was taken into state ownership and restored in 1930 with features added to make the site more accessible for tourists.

When was Clava cairns built?

Archaeologist Richard Bradley excavated the southwest cairn between 1994 and 1996. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal around the site proves the site is at least 4000 years old and built-in 2000 BC. It was in use for 200 years and then existing cairns were reused for new burials around 1000 BC.

Overview of the site at Clava Cairns near Inverness.

Conclusion

I was seriously impressed with Clava Cairns, only 45 minutes from my home I can't believe I have never visited in the past. Visit for a fascinating insight into early Scottish history, explore passage graves and stand below huge stone monoliths in a beautiful woodland setting.

Driving away from the site, we noticed many other solitary standing stones in the nearby fields, just how big was this site?!

Culloden Viaduct lies a short distance from Clava and can be walked to from the car park. Culloden Battlefield is also nearby. A visit to Culloden, the cairns and the viaduct would be a great day out in the Inverness area.

Clava Cairns location

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