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Grey Cairns Of Camster

Two chambered burial cairns of Neolithic date

Grey Cairns Of Camster

Homes of the dead
The two Grey Cairns of Camster are among the oldest stone monuments in Scotland. 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. But before the deep blanket of peat covered Caithness during the Bronze Age, this corner of the British Isles was good farming land. The two great mounds were where some of those farmers were laid to rest.

The round cairn
The round cairn is the smaller of the two, measuring 18m in diameter and rising to a height of 4m. A low, narrow doorway leads from a curving forecourt along a cramped passage into the burial chamber at its centre. The chamber itself is surprisingly roomy. Inside, you can stand to full height and admire the structural sophistication of those neolithic builders. Pairs of large upright slabs divide the chamber into three distinct compartments, and the walls are cleverly corbelled on the inside to support the roof.

The long cairn
The long cairn stands in marked contrast. The elongated stone structure reaches the same height but stretches nearly 60m long and 20m wide. It has two curved forecourts, one at each end. The NE one is the more elaborate, with a stepped arrangement; unusually, though, it did not frame an entrance door into the tomb.

Archaeologists discovered two burial chambers within the long cairn. However, they also found that both chambers had originally formed part of separate round cairns, similar in size and form to the nearby round cairn, and similarly entered via cramped passages. Only later were the round cairns incorporated into one long cairn. No-one is sure why.

Tomb raiders
Archaeologists have cast important new light on the development of the burial complex. But they have found no evidence regarding who might have been buried there. Inquisitive peat-cutters and overzealous antiquarians had got there before them, removing – and subsequently losing – the skeletons, and the pottery and flints left with them to take into the afterlife.

Historic Scotland also has in its care two similar long cairns at Cnoc Freiceadain, 15 miles away to the NW. These have not yet been investigated. Hopefully they will reveal more about the inhabitants of these houses of the dead.

Highlights

  • The location – hauntingly sited on an oft-windswept lonely moor, surrounded by the famous Caithness ‘Flow Country’.
  • The three entrance passages – crawl on your hands and knees along the cramped and darkened passages to the burial chambers themselves.
  • The curved forecourts – stand at the NE end of the long cairn and imagine what ceremonies may have been carried out there by our neolithic ancestors 5,000 years ago.





Facilities

Car Parking Strong Footwear Recommended

Location

Region – North and Grampian

5m North of Lybster on the A9. Monument situated 5m along unclassified road.

Grid reference - ND 260 441.

Access

Telephone 01667 460 232 for visitor information.